This website was originally set up to explain the archaeology of Petersfield Heath, Hampshire. However I am now widening its scope to include material from the surrounding area. So far I have included some material on the Petersfield Heath group of barrows here on the home page and another page (Roman Period) detailing the excavation of the Roman villa at Stroud at the beginning of the 20th Century. I will add more material as and when possible. Peter Price
On consulting a large scale map of the heath, or indeed walking on the heath, you will see set among the trees around the lake a number of round man-made mounds. Some are easily visible, for example those surrounding the cricket pitch, but others in the denser scrub are harder to find. The mounds represent the burial sites of people who lived during the Early Bronze Age, around 2000-1800BC
There are at present at least 22 mounds or barrows visible, representing a number of different styles. Not all of the mounds are the same size or height and some are quite difficult to find because they are either in thick scrub/woodland, or are very slight, for example the barrow over on the most easterly fairway of the old golf course is all but invisible and another a few hundred metres away was turned into a bunker when the old golf course was made.
The Petersfield barrow cemetery is an important lowland group and has representatives of the following types of round barrow
The majority are bowl barrows, with two examples of disk barrows and one example of a bell barrow. There is also an example of a double barrow present.
Old maps of the Heath( See Below at the end of the article) show that at one time, there was a much larger area of heath land than is present today. Consequently some of the barrows may have been lost to us through time. In fact the first map to record the barrows (1810) shows more than those visible today. Some have disappeared under later development, and some have been flattened, either during the building of the golf course, or perhaps before. There is at least one barrow visible as a crop mark on aerial photographs and it is known that one of the barrows was converted into a bunker for the golf course. There seems to be a general orientation pattern to the barrows that indicates that the area of the pond and what was once a surrounding marshy area may have been the focus of the barrows in the cemetery.
Generally burials beneath the barrows usually consisted of a central shallow cist grave containing a single burial. The dead person was laid on one side in a crouching position in this central pit and a large rounded mound of earth was thrown up over the grave. Normally the dead person would be buried with some grave goods, usually a pottery vessel that may have contained a drink such as mead or possibly beer, together with a joint of meat. Some burials also contained weapons such as bronze axes or a bow and arrows. Later in the Bronze Age inhumation was replaced by cremation, with pots containing the cremated remains being buried beneath the mounds. In some cases the mound may have had a number of other burials placed around the perimeter as well as a central burial. Sadly the shallow depressions to be found on the tops of the round barrows around the Heath indicate that the barrows have all been disturbed and therefore probably robbed of their grave goods in the past.
Recent archaeological theories have pointed to the idea that for our Bronze Age ancestors, this area would have been part of a sacred landscape. It has been found that Barrow cemeteries like the Petersfield group exist in many lowland as well as upland areas and that they usually have a focal point such as a stream, spring or lake. In the case of the Heath Barrows the probability exists therefore that the focal point of the cemetery would have been the area which is now the Heath Lake or Pond. Although the current area of water was only created in the mid 1700ís, it is certain that there was a source of water at this point before this period. Due to a climatic deterioration that took place during the Bronze Age, there have been many changes to the landscape and to the water table, so there is the possibility that a pond or lake surrounded by a bog or marsh has always been present at the centre of the Heath and may have been much larger at one time, perhaps extending as far as the barrows near the cricket pitch. Further evidence to support this idea comes from the fact that flints from a previous period to the Bronze Age, the Mesolithic have been found near the site of the old tennis courts and it has been shown from other sites that the people of the Mesolithic were attracted to lakeside habitats and usually built winter camps at such places. It seems likely therefore, that our Bronze Age ancestors must have had a high regard for this area of water and the land that surrounded it. Certainly enough to want to bury their dead in the sacred landscape surrounding the water.
Midwinter Solstice sunset 21st December 2005, looking from the heath barrows across the lake. © Peter Price
Current archaeological research has also indicated that some barrow cemeteries may have had both a ritual and astronomical focus. It has been shown that barrows were placed in a straight line on the landscape and that they are aligned on important sunrise and sunset events, for example, midsummer solstice, or midwinter solstice. These alignments may also reflect other important ancient festivals in the annual cycle, such as the equinoxes on 21st March and the 21st September and other festivals in the pagan calendar Beltane on the 1st May or 1st August. All important dates in the farming and ritual cycle of the year of these people, which have been observed in other monuments of this period in Britain.
It may therefore be possible to observe some possible linear alignments of the barrows with some possibly aligned on 1st May. Some may also be looking towards Butser hill and along an alignment that focuses on the midwinter solstice. There is an apparent alignment at sunset as observed in a cleft to the left of Butser hill ( See photo to the left). It is notable that on that date, the setting sun sits momentarily in the cleft in the hill. One important fact emerges from these current theories, and that is that we must now see the Petersfield Barrow cemetery not just as a group of burial mounds in the landscape of the Heath, but rather, in light of the evidence we must begin to regard the whole of the landscape of the Heath as part of a sacred Bronze Age landscape. We must no longer think in terms of the barrows in isolation, but more as part of a large ritual complex used by our ancestors to meet their spiritual and ritual needs, both to maintain contact with their dead ancestors and to communicate with their deities. The concentration so near to the Heath pond is also significant and some ritual purpose for this area may also be possible. It is therefore imperative that the whole of the Heath is classed as a valuable archaeological monument, not just the barrows. It is therefore a highly sensitive site and must be treated with due respect.
For more information on the Heath see : http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/2117/
This page was last updated on 22nd February 2008.
Please note that all photographs on this website are ©copyrighted to Peter Price permission must be sought for use elsewhere.