Scattered throughout the British countryside are the remains of the ancient civilisations that once inhabited our small islands. With evidence suggesting that man has lived on this small collection of islands as far back as 40,000 years ago, it’s no surprise that more than a few skeletal remains have survived the ravages of time.
While much of the day-to-day evidence of their lives was lost to the elements, what has remained is… well, remains! All over the UK, burial mounds, barrows, and cairns have preserved the remains of our ancient ancestors and provided us with a unique insight into how past civilisations viewed one of the few unifying experiences of humanity - death.
Square, round, long, or small: here are four of the best barrows, cairns, and burial grounds you can visit across the UK today.
1. West Kennet Long Barrow
Set on a hilltop overlooking the Kennet Valley, just a stone's throw from the spectacular neolithic henge at Avebury, is one of the best-preserved long barrows in all of Britain. Built around 3650 BC during the Early Neolithic Period, the barrow is just over 100 metres long and 3.2 metres tall.
Built of sarsen stones and chalk rubble, while nowadays the barrow is covered with turf, at the time of its construction its bare white chalk sides would have made it stand out on the Wiltshire hillside. The impressive structure was home to the remains of at least 46 individuals, including men, women, and children, as well as goods like pottery, daggers, and beads.
2. Uley Long Barrow
Also known as Hetty Peglar’s Tump, the Uley Long Barrow is a Neolithic burial mound found just outside the village of Uley in Gloucestershire. Don’t let its name fool you, however, as it is much closer to a burial mound than a long barrow.
Approximately 37 metres long, 34 metres wide, and almost three metres high, the mound contains a central burial passage with a chamber on either side and a third at the end. First excavated in 1821, the barrow was found to contain the remains of 15 skeletons, including some intrusive Roman-age burials.
The Uley Barrow gained its unique nickname from Hester Pegler, the wife of the 17th-century landowner.
3. The Grey Cairns of Camster
Just a short walk from the Loch of Camster stands two grey stone cairns. Among some of the oldest structures in Scotland, the cairns are estimated to be around 5,000 years old and are a fantastic example of just how intricate and complex Neolithic architecture could be.
Camster Long is a 60-metre-long cairn with horn-like protrusions on either end of the structure. Reaching almost five metres in height, the cairn is home to two burial chambers. Camster Round, much as its name suggests, is a circular structure that is almost 20 metres in diameter, just under four metres high and holds a single chamber with three sections within.
The impressive stone structures stand out amongst the windswept moors, but while the cairns are now in a remote area of the Scottish Highlands, archaeology suggests that the area was lush farmlands when they were first built.
4. Devil's Jumps
Devil's Jumps are a group of five burial mounds with a bit of a unique backstory. The legend goes that one day, Thor was sitting on Treyford Hill when he spotted the Devil jumping from one barrow to the next. Enraged at the Devil’s disrespect, Thor threw a stone at the Devil and drove him away.
While this whimsical tale might be the origin of the site's unique name, the importance of the site itself should not be overlooked. Just outside the town of Treyford in the South Downs, the five barrows of varying sizes stand in a line which aligns with sunset on Midsummer’s Day. While dated to the more recent Bronze Age, the Devil's Jumps are a vital piece of history as much of the surrounding barrows and mounds have been damaged over the years.
Believed to be approximately 3,000 to 4,000 years old, the mounds were explored in the 1800s, but only two of them were found to contain any bones or remains.