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Ancestral Landscapes.

TMO 58, Maison de lOrient et de la Mditerrane, Lyon, 2011

The tumulus in European prehistory


covering the body, housing the soul

Anthony Harding*

Abstract
Our conference is concerned with tumuli, burial mounds, barrows, kurgans; and in most cases the
papers deal with their appearance in specific areas of Europe. But the concept of covering the dead body with
a mound of earth or stones is so widespread that larger issues are at stake. The late Marija Gimbutas argued
50 years ago that burial in a kurgan was a characteristic of what became the Indo-European phenomenon,
a set of material traits that were unique to a particular group of people whom she called the Kurgan people,
who arose during the Late Neolithic or Copper Age on the Russian steppe. On her analysis, the wave of
tumulus building that followed in the Early Bronze Age could be seen as deriving from this kurgan ancestry;
and so did the Tumulus Culture of the Middle Bronze Age.
This theory has been influential and much discussed, even though there are many problemsgeographical,
chronological which beset it. But there is certainly a core of truth in it, in the sense that burying people under
a mound of earth is a rather specific behavioural trait. What does this mean, however, in terms of attitudes
to the body? On the one hand, the mound of earth served as a means of covering the dead, of disposing of
the corpse so that its decaying remains would not be a problem to the senses of the living. On the other, the
practice is not the most obvious or labour-saving method of doing this. It is a cultural practice. It serves as
a permanent marker of the dead person or people; it has an existence of its own by virtue of its visibility;
it can be said to have had its own biography or life, going through various stages of existence. It was more
than just a covering for the body; it housed more than just the corporeal remains of a person; it housed that
person in the memory of those who lived on, the soul or essence of that persons being; and in doing that, it
can be said almost to have become that person.
The paper will look at some of these aspects cross-culturally, and indicate some possible lessons for
our understanding of the tumulus in central, southern and southeastern Europe.

The conference, and the volume which emerged from it, was concerned with tumuli, burial mounds,
barrows, kurgans; and in most cases the papers dealt with their appearance in specific areas of Europe.
But the concept of covering the dead body with a mound of earth or stones is so widespread that larger
issues are at stake. Many of the contributors have excavated tumuli, though I am not one of them;
several of us are mere archaeological tourists in these matters. No one, however, can afford to ignore
the rich body of evidence that is represented by the burial record, and specifically by the tumulus
phenomenon.

* University of Exeter, Department of Archaeology.


22 a. harding

Fig. 1 Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge, Wiltshire (GB).


Photo: Stuart Needham.

Let us begin with a wellknown tumulus or barrow: Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge in central
southern England (fig.1). It has come to occupy a highly important place in discussions of the Bronze
Age because it contained a burial with grave-goods typical of the Wessex Culture, and it lies within sight
of the great stone monument of Stonehenge. It is in fact one of many barrows that lie in this region; the
Stonehenge region, like some others, acted as a magnet for barrow-builders. Bush Barrow may not even
have been the richest of the area, but it holds its appeal as typifying the barrow-building culture that went
with the construction and early life of Stonehenge, that is to say, in the Beaker period between about 2300
and 1900 cal. B.C.
In what follows, I shall refer to burial mounds as tumuli, barrows or kurgans interchangeably. The Latin
word tumulus is international, but in English the common word for a burial mound is barrowthough
there is also an archaic word tump, derived from the same root tum, as in Latin tumeo (swell), as the
word tumulus. Our Russian colleagues of course use the word kurgan, the derivation of which is
Turkic, but which has come to assume a special significance for the period we are talking about here. Other
languages have their own words (table 1).

Etymology tum-, swell(ing) Tumulus/tumulo


(Latin tumor, tumeo)
English Tump (archaic), barrow, mound, howe (Scandinavian origin)
French Tertre
Germanic Hgel/hj/hg/howe
Russian/Ukrainian Kurgan/kurhan (Turkic origin)
Slav Mohyla/mogila/mogilnik
Greek tymvos (anc. Greek )

Table 1. The words for tumulus in various languages.

Naturally there is a large literature on tumuli. Many scholars over the years have been concerned
with the study of individual mounds, or groups of mounds, and I make no attempt to list them here. A
much smaller number have devoted their professional lives to the study of tumuli per se; among them the
name of Leslie Grinsell deserves pride of place, since this was his lifes work. His The Ancient Burial-
Mounds of England remains a classic of such studies,1 and was followed by numerous individual accounts

1. Grinsell 1936.
the tumulus in european prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul 23

Fig. 2 Silbury Hill, near Marlborough, Wiltshire (GB).


