Rebuilding a Pond Barrow on Cranborne Chase

Text by Martin Green.

Pond barrows are a particularly uncommon form of Bronze Age monument. Instead of the usual mound a pond like hollow is excavated and the material removed is usually piled up around the perimeter to form an external circular bank. They are normally associated with large Wessex type barrow groups and their distribution is practically restricted to that area. Very little is known about them as so few have been scientifically examined, and those that have show a great variation in lay-out.

The Down Farm example revealed itself as a dark patch in the soil during fieldwalking. I thought at the time it might be a man-made pond associated with a nearby Middle Bronze Age settlement then being excavated. Later, excavations revealed the true nuature of this remarkable site with the uncovering of a well-defined circular feature some 19m in diameter (Image 01). This feature contained fills that only survived to a maximum depth of 15cm after heavy truncation by ploughing. The vulnerability of this type of monument to the destructive effects of cultivation cannot be over emphasised and it is therefore likely to be under-represented in the archaeological record.

Around the northern and eastern periphery of the barrow, both inside and outside the dished area, burials were encountered. Eight cremations were found in total, five within – urns (Image 02), containing the remains of eight adults and three infants. Three of these were placed in elaborate funnel shaped pits, one of which was accompanied by a bronze and two bone awls. In addition there were five infant inhumations ranging in age from near-natal to two years. Two of them were provided with Food Vessels and the two- year-old by a group of rounded flints, which were almost certainly playthings. Four animal burials were also recorded, two domestic cows placed some 5m from the eastern and western edges of the hollow respectively and two sheep, one badly disturbed by ploughing, on the northern and southern rim of the feature.

Lines drawn between these two sets of burials cross at the centre of the hollow where a setting of four postholes were found, one containing a broken Food Vessel. Leading from the eastern group of burials, three large postholes continued the partly linear arrangement of the eastern cemetery (Image 01). The axis of this alignment not only led straight to the centre of the monument but also repeated that of the Cursus which lies only 35m away. The complex layout of this monument with its references to the Cursus, built some 1800 years earlier, is a clear statement of the continuing role it had to play in the lives of succeeding generations.

From the recently excavated examples of pond barrows we can see that burial was certainly part of their function but by no means the only one, as shown by their great complexity (eg. Atkinson et al 1951). For example there is a tendency for burials to be located around the edge of the monument, sometimes placed under the bank, leaving the dished area relatively free of features. In this form there appears to be a connection between pond barrows and the smaller henge monuments such as those at Wyke Down.

Both create sacred circular areas where ceremonial activity could take place and both involved the placing of human and animal remains around the perimeter as part of the rituals. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Wyke Down 1 henge showed clear evidence of reuse in the Early Bronze Age with a pit being dug at the centre and sherds of Collared Urn being found in the top of the perimeter pits. The reuse of Wyke Down is likely to be contemporary with the growth of the nearby barrow cemetery, the location of which was no doubt influenced by the pre-existing henge complex.

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