Cossington Barrows: Monuments, memories and myths
Cossington Barrows: Discovery of a barrow cemetery
Why excavate? A proposed quarry extension at Cossington gave archaeologists a chance to fully investigate this Bronze Age barrow cemetery. Archaeologists had already investigated part of the site in the 1970’s and found two barrows. They knew where to look by studying all the known information about the site, including aerial photographs, which showed evidence of a circular enclosure. This turned out to be one of the barrows. As part of the planning process the rest of the site had to be fully excavated before quarrying could begin, as the quarry would destroy any archaeology present. Excavation revealed the remains of a third Bronze Age barrow with a lot of associated later activity. Further analysis revealed much new information about the site and its surroundings, which otherwise would have been lost.
What was found? It is thought that the three ancient monuments were once part of a small barrow cemetery located at the confluence of the Rivers Soar and Wreake. The results of the work have shown how the three barrows were used repeatedly, creating a long history and providing a remarkable insight into how these burial monuments were used by local communities living around Cossington.
The Local Environment An old channel of the River Soar was also found at Cossington Quarry which had silted up during the Late Neolithic period. In it were buried waterlogged deposits which could tell us about the environment at the time. Samples of pollen, plant and insect remains from these layers have allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the contemporary landscape. The pollen showed that the area had been wooded with trees such as alder, lime, oak and elm. Plant evidence also showed that there were areas of clearance where the barrows were built, probably in the Early Bronze Age. Click here to see a reconstruction drawing of the site from this information.
There is very little evidence for Early Bronze Age settlement in Leicestershire. Scatters of flint tools, found during field-walking, offer the only hint of settlement close to the barrows. The Neolithic period sees the first settled agriculture in Britain, but it is thought that even in the Early Bronze Age the population was still fairly mobile, mixing hunting and gathering with herding and limited cultivation. This spot, at the confluence of the rivers, was perhaps a meeting place where groups came together at certain times of the year, in particular, when it was necessary to bury one of their dead.
Barrow 1 originated as a 16m wide circular ditch which was cut to encircle a burial in a rectangular grave lying slightly off-centre (F2).
At some point the ditch was filled in and a slightly larger one dug. There are 11 cremations aligned on the south east edge of the ditch.
Surprisingly there is an earlier, Neolithic cremation in the ditch fill (F4). It must have been disturbed by the work and was carefully reburied, showing a respect for unknown ancestors.
Barrow 2 was larger and more elaborate, consisting of two concentric ditches, 35m and 50m respectively. Several people were laid to rest here.
The earliest appears to be a cremation of a young adult, probably male, buried in a stone packed pit (F17) with broken Early Bronze Age Beaker pottery, which may have been viewed as heirlooms. Six other features which appear to have contained both cremations and burials occur within the ditch in two loose clusters.
Child Burial F15 close to the centre was the burial of a child about eight, buried with a group of objects to take to the afterlife (see image above, right). These included a finely-crafted flint knife (D) which lay close to the head, as well as two more flint knives (E,F) and a carved stone bowl by the feet (C). A Food Vessel (A) and cup (B) were placed at the side and a second Food Vessel was found upright in a shallow pit nearby (F16), perhaps deliberately placed in association with the burial.
Barrow 3 was a ditch and mound, some 25m in diameter. Importantly the earthen mound had survived as a low earthwork. As a result evidence of a long history of use and re-use had been preserved. It appears not have been constructed for a burial: perhaps it was some sort of cenotaph monument, perhaps a marker for a sacred place?
Much later a possible female burial was inserted on the edge of the monument. We cannot be sure of the person’s sex as acid soils had destroyed what remained of the bones. Objects buried with the person, a finely-crafted flint blade and a composite bead necklace have survived and may indicate it was a female.
This cemetery clearly shows the importance of remembering the ancestors in the Bronze Age. Long after their period of use the barrows seem to have had a great significance for later peoples; perhaps as special landmarks or as recognised sacred places. Even at the very end of the Early Bronze Age, a small cremation cemetery was established on the south-eastern edge of Barrow 1. Some burials were placed in inverted urns, others in stone cists, pits with stones, and one in an upright urn. It is clear from the position of the cremations that the users of this small cemetery wished to be associated with people that had been buried in there earlier. Barrow 2 had also been re-used, three Collared Urns being deposited, at least one accompanying a burial (F14). It was an adult cremation placed in the ground between 1880 and 1630 cal BC a short distance north of the central cremation
Late Bronze Age Activity at Barrow 3 After Barrow 3 had stopped being used for burial it was apparently still a favoured place to meet. Hundreds of waste flakes and cores dating to the Late Bronze Age were found during the excavation of the barrow mound. These were the remains of flint-knapping activities centred on the earthwork. It is uncertain if the Late Bronze Age inhabitants had any memory of what Barrow 3 had been once used for, but it was evidently seen as a special place in the landscape, if only as a convenient meeting point.
Iron Age and Roman Re-use of Barrow 3 During the Iron Age a small settlement formed around the remains of Barrow 3. We know that at least one roundhouse and several square enclosures existed close to the barrow. The ancient mound of Barrow 3 must have been an important landmark in the fairly flat local landscape. The Iron Age farmers may not have had any knowledge of the barrow’s original use and meaning, but they may have imagined that it contained the ancestral spirits of the land. Several pottery vessels were discovered in the mound’s soil, deliberately placed in the Iron Age. More pots were placed in the mound during the Roman period. Did these pots originally contain offerings to the ancestors?
Anglo-Saxon Re-use of Barrow 3 Finally, in the Early Anglo-Saxon period, Barrow 3 became the focus for a small inhumation cemetery and nearby settlement. Pits, ditches and a Sunken-Featured Building containing pottery and loom-weights showed evidence of the domestic activity to the north of the barrow.
The barrow mound contained at least five burials. Again, the acid soils had destroyed all evidence for the bodies, but the metalwork - spears, knives, brooches and bucket fittings – that they had been buried with survived. Anglo-Saxon re-use of round barrows is a fairly common occurrence, but Cossington is the first confirmed example from Leicestershire.
By placing their dead in the barrow remains local Anglo-Saxons may have made a connection with the ancestors.
Doing so would enable them to make a claim to be the “ancestor’s” successors, creating a sense of place in the landscape.