Photo: Elaine A. Wakefield, Copyright Wessex Archaeology.

county by county,2 as well as general studies of areas;3 it was followed by Paul Ashbees study.4 The only
comparable catalogue known to me at present is the monumental series Die Funde der lteren Bronzezeit
des nordischen Kreises,5 which, however, proceeds on a quite different basis, since it is concerned to publish
all the Early Bronze Age material from Denmark, southern Sweden and northern Germany, whether from
mounds or not. There are of course numerous studies of particular areas;6 but most of these are either
excavation reports or studies of the material from the tumuli of the area in question.
Now barrows come in all different sizes, and several shapes though we tend to think of them as
being round. Some are very small, little more than enough earth to cover a body; some are very large. There
are cases where the practice of building a barrow could be carried to extreme lengths. The pyramids of the
Old Kingdom of Egypt are essentially barrows, of a special sort; maybe Silbury Hill near Marlborough in
southern England was a burial mound, though this has never been proven (fig.2). Barrows also occur in
many countries, at many dates, and in many contexts; our concern with later prehistoric Europe is merely
one appearance of a widely diffused cultural form.
On excavation, barrows may have a great variety of internal structures: turf stacks; rings of stones or
postholes; fully formed chambers; coffins; stone cists; simple pits; and so on. They may have been used once
only; or re-used many times. They may have been erected in one phase of activity; or added to over the years.
When they were built, they were presumably not covered with grass or trees, as they are today: depending on
the geology and soils, they might have stood out in a remarkable way, especially if they were built on chalk, as
is the case in much of southern England.
Some mounds have elaborate structures in their interiors, for instance the great mound of Lusehj
at Voldtofte on Funen, fortunately the subject of excavation in recent times.7 I have myself provided a
summary of the evidence for internal structures in a number of areas (e.g. post rings in the Netherlands,
stone settings in various parts of the Balkans).8 I have also attempted to chronicle the frequency with

2. List in e.g. Ashbee 1960, p. 203.


3. E.g. Grinsell 1941.
4. Ashbee 1960.
5. Aner and Kersten 1973-2005.
6. Such as that by J. Briard (1984) for Brittany, P.V. Glob (1970) for Denmark, W. Glasbergen (1954a, 1954b) for the North Brabant area
of the Netherlands, C.F.A. Schaeffer (1926) for the Forest of Haguenau, J.L. P (1899-1909) for the Plze area, V. Budinsk-Krika
(1967) for eastern Slovakia, and many others.
7. Thrane 1984.
8. Harding 2000, p. 84 sq.
24 a. harding

which coffins appear in barrows, and made some suggestions about what this may signify. One of the most
important aspects of these features is what they tell us about the sequence of construction of the mound,
and how the funeral rites may have related to that constructional sequence.
Here we may take some pointers from literary sources. We note that during the funeral of Patroclus,
described in Iliad Book XXIII, after the funeral pyre had burnt itself out, the bones of the dead hero
were picked out and placed in a golden urn. Then a barrow was begun, with the construction of a stone
revetting wall and the heaping up of part of a mound within it. This is interesting, as it raises the question
of how people got access to the burial area. It is quite clear in many instances that the primary burial,
whether placed in a dug pit or laid on the ground surface, can only have occurred before the mound was
erected. In many cases this would be true for secondary burials too unless they were clearly inserted
into the mound material. So we see that there were several stages to a barrow burial. First of all, a place
had to be selected. It was then marked out with a circular (or other) marker of stones or fence-posts.
Presumably at this stage various funeral rites were performed. Only after that was the body interred in
the pit that had been dug, or laid on the ground; and only after that was the mound erected. How long
did this take? It is hard to know; but it is clear that in most cases this must have been the sequence. It was
impossible for a primary grave to be inserted once the mound had been raised.
Barrows of course have often been associated with elements of folklore and mythology.9 These
include associations with giants, fairies, the devil, mythical or historical personages (in Britain and other
parts of northern Europe especially Norse gods), ghosts, and others. Among these is a frequent association
with buried treasure, perhaps guarded by a dragon. In this context we may recall the story along these lines
in Beowulf (the 8th c. Anglo-Saxon poem), the treasure lying in a barrow that contained a secret passage:
Then Beowulf came as king this broad realm to wield; and he ruled it well fifty winters, a wise old
prince, warding his land, until One began in the dark of night, a Dragon, to rage. In the grave on the
hill a hoard it guarded, in the stone-barrow steep. A strait path reached it, unknown to mortals [] The
barrow, new-ready, to strand and sea-waves stood anear, hard by the headland, hidden and closed; there
laid within it his lordly heirlooms and heaped hoard of heavy gold that warden of rings (Ch. 31).10

There are frequent associations with mythical or fantastical creatures, for instance fairies. A nice
story concerning Willie Howe in Yorkshire (fig. 3) repeated by the barrow specialist Leslie Grinsell goes
as follows:11

Fig. 3 Willie Howe, Yorkshire (GB). Photo: author.

9. Grinsell 1936, p. 40 sq.


10. Translation: McMaster University, http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/main.html, accessed 12 February 2009.
11. Grinsell 1953, p. 76.
the tumulus in european prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul 25

One night a man was riding home from the village of North Burton, when he heard, as he drew near,
sounds of merriment issuing from the Howe. He saw a door open in the side of the mound, and riding
close to it, he looked in, and beheld a great feast. One of the cupbearers approached and offered him
drink. He took the cup, threw out the contents and galloped off. The fairy banqueters gave chase, but
he succeeded in distancing them and reaching home with his prize in safety.12

Or this Danish story:

A peasant was passing by a mound near Slagelse one evening when he saw the whole mound
standing on four glowing pillars, and a crowd of little creatures dancing merrily beneath it. One of the
trolls came and offered him a large goblet to drink from. The man pretended to drink, but poured the
contents over his back and rode off home.13

Do these stories, Grinsell asked, embody a faint memory of the funeral feast that accompanied the
deposition of the dead and the erection of the barrow? Or do they merely reflect what country folk are apt
to see when returning home after an evening in the pub?
All this is as may be; what it shows us beyond doubt is that the burial mound, or barrow, is a common
element in European folklore and literature. Now this is no doubt due on the one hand to the very great
frequency with which barrows occur in parts of Europe; but it must also reflect the position which these
mounds occupy in the psyche of those who live among them, who see them every day, who reflect on their
occupants, and whose forebears they know erected them and who may lie within them.
We should not underestimate the commonness of barrows in some areas. No one, as far as I know, has
attempted a count of barrows even just Bronze Age ones on a European scale. In northern Europe, two
authors or groups of authors have attempted catalogues that one may regard as approaching completeness:
Grinsell catalogued all the barrows of the southern counties of England; and Aner and Kersten and their
successors have done the same for those parts of Denmark and north Germany that have been covered so
far.14 In theory one could go through these volumes and count up how many tumuli there are in each county
studied, but this would be extremely tedious. Glob suggested that there were around 50,000 barrows in
Denmark,15 and there is no reason to see this as an exaggeration: Aner and Kersten indicate that over 43,000
are attested in Denmark (excluding NE Jutland) and Schleswig.
Grinsell listed some 6000 barrows in the counties of Wessex,16 and this is certainly an underestimate.
As long ago as 1936 he estimated the total number in England as between 30,000 and 40,000,17 though
there are problems with what he was prepared to call a barrow since in upland counties there are many
small stone cairns which were for stone clearance and not for burial. Glasbergen estimated that between
1500 and 2000 barrows had been extant in the Netherlands at that start of the 20th c.;18 since then, air
photography by Jean Bourgeois and others has greatly increased the numbers in the Low Countries.19
I am not aware of systematic modern catalogues of tumuli in south Russia and Ukraine, but there are
clearly a great many in those areas, to say nothing of the vast steppe lands of central Asia, or Siberia.
Gimbutas listed many of the older studies, for instance those of V.A. Gorodtsov in the early decades of the
twentieth century.20 Many other examples could be cited. The message is obvious: there are a lot of tumuli
in theworld.

12. Hartland 1907, p. 78.


13. Grinsell 1953, p. 76.
14. Aner, Kersten 1973-2005.
15. Glob 1970.
16. Grinsell 1941, p. 76.
17. Grinsell 1936, p. 1.
18. Glasbergen 1954b, p. 11.
19. Ampe et al. 1996.
20. Gimbutas 1965.
26 a. harding

This raises important questions. Why bury under a mound, when there were equally acceptable and
less time-consuming alternatives? Mound-building is not needed for reasons of pure hygiene, simply
to dispose of the body; a hole in the ground does just as well for that; and in terms of labour-saving,
simple exposure of the body is best of all. Clearly mound-building is a cultural practice. People who built
tumuli wanted to do more than dispose of the body. Certainly they wanted to cover the body, to make it
invisible; the process of decay of an unburied body must be most unpleasant to watch. As Claudio says in
Shakespeares Measure for Measure:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;


To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice21

Claudio knows very well what happens to a corpse after death, and he sees an unpleasant future for his
spirit as well. The tumulus would provide him with at least the covering for the body that would mean the
process of decay would not be visible to all comers. But what about the other things that worry him? Can
it prevent his spirit from bathing in fiery floods, or residing in icy regions? Not exactly. It depends on what
he thinks his spirit consists of. His body he is quite right about; it will rot and become a kneaded clod,
a lump of earth. But the things about him that make him Claudio are more than just his body: his spirit
includes his mind, his thinking processes, his heart, his brain, his soul.
Now you do not need to believe in an afterlife to feel that your spirit, i.e. your soul, needs its own
resting place after death. Maybe not literally; after all, where does the soul reside? Although Dr Duncan
MacDougall of Haverhill, Mass, in 1907 detected measurable declines in weight (21 g or more) at the
moment of death in his patients,22 which he attributed to the departure of the soul from the body, few
even then would have agreed that the soul had measurable physical essence. We may well believe that
our souls, if we have them, go to some other place on death, whether we call it heaven, Gods presence,
or something else. But for those who are left behind, it is a persons name and reputation that live on. In a
preliterate society, where only oral traditions could preserve the memory of the deeds and character of the
deceased, the need for an alternative means of hosting the dead person were understandably paramount.
There has been much talk in recent years of ancestors; and this is important. The burial mound may not
literally house the soul of the deceased, depending on your beliefs; but it certainly does commemorate
the person.
How do these ideas fit with our knowledge of the Old World in later prehistory? Bronze Age Europe
can be divided into a number of provinces in terms of funerary behaviour: a flat inhumation province,
a cremation province, and several barrow-building provinces. In this respect, Alexander Huslers map
of 1977 remains very useful, generalised though it is (fig.4) and though it does not stretch as far as
France and Britain in the west.23 While one can point to individual areas which such a map does not cover
in sufficient detail, in general terms the picture seems to me highly significant. Why the community of
cremators in Bronze Age Hungary? Why the practice of differentiating between the sexes in the burial
traditions of southern Germany and Austria, or parts of Russia? And why the emphasis on barrow building
in south Russia and Ukraine, in Scandinavia, and in Brittany and Britain? And then, in the next period,
the Middle Bronze Age, why do so many of the communities of Central Europe abandon the practice of
flat inhumation and start building barrows, in what we know as the Hgelgrberbronzezeit, or Tumulus
Bronze Age?

21. Act III, Scene 1.


22. http://www.ghostweb.com/soul.html, accessed 12 February 2009.
23. Husler 1977.
the tumulus in european prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul 27

Fig. 4 The varying burial traditions of the Early Bronze Age in Central and Eastern Europe (Husler 1977, fig. 1).
Circles: tumuli with the mound edge principle. Semicircles: tumuli. Stippling: cremation; other symbols
represent inhumation graves, divided according to orientation and sex.

Now in terms of the history of prehistoric archaeology in the second half of the twentieth century, there
is a very specific theory that deals with these matters: the Kurgan theory of the late Marija Gimbutas. She
proposed this idea originally in 1956,24 and developed it subsequently in a number of works, the fullest account
being in a paper of 1970,25 and further elaborated in a number of other papers which, it may be noted, became
more and more dogmatic in their assertions about the Kurgan Culture. In this paper, she identified the origins
and proposed a chronology for the culture: the earliest Kurgan graves coming from the steppe area between
the Don and the Urals, north of the Caspian, and most coming from the lower Volga region. Following this, a
fourfold development was proposed, Kurgan I being contemporary with Tripolye A and B, and equivalent to
Srednij Stog II, Kurgan II parallel with Tripolye Bii (Cucuteni AB), Kurgan III being the climax period and
equivalent to Cucuteni B (Tripolye C1). It was in this period that Gimbutas saw revolutionary changes in all
the countries of central and southeastern Europe, as typified by a whole range of cultures ranging from Vina
to Coofeni, Baden-Pecel, and others. Finally, in Kurgan IV she saw continuous waves of expansion or raids
[that] touched all of northern Europe, the Aegean area, and the east Mediterranean areas possibly as far south
as Egypt.26 This was the period of the Catacomb Graves, but also the Early Bronze Age rock-cut tombs of the
Mediterranean, Vuedol, Bell Beakers in Hungary, the Single Grave culture of the Nordic region. The Kurgan
Culture reached Ireland, she remarked in a paper of 1978 as early as 3500 B.C. by which she presumably
referred to megalithic mounds covering passage tombs.27

24. Gimbutas 1956.


25. Gimbutas 1970.
26. Gimbutas 1970, p. 181.
27. Gimbutas 1978.
28 a. harding

In essence, Gimbutas proposed that Indo-European (I-E) language and culture, which we presume
must have diffused across Europe at some point in prehistory (given that most European languages to
this day belong to the I-E family, and presuming also that I-E speakers arrived at some point from outside
Europe), were to be associated with a specific set of material manifestations, among which was the tumulus.
Specifically, Gimbutas pointed to the Copper Age tumuli of the south Russian and Ukrainian steppe, the
kurgans of the Pit Grave or Yamnaya kultura, which represent the earliest regular manifestation of the
tumulus phenomenon.
According to Gimbutas, the Kurgan people are evidenced by single graves in deep shafts, often in
wooden chests (coffins) or stone cists marked by low earth or stone barrows; the dead lay on their backs with
legs contracted; they were buried with flint points or arrowheads, figurines depicting horses heads, boars tusk
ornaments and animal tooth pendants. Human sacrifice was allegedly performed during the funeral ceremonies,
and sometimes ritual graves of cattle and other animals were added. This is said to contrast with what Gimbutas
called the culture of Old Europe (i.e. the earlier Neolithic of the Balkans), who betray a concern for the
deification of the dead and the construction of monumental works of architecture visible in mortuary houses,
grave markings, tumuli, stone rings or stone stelae, and in the large quantity of weapons found in the graves.28
She was particularly concerned to stress the association of kurganers with horses, which she thought were being
ridden far back in the Neolithic. Naturally she could not know of recent research on the early domestication of
horses carried out by Sandra Olsen, David Anthony, Marsha Levine and Alan Outram,29 nor did she have access
to recent genetic studies which are transforming our knowledge of the movement of people in prehistory, even
if conclusions concerning the spread of the Neolithic are still unclear.
Copper Age tumuli also appear in the Balkans, and with their appearance further west at various parts of
the Bronze Age, the theory achieved a wide circulation and many adherents. One example of its uncritical use
can be seen in the theory postulated by the late N.G.L. Hammond, that the Shaft Grave circles of Mycenae were
originally mounded, and that their ancestry could be seen in the mound erected over the House of Tiles at Lerna,
the EBA graves of Levkas, and other instances.30
Interestingly, most critiques of the Kurgan theory have come not from Bronze Age archaeologists but
from linguists and those who prefer other big pictures to explain how Europes prehistoric cultures came into
being. There is, notoriously, no agreement among linguists about when and where I-E language originated, and
certainly no agreement about which archaeological manifestations it is to be associated with. Gordon Childe
favoured the Beaker people as the first I-E people, who he thought were Celts; Colin Renfrew sees the most
likely association of language with a spread of peoples as being with the first farmers; Gimbutas would have
argued along quite different lines.
Can we really associate the practice of mound-building with a specific people, and assume that the
spread of the practice indicates the spread of the people? That is one of the big questions of European
archaeology, and one which a number of papers in the volume address. My own position is that the practice
of tumulus building seems so widespread in time and space that it seems hard to associate it with one
particular ethnic group though I can understand how, in the melting pot that was Early Europe, people
could believe this to be the case. There are, however, major arguments against the idea, on archaeological
grounds alone which Huslers map indicates very clearly. Burial mode and grave form in Copper and
Bronze Age Europe was far too variable for any such simplistic correlation. In any case, what are we to
make of the appearance of tumuli in such far-flung places as Japan or North America, where tumuli are very
common? It was always unlikely that the megalithic tombs of western Europe were to be associated with
movements from the steppe 1000 or 2000 years earlier, and nothing that has happened since Gimbutas was
writing has changed that situation.
Tumulus building was a widespread cultural practice in Copper and Bronze Age Europe. Tumuli covered
the bodies of many people; their very visibility ensured that they lived on in the minds and lives of those who
survived. They were a visible part of the landscape and an ever-present reminder of the ancestral presence

28. Gimbutas 1973, p. 15.


29. E.g. Olsen 2003; Anthony 2007; Anthony et al. 2006.
30. Hammond 1967.
the tumulus in european prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul 29

of those who had come before. In several senses, they were not merely receptacles for the body; they were
houses for the still-present spirit, or soul, of the predecessors of the living. They were ever-present to the
people who dwelled among them in prehistory; and their presence today gives us a constant reminder of
their importance and enduring qualities.

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