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The Litchfield Seven Barrows

Bronze Age burial mounds (‘barrows’ or ‘tumuli’) are familiar features across the county and can also be recognised in their ploughed-out form (ring-ditches). Some occur singly, but groups or ‘cemeteries’ are also widely distributed.

Grinsell called this the ‘Burghclere group’ in his 1930s survey, but Lichfield or Litchfield Seven Barrows is more appropriate. Today, several of the monuments have all but disappeared beneath the A34 and the now redundant Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, but it was the impending demise of two of the mounds that brought about one of the earliest examples of rescue archaeology in the county.

The Newbury to Southampton line was, in the early 1880s, a late addition to the network and it made a beeline for the Bronze Age cemetery (which, after all, had already been trundled over by the turnpike). Lord Carnarvon (the 4th Earl) gave permission to Walter Money Esq, FSA, to investigate the barrows ‘before they were interfered with by the contractors’. Money was commendably thorough. In his equivalent of a ‘desk-top study’ he found that the Earl’s predecessor had sanctioned the opening of several of the barrows eighty years before when ‘little beyond burnt bones and ashes appears to have been met with’, although another account suggests that one of them was piled high with bones!

Money’s own excavations were moderately rewarding. He found a cremation at the centre of the barrow ‘nearest the road’ in a shallow cist scooped out of the chalk and ‘carefully covered over with fine rubble’. There was no sign of any ‘implement, ornament or pottery’ but he did find a flint scraper, one or two flakes and ‘a small portion of bronze, apparently part of a pin’. The dig also recovered a ‘portion of femur or thigh bone’ and the barrow, not surprisingly, ’presented distinct appearances of having been opened previously’.

The barrow on the east side of the railway had also been opened, to a depth of more than eight feet (2.5m) but the earlier explorers had missed the primary cremation ‘by about a foot’ (300mm). The ashes and bones had been ‘laid with great care in a little oval mound’ and other finds in the general vicinity included animal bones and chipped flints. ‘Near the barrow’ continues Money ‘I picked up a Palaeolithic flint axe, about 4 inches long. It is a very characteristic type of the productions of the old stone workers of North Hampshire, who judging from the rough character of their implements, must have been in a very inferior condition of civilization to those of North and South Wilts and Berks.’ Ah, the words of a Newbury man, I think we’d better leave it there.

Clearly the Newbury to Whitchurch line did little to improve the lot of the Seven Barrows, until that is OGS Crawford, first Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, was puffing towards Southampton on 21 March, 1921. ‘Dear Willis’, he wrote, in a letter to the Hampshire Field Club’s representative in the north of the county, ‘I did a bit of field-archaeology out of the window of the train yesterday. Found two new barrows in the group at Litchfield. They are both disc barrows, that is to say there is only the ring visible; whether there is, or ever was, a small tump in the middle I can’t say.’ Crawford encouraged Willis to visit the site and use the embankment as a vantage point;’…for the next two or three weeks’ he suggested, ‘they will make admirable subjects for a few photos’. Whether Willis was able to capture them in this way we don’t know, as there are no surviving images, but Crawford did add them to the OS 6” map, a rare honour for ploughed-out ring ditches.

The early account of the barrows, in Britton and Brayley’s ‘Topographical Description of Hampshire’, records ‘seven tumuli of considerable size and three of much less elevation’, to which we can possibly add Crawford’s sightings, giving at least a dozen. Seven was a number often attributed to a large group of mounds, as at Tidworth, Wiltshire and Lambourne, Berkshire, and probably had some mystical significance. Much of the mystery has been hammered out of the Litchfield cemetery by the demands of 20th century vehicular communication and, to judge from Money’s findings, most of the barrows have been opened in the past anyway. We can leave the last word with Coates’ suggestions for the derivation of the name. Dismissing lich (‘dead bodies’) he proposes hlywe for ‘sheltered place’ or possibly laferce meaning ‘lark’. It’s difficult to appreciate either at this location today.

Image: The barrow cemetery – centre – viewed from the south 30 years ago. The group extended under the road and railway (far right). This view was taken when ploughing still nibbled at the individual mounds. Crawford’s new finds are dead centre. Beacon Hill hillfort – and ‘ancient fields’ – lie in the background.

Britton and Brayley (1805) ‘Topographical Description of Hampshire’

Coates, R (1993) Hampshire Place Names

Crawford, OGS letter to George Willis (1921) Hampshire Cultural Trust archive.

Grinsell, L (1938) Hampshire Barrows, Proc Hants Field Club, 14, 9-40

Money, W (1883) Account of the opening of two Lichfield Barrows, Proc Soc Antiq, 10

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone

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