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Round Barrows: Bronze Age Wales’ Treasures of the Beaker People

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By: Jaime Conrad
Posted in: Ancient Wales
Round Barrows: Bronze Age Wales’ Treasures of the Beaker People

Why are round barrows, Bronze Age burial mounds, often referred to as “cairns” in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—and is there any difference? The terms “barrow” and “cairn” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they can have different meanings. A barrow is a burial mound from ancient times. The word “barrow” comes from the Old English word “beorg.” Beorg originates from Germanic and is related to the German word “berg,” meaning “hill” or “mountain.

A “cairn” is a mound of stones used to cover a grave, as a landmark, or as a memorial. The word “cairn” comes from Scottish Gaelic “carn,” which means “pile of stones.” The Welsh word for this is also “carn.” Often, cairns were placed over burial mounds, but not always. They were sometimes made symbolically. Cairns were often used to cover burials where the soil was rocky, or digging a deep grave, such as in mountainous regions, would have been difficult or impossible.

The etymology of the words “barrow” and “cairn” is one of the reasons ancient burial mounds in England are referred to as “barrows.” In the Celtic countries like Cymru (Wales), which this article will focus on, gravesites covered with stones are called “cairns.” The word “cairn” can refer to the grave, the pile of stones, or both. However, there are still barrows in Wales (the same or similar constructions you’d find in England), so we’ll use both terms as appropriate. 

Wales’ Round Barrows: Meaning and Design

What is a round barrow? A round barrow is a hill-shaped burial mound. In Wales, the Beaker Folk of the Bronze Age used this method to bury their dead. However, round barrows were built from the late Neolithic to the beginning of the Iron Age, with the majority dating to the Bronze Age. You can also find tens of thousands of round barrows in Western Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. 

Besides being called “cairns,” burial sites in Wales can be called by other terms depending on the structure of the grave. For instance, a “cromlech” is a megalithic tomb built of several large upright stones supporting a large, flatter capstone. After being built, the structure was then covered over with earth. Sometimes, the builders also covered the earth with a cairn. So, there’s also an example of how words like “cairn,” “barrow,” and “grave” could get used interchangeably. 

Prehistoric peoples constructed two types of barrows: long barrows and round barrows. Long barrows are elongated grave mounds. They were usually built of only earth or a combination of earth with wood or stone. Neolithic people of the earliest agricultural communities built these types of barrow from about 3,800 – 3,500 BC. Some long barrows are chambered, while others are not. Round barrows are spherical and were built in the Bronze Age from about 2,000 – 1,500 BC. The Cwm Bwch Barrows in Powys, South Wales, are an example of this type. We’ll focus on round barrows: Bronze Age Wales’ windows into this intriguing historical time.  

Round Barrows Bronze Age Facts

Ancient societies built round barrows to bury their dead. These barrows appear throughout Western Europe, the British Isles, and other parts of the world, such as the Americas.

Burial practices changed during the transition from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age. While in the Stone Age, people built long chambered tombs (long barrows), in the Bronze Age, they abandoned this funeral style and buried their dead in round barrows.

You may also see a round barrow referred to as a “tumulus (plural “tumuli),” as they were called on early maps. The word tumulus is from Middle English, which comes from Latin and means a human-created mound or small hill. It especially refers to an ancient grave. 

Round barrow tombs are divided into five shapes: bell, saucer, pond, bowl, and disc.

Who Built the Round Barrows in Wales?

The Beaker People (also “Beaker Folk” or the “Beakers”) were the builders of the round barrows dotting the landscape of the British Isles. These ancient tribal people are so named because of the bell-shaped pottery they made. They buried their dead along with their beakers (the pottery) in the round barrows and similar structures. 

Sometimes, the Beaker Folk buried one individual alone in the grave, probably a tribal chieftain or other significant person. At other times, they buried many people together. Excavations across the British Isles show that no specific burial practice remained constant—it varied by region and tribe. 

Older Than Stonehenge

Long barrows, and some round barrows as well, actually predate Stonehenge, the ironic prehistoric structure on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. Builders constructed the massive stone circle in several stages spanning 1,500 years from the Neolithic Period into the early Bronze Age. Stonehenge’s builders obtained its bluestones (spotted dolerite) from quarries in the Preseli Mountains in Southwest Wales. Many other stones used in the megalith’s construction were also obtained from Wales.

Where Can I Find Round Barrows in Wales?

Here are some sites of round barrows tombs from Bronze Age Wales you might like to visit:

  • Beacon Hill Round Barrows in Beguildy (Bugeildy), Powys, South Wales. This site contains four barrows in total, dating to the Bronze Age between 2,300 and 800 BC. 
  • You can visit the Cwm Bwch Barrows, also in Powys. Two round barrows are situated on a high point of land overlooking the Radnor Forest. A third barrow, Cwm Bwch III, is a separate barrow on the western side of the valley (Cwm Bwch) that has a fence passing through it.
  • A famous burial mound is Bryn yr Ellyllon, near Flintshire, in North Wales. The name translates as “The Hill of the Goblins.” Now that you know that, who could blame you for wanting to visit? The site was a literal treasure trove that produced the famous solid-gold artifact, the Mold Gold Cape, and many others. Among the finds were stone tools, pottery fragments, and vessels filled with crematory remains. The round barrow dates back nearly four thousand years to 1,900 – 1,600 BC.
  • There are also many cairns in the upland areas surrounding the Cynon Valley. To the north of Hirwaun, you’ll find several on Mynydd Y Glog. Many of these round barrows overlaid with cairns were believed to be built on the hills because of their prominent positions overlooking the valley.
  • You can find a round barrow at the summit of Picws Du in the Black Mountain Range (also called the Western Beacons). It’s one of many you’ll find in Brecon Beacons National Park (Bannau Brycheiniog).

Featured Books

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Cromlechs and Cairns in Northern Wales by Michael Senior

A cromlech is a megalithic tomb in Wales. It’s constructed of several standing stones placed vertically and one large, flat capstone placed on top. This structure was then covered with earth, often leaving an opening to serve as a door. Some cromlechs, like Bryn Cader Faner, have a narrow passage made of stone leading to the inner chamber.

From the blurb:

Following the pattern of his previous books about northern Wales’ prehistoric artefacts, the standing stones and the hillforts, Michael Senior now deals in a similar way with the earliest of them all—the burial chambers and cairn burials—by setting them in their universal contexts, then tracing the origin of the forms, as well as dealing with the examples of them here in detail.

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