The West Kennet Long Barrow is a prehistoric burial mound near Avebury in Wiltshire, England. It is one of the largest and best-preserved monuments of its kind in Britain. You can enter the barrow and explore five empty stone chambers in which humans were buried from 3700 to 2000 BC.
History of West Kennet Long Barrow
Radiocarbon dating indicates that the West Kennet Long Barrow was used as a burial ground for over a thousand years, from about 3700-3500 BCto 2200-2000 BC. It seems to have been constructed in two different stages:
There are several long barrows (oblong burial mounds) in the Avebury area and it is possible that each one served a clan or extended family. Thus the tombs may have been regarded as a place of the ancestors, making the barrow a monumental and sacred site. Interestingly, some long barrows (such as those on South Street and Beckhampton Road in Avebury) contain no human remains at all — perhaps these were symbolic cenotaphs.
In all, the bones of about 46 individuals were buried in the chambers of the barrow. It appears that bodies were buried in social groups: the west chamber was mainly for adult males; the northeast and northwest chambers for mixed adults; the southeast for the old and the southwest chamber for children.
Only one skeleton was complete; most of the bones had evidently been jumbled up as new bodies were added to the tomb. At some point, some of the bones were tidied up: there was a row of skulls in the southwest chamber and heaps of vertebrae and long bones elsewhere. The final burial was an elderly man who seems to have died from an arrowhead embedded in the throat. He was placed in the northeast chamber.
There is a significant discrepancy between the numbers of skulls and long bones buried in the West Kennet Long Barrow. It is possible that some of the skulls and bones were taken from the barrow to Windmill Hill for ritual use, as the two sites are of similar date and Windmill Hill contains several fragmentary bones and skulls in its ditches.
The dry and fragmentary nature of some of the skeletons suggests another interesting possibility: that many of the bodies were first allowed to decay in a round mortuary house at the Sanctuary before being interred in the West Kennet Long Barrow. But this is just an educated guess — all the science tells us is that some of the burials were interred long after the flesh had rotted from the bones.
The tombs contained grave goods of various kinds, including pottery of various kinds (fragments of 250 different vessels were found), beads made of bone, stone and shells, flint tools, and animal bones. The pottery spans a long range of time, from the Earlier to Late Neolithic periods.
When the tomb was in use for burials, the entrance would have been a curved forecourt, which was perhaps used for funerary ceremonies. Around 2200 BC, the tomb was closed by filling the chambers and entire interior with earth and stones and blocking the entrance with three great upright stones. This seems to have been important final gesture to the long use of the ancestral tombs.
The modern history of the West Kennet Long Barrow begins with the antiquarian John Aubrey, who also excavated the Avebury circle. He included a sketch of the barrow in his unpublished Monumenta Britannica (c1665). He wrote, "on the brow of the Hill, south of West Kynnet, is this monument, but without any name." In Aubrey's time, the barrow was being looted by a local doctor for the purposes of making medicine. Dr. Toope wrote to Aubrey in 1685 and said that with the help of workmen he had procured many "bushels" of bones from the barrow, "of which I made a noble medicine that relieved many of my distressed neighbors."
Another famed antiquarian of the area, William Stukeley, made more accurate drawings of the barrow in 1720-24, showing the ditch and stones. Stukeley was apalled at the damage caused by Dr. Toope, who was by then nicknamed "Dr. Took." He wrote, "Dr Took as they call him has miserably defaced the South Long Barrow by digging half the length of it. It was most neatly smoothed out to a sharp ridge." Stuckeley, who was keenly interested in the spirituality of the Avebury sites and considered himself a Druid, called the barrow "the Archdruid's barrow."
In 1859, Dr. Thurnam excavated the central passage and west end chamber of the barrow in a search for ancient skeletons for his publication, Crania Britannica (1865). He removed all the bones he found from the west chamber. In 1882, the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill came under the protection of the first Ancient Monuments Act. This finally the stopped the damage done by local people digging for chalk or cutting turf from the mound.
The most recent excavations of the West Kennet Long Barrow took place under Piggott and Atkinson in 1955-56. These excavations revealed the four side-chambers of the tomb, which were previously undiscovered and therefore preserved the way they were left 4000 years ago.
Today, the stone chambers are open to visitors and are frequently used by modern pagans for ceremonies.
What to See at West Kennet Long Barrow
The West Kennet Long Barrow lies on a crest of a hill amidst scenic farmland. There is a nice view of nearby Silbury Hill from the barrow, which is reached by a 1/2-mile sloping footpath on grass and clover.
At 328 ft (100 m) long, West Kennet Long Barrow is the second-longest barrow in Britain. (East Kennet Barrow is longer.) The stone burial chambers begin at one end and extend only 40 ft (12 m) into the barrow. The rest of the barrow is composed of sarsen boulders and chalk, quarried from two parallel ditches that run along each side of the mound. The ditches are now mostly filled in, but were originally 12 ft (3-4 m) deep.
The stone chambers are now fully excavated and empty, but the construction of the five chambers remains fully intact. Small skylights of thick glass have been built into the ceiling, allowing for dim lighting of the tomb. Inside the entrance, a short passageway leads to two chambers on the left, two chambers on the right, and a larger chamber at the end.
West Kennet Long Barrow can be reached on foot from Avebury (about 1.5 miles) or Silbury Hill (1 mile). From the Avebury parking lot, look for a footpath on the other side of the A4361 that leads south towards Silbury Hill. After passing Silbury Hill on your right, cross the A4 highway (carefully!) and follow the wooden sign up the hill towards the barrow. From Silbury Hill, walk east along the A4 (away from Avebury and over the River Kennet) for 1/2 mile to the West Kennet Long Barrow layby.
By car, you can park at a lay-by (room for about 5 cars parked parallel) along the A4 that is signposted for West Kennet Long Barrow. It is on the right side as you head east on the A4 from Avebury.
From the lay-by on the A4, the barrow itself is reached by a 1/2-mile long uphill footpath.
Quick Facts on West Kennet Long Barrow
|Names:||West Kennet Long Barrow|
|Categories:||burial chambers; megalithic monuments|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.408600° N, 1.850938° W|
|Phone:||01672/539250 (National Trust at Avebury)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near West Kennet Long Barrow|
- Caroline Malone, The Prehistoric Monuments of Avebury (English Heritage, 2003).
- Author visit (September 2006).
Map of West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire
Below is a location map and aerial view of West Kennet Long Barrow. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.