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Some people spend their weekends going shopping, visiting the local park or having a barbecue in the garden. I have rather more exciting hobbies like, for example, searching for cannibals in the woodlands around Surrey.
Now you may ask, where did I get this interest in cannibalism? And what makes me think that I will find evidence of cannibals in the nice, quaint English countryside. Well if you remember from my Duggleby History page (from the menu above) the centre piece of the village of Duggleby in Yorkshire is a Neolithic ‘Barrow’ or 5000 year old prehistoric burial mound. This was surrounded by a man-made circular enclosure which can today only be seen using aerial or satellite imaging (see the Google map image below). It is believed that the positioning of this very large burial mound had something to do with a magical river, the Gypsey Race, which sporadically flowed from a series of springs nearby.
Excavations of the site uncovered the remains of ancient chieftains who were buried thousands of years ago as well as the bones of the animals which were eaten during what appeared to be very elaborate burial ceremonies. Interestingly some of these partly eaten remains were the bones of fellow humans leading to the conclusion that our ancestors, at least those in and around what is now the village of Duggleby, were Cannibals. As a descendant of that village I would like to think that the ancient art of eating ones neighbour was not just restricted to the village of Duggleby: hence my quest for other signs of ancient cannibalism in the UK.
As my UK base is in Surrey this seemed like a good enough place to start. My home overlooks the Basingstoke canal and I often journey along the canal path, past a couple of bridges, until I reach one of the many entrances to Horsell Common. As the ground is very springy in the common I can go jogging there without doing too much damage to my ageing knees. This can be tremendous fun, particularly when the locals are out training their un-tethered Rottweilers how to differentiate between nimble rabbits and old joggers’ legs.
One of my runs takes me past three Bronze Age barrows (burial mounds) which are believed to be over 4000 years old. They are thought to be the final resting place of Bronze Age nobility. These people had developed the art of making tools and weapons from bronze and had used these skills to reclaim the tree covered land for agricultural use. It is believed their cremated remains were buried underneath these barrows.
The three burial mounds comprise of two bell barrows and one disc barrow. The picture above is of the larger bell barrow on the side of the common which is opposite the Monument Road car park. I took the photograph when there was some snow on the ground to emphasize the profile of the barrow. At the end of this blog entry I have also included a wider view photograph to give a better indication of the large size of this Bronze Age structure. The following photograph is of the sign at the entrance to the car park which shows the location of the three barrows and provides some information about their history. There is evidence they have been disturbed in the past by antiquarians or treasure hunters but there is no record of any remains or artefacts being found.
I find it particularly interesting to consider that the Duggleby Barrow and these Barrow’s in Horsell Common are separated by many hundreds of miles and yet clearly such structures appear to have been as common in Bronze age Britain as churches are today. This is all the more amazing when you remember that the population of the UK was considerably smaller then. Bell and Disc barrows are more commonly found in Wiltshire where sometimes they are in groups of 10 or more. They are very rare in Surrey and their presence in Horsell Common could be indicative that nobility migrated here from Wessex to develop the wooded land for agriculture. Unfortunately once the trees were removed the soil quality diminished giving rise to the Surrey Heathland.
Many people are aware that Woking hosted the UK’s first ‘modern’ cremation at the newly built ‘London’ crematorium in 1884. Few however realise that Woking (or Wochinges as it was called in the Domesday Book in 1086) was hosting formal cremation ceremonies 4000 years earlier. Below is a satellite picture which includes the larger bell barrow from my photograph (on the left) and the disc barrow to its right. The smaller bell barrow (on the other side of Monument road adjacent to the car park) cannot easily be seen from the air because it is now overgrown with trees.
As I rambled through this area (escaping from yet another Rottweiler!), I followed the path past the large Bell barrow in the direction away from the road and came across another interesting circular earth structure. This was also a ditch, albeit smaller than the other barrows but nonetheless quite distinctive. Perhaps there are other barrows in this area still waiting to be discovered? If you look at the wider aerial photograph below you may just be able to make out a circular structure towards the edge of the clearing in trees to the far left of the more pronounced circular ditch of the bell barrow. A large number of the more common round mound type of barrows have already been identified in Chobham common.
If you are interested in finding out more about prehistoric Burial Mounds in the UK there is a free booklet provided by the English heritage society: simply following this link and download the pdf file.
Clearly this exciting search for our prehistoric origins (and the quest to confirm I am not alone in being descended from cannibals) will continue…..