Visit date: 10th February 2013

Weather: Driving rain and hail at Crickley Hill, torrential rain at Belas Knap and then a blizzard at the Rollright Stones to finish the day.  Therefore not the optimum weather for field observations or photography!


The field trip started at Crickley Hill and took in both the causewayed enclosure and the Iron Age ramparts. From there, we drove to Belas Knap Long Barrow, a stop at Stow on the Wold to dry out and warm up in a teashop, and then on to the Rollright Stones where we saw the stone circle and the supposed barrow in the field opposite, but did not have the will to visit the other monuments in that landscape owing to the blizzard that descended.

Belas Knap Long Barrow

Grid Reference:  SP 02110 25425

Site Overview

(for an excellent Kite Aerial Photograph, which I used in my original report, please visit

The barrow is sited on Humblebee How, near the parish boundary, and lies perpendicular to the contours that drop sharply away to the east, being aligned roughly north-south. It is approximately 55 metres long and trapezoidal in shape, and belongs to the class of long mounds known as the ‘Cotswold-Severn’ style of barrow, owing the geographical distribution of this group and is classified by Darvill (1982:6) as a ‘Lateral entranced tomb’.


Figure 1: Belas Knap Long Barrow from the west, March 2011. Source: Author.

Figure 1: Belas Knap Long Barrow from the west, March 2011. Source: K Bragg.

As can be seen from Figure 1, the top of the hill is reasonably flat (the sharp drop is the far side of the barrow, here). The current appearance of the long barrow is as a result of restorative work undertaken by the Office of Works in 1929 to amend the deleterious effects of previous excavations (NMR SP 02 NW 9) shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: The 1929 excavations. Source: Berry 1929: Fig.5. Photo by Messrs Martyn 28th July 1929.

Figure 2: The 1929 excavations. Source: Berry 1929: Fig.5. Photo by Messrs Martyn 28th July 1929.

Investigation History


Figure 3: The lettering of the chambers corresponds to the old published plans. Source: Hemp 1929 :Plate 2

Figure 3: The lettering of the chambers corresponds to the old published plans. Source: Hemp 1929 :Plate 2

Investigation type Investigation Details
1863-5 Excavations Reports of ‘extensive excavations’ by Mr L Winterbotham, Mr Chamberlayne and others were published by Dr Thurnam and by Mr Winterbotham himself (Berry 1929 :273). These excavations are described in the NMR entry as of being “by methods not in advance of its time” (NMR SP 02 NW 9).A chamber was located at the south-east end of the mound and four partial skeleton, including two skulls, were found. Their attention then turned to the northern end of the mound, where they discovered the false entrance, ‘forecourt’ area and some enigmatic human remains by the lintel (Parsons 2002). These consisted of parts of skulls, one of which was a round-headed skull of the kind normally associated with much later Beaker burials (NMR SP 02 NW 9) and the bones of children and infants, associated with a bone pin and another bone implement (Bird 1865: lxvi). A local man, Charles Yiend recorded that before these excavations, the space between the hornworks (shown in Figure 4) at the north end was entirely blocked with stones, and the false entrance was not visible (Hemp 1929 :261-2).It is likely that at least one of the skeletons was articulated at burial, owing to a description of a skull found in chamber C (shown on Figure 3) as appearing as though the head was propped up using the hand of the corpse (Thomas 1988 :547).
19th Century Restoration Mentioned here as Hemp (1929 :261) expressed concern that the work undertaken to restore the drystone walling may have resulted in discoveries unknown and unrecorded, as well as blurring the boundary between original stonework and 19th Century conservation efforts.
1929-1930 Excavation Excavations by the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society took advantage of the desire of the Office of Works to reconstruct the barrow, taking the opportunity to re-examine the already-opened chambers and to search for any further chambers in the expanse of barrow where there may have been room for more chambers. Further chambers were not found, but interestingly the excavators found evidence which may show that some time around the Roman period, the barrow was altered to add a layer of oolitic small stones, and potentially also to cover the original stone roofing with further material (Berry 1929).


Figure 4: Belas Knap: the false entrance c 1864. Source: Hemp 1929: fig.1

Figure 4: Belas Knap: the false entrance c 1864. Source: Hemp 1929: fig.1

Chronology and Current Interpretation

Dating evidence obtained by Rick Schulting, gave a date of approximately 4000 to 3700 BC which fits with dates from other Cotwold-Severn tombs in the region (NMR SP 02 NW 9), although Thomas (1988 :542) pointed out that dates obtained from material inside these structures may not share the date of origin of the structure itself, especially as concerns skeletal material.

Neolithic chambered tombs such as Belas Knap are usually interpreted as being the communal grave for a community or kinship group, but with the suggestion that this was not intended as final resting place in all cases. It seems likely that bodies were allowed to become defleshed and then the resulting bones interred, but also removed and redistributed. Thomas draws a distinction between transepted Cotswold-Severn tombs and the lateral-chambered examples, such as Belas Knap, where the lateral-chambered tombs have bones removed again from the chambers (Thomas 1988), possibly accounting for the few remains found. This process was considered risky and required segregating from the world of the living, hence the location of these barrows in liminal places, safely apart (Thomas 1988 :551). Thomas goes on to suggest that this liminality allowed other risky actions to take place, such as exchange between communities.

Fleming (1973) argues that these monuments are more than just places for dealing with the practicalities of corpses: the elaborate ‘forecourt’ arrangements such as has been uncovered at Belas Knap speak to an arena and focus for ritual activities to take place. This is more about the activities of the living, than the dead.


Rollright Stones

Grid Reference:  SP 2960 3087 (Kings men stone circle), SP2994 3084 (Whispering Knights), SP 2963 3095 (Kings Stone)



Figure 5: 'The King's Men' stone circle in a blizzard, February 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Figure 5: ‘The King’s Men’ stone circle in a blizzard, February 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Site Overview

The site of the Rollright Stones is on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, which runs down the ‘Cotswold Ridgeway’ following the line of the modern road.

The Rollright Stones are actually three separate megalithic monuments: a portal dolmen known as the Whispering Knights; the King Stone, a monolith; and the King’s Men, a stone circle (Figure 5) (Lambrick 1988 :1). The area around has been a focus for activity with Lambrick listing ten archaeological sites:

“1. Roman Settlement; 2. Megalithic Barrow; 3. Round Barrow; 4. Round Cairn; 5. Ring Ditch; 6. Iron Age Cemetery; 7. Saxon Cemetery; 8. Iron Age Trackway; 9. Iron Age Ditch; 10. Pair of Ring Ditches” Lambrick 1988: 1 (punctuation of list, mine).

 Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
Late 17th C Excavation Excavation by Ralph Sheldon, but no records were left of what was discovered (Lambrick 1988 :1).
1882 Restoration Using various antiquarian drawings of the King’s Men, and records from the time, Lambrick was able to show that many stones have been restored from where they had fallen or been removed, so the present state of the circle is not necessarily accurate (Lambrick 1988 :35).
1926 Excavation Excavation of the mound adjacent to the King’s Stone provided no evidence for it being a long barrow as was previously suspected, and therefore it looