Bronze Age Barrow Cemeteries of Ashen Hill and Priddy

Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery
Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery

The area of north east of the village of Priddy in Somerset contains an extensive Bronze Age ritual landscape containing several barrow cemeteries rivalling those seen in Wiltshire surrounding Stonehenge. It includes the recently partially-demolished Priddy Rings, the Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery and Priddy Nine Barrows Cemetery.

Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery

Ashen Hill and Priddy Nine Barrow Cemeteries
Ashen Hill and Priddy Nine Barrow Cemeteries

Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery consists of six bowl barrows and two bell barrows aligned west to east ranged across the ridge line of a pasture field. They date to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-700 BC) and early excavations showed them to contain a variety of cremation burials and some other finds. It can be easily accessed by public footpath from the village of Priddy.

The barrows here were partially ‘excavated’ in September 1815 by Rev. John Skinner, a parish vicar and amateur antiquarian and archaeologist operating mainly in the area of Bath and the villages of northern Somerset.

The Finds

Most of the finds from Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery came from the partial excavations of Skinner in September 1815. Going from the westernmost to the easternmost barrows, they included:

  • Barrow #1: A cremation burial but no finds.
  • Bowl Barrow #2: A central cremation burial with part of a bronze blade.
  • Bowl Barrow #3: A cist containing a possible primary cremation and a large broken decorated urn.
  • Bell Barrow #4: No finds were reported from Skinner’s excavation but a subsequent excavation in 1894 by the Wells Natural History and Antiquarian Society uncovered four cremations as well as finds of worked flint blades and a barbed and tanged arrowhead.
  • Bowl Barrow #5: A cist or stone grave containing a cremation burial and a bronze spearhead.
  • Bowl Barrow #6: A cremation burial located in a cavity covered by a flat stone within 15cm of the summit of the mound. An earlier cremation burial and inverted ceramic urn located in a cist was also reported.
  • Bell Barrow #7: A small cist covered by a flat stone which contained a cremation burial and five amber beads. Other finds reported included part of a bronze spear or arrowhead, a bronze ring, and a perforated blue opaque glass bead.
  • Bowl Barrow #8: Two cremation burials located just below the Bronze Age ground surface, set in an oval cist and covered by a flat stone as well as a broken ceramic urn.
Priddy Nine Barrow Cemetery
Priddy Nine Barrow Cemetery

Priddy Nine Barrows

Priddy Nine Barrows is a group of 9 bowl barrows in a wider cemetery of around 30, dating to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-700 BC). It is located just 200m south of Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery.

The areas between the barrow mounds appears to survive undisturbed and is believed likely to contain further burials in the form of flat graves and urnfields in addition to evidence for Bronze Age occupation.

As with Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery, Rev. John Skinner also conducted partial excavations of Priddy Nine Barrows though nothing is known about the finds which may have been uncovered.

These barrows are on private land, but a footpath runs along the field boundary allowing a good view of them all.

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If you want to visit the barrows, park on the village green in Priddy and follow the footpath up Nine Rings Lane. There in a stile into the field containing the Ashen Hill barrows, though you won’t see the line of them until you’re on top of the first. There is a good circular walk here which also takes in the nature reserve to the east of Priddy Nine Barrows.

Further Reading

Lewes, Jodie (1999). “The Ashen Hill and Priddy Nine Barrow cemeteries: A consideration of the Significance of Location

Scheduled Ancient Monument, Priddy Nine Barrows:

Scheduled Ancient Monument, Ashen Hill Barrow Cemetery:

The Megalithic Portal:

What The Shanidar Cave Burials Tell Us About Neanderthals

The term ‘Neanderthal’ has become synonymous with the type of behaviour associated with ‘sluggish’, ‘brutish’ cavemen, and the term has entered the English dictionary as also meaning ‘an uncivilised or uncouth man’. Indeed, one online dictionary gives their definition of Neanderthal as meaning ‘crude, boorish, or slow-witted person’ and Neanderthaloid as ‘ill-mannered and coarse and contemptible in behaviour or appearance; stupid, oafish’ .

This view stems from the academic, religious and public climate that saw the first Neanderthal discovery in 1856, three years before Darwin published his ‘Origins of the Species’, and which cultivated the image of the Neanderthal as a deformed sub-human. Marcelin Boule’s discovery of the ‘Old Man’ of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 seemed to confirm this brutish appearance and led to the popular stereotype we know today, despite later findings showing the Neanderthal was crippled by arthritis and disease. This century old stigmatism led to the reconstructions which we see from various publications through the 20th century, depicting Neanderthals as everything from walking monkeys with spears to hunched, shambling creatures.

Only recently have the Neanderthals image started to be reassessed, with modern reconstructions portraying more accurate anatomical and cultural features, although academia is still divided on the subject of modernity and intellect. The language used to describe this period of time also contributes in some way to how we view Neanderthals and their contemporaries. Words such as ‘archaic’, ‘modern’, ‘pre-modern’ and ‘proto-human’ make us perceive Neanderthals as being somehow ‘sub-human’, unable to display the type of ‘modern’ behaviour which we associate with abstract thought, symbol use and manipulation. There is a note of surprise in the tone of articles when ideas such as burial, health care or symbolic thought are displayed by a Neanderthal site or find, as if this is somehow astonishing behaviour for hominids not of the ‘human’ sort. Headlines such as “Neanderthal hunters rivalled human skills” , “New Evidence of Neanderthal Violence”  and “Grisly finds confirms Neanderthal cannibalism”  exemplify the continuation of our judgemental view of Neanderthals.

Even in today’s climate of modern academic debate and reasoning, it is hard for theories of Neanderthal behaviour and culture more typically associated with the early-modern human contemporaries, to be taken seriously. Most are vociferously debated and on the whole rejected, whereas similar evidence from early-modern human sites are believed with little of the same dispute.

However, as more evidence comes to light, it is becoming harder to delineate between the behaviour of the Neanderthals and their contemporaries, and recent work is steadily demolishing the idea of the sub-human Mousterian man. These previous stereotypes however must be borne in mind when reviewing the evidence for and against Neanderthal culture and identical methods of examination and reasoning of the data must be applied to the Neanderthal evidence as for the early-modern humans.

Continue reading “What The Shanidar Cave Burials Tell Us About Neanderthals”

An Ancient Computer: The Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera mechanism
Antikythera mechanism

The highlight of a recent trip to Athens was a visit to the National Museum of Archaeology. The museum had a special gallery for the finds from the Antikythera shipwreck, a boat carrying luxury goods from around 75–50 BC which was wrecked in a storm. It was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers.

Antikythera mechanism
Antikythera mechanism

The highlight of the exhibition however is the Antikythera mechanism, the so-called 2000-year-old computer. It is designed to calculate astronomical positions. The construction has been dated to the early 1st century BC. Technological artefacts approaching its complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the 14th century AD, when mechanical astronomical clocks began to be built in Western Europe.

Detail of the Antikythera mechanism
Detail of the Antikythera mechanism

The mechanism could track the movement of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It could also track when stars would rise and set and compared different calendars such as the Egyptian Sothic year.

Another of the dials showed which of the Pan-Hellenic games were being held next, as they rotated on a four year cycle. The Olympiad Dial is divided into four sectors, each of which is inscribed with a year number and the name of two Panhellenic Games: the “crown” games of Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea, and Pythia; and two lesser gamesat Naa and another which has not yet been deciphered.

Detail of the inscriptions on the Antikythera mechanism
Detail of the inscriptions on the Antikythera mechanism

There are many inscriptions all over the mechanism, some of which explain what the dials refer to, others which give instructions for how to operate it. Its complexity makes people think it wasn’t was one-off but a practised art, and it’s compact size and wood casing meant it could have been easily transported and operated by a lay-person.

Details of the gears on the Antikythera mechanism
Details of the gears on the Antikythera mechanism

It has 30 separate gears and would have been operated using a hand crank.

The wreck is famous for the Antikythera mechanism but also contained fine tableware, pottery, sculptures of bronze and marble from Rhodes, Delos, Pergamon, Egypt, Antioch and the Syrian-Palestinian coast. I’ll make the other treasures from the Antikythera Wreck in another post!


The Shapwick Hoard: Britain’s Largest Hoard of Roman Silver Denarii

The Shapwick Hoard can now be seen in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.
The Shapwick Hoard can now be seen in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton

Take a look at this rather attractive pile of coins; who doesn’t like a bit of treasure? It’s actually a photo of the Shapwick Hoard, a collection of 9,262 Roman silver denarii coins found at Shapwick on the Somerset Levels in 1998.

Where was it found?

The hoard was discovered by amateur metal detectorists in a field at Shapwick. They excavated it before reporting it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. During later archaeological investigations it was shown to have been buried in the corner of a room of a previously unknown Roman courtyard villa.

Continue reading “The Shapwick Hoard: Britain’s Largest Hoard of Roman Silver Denarii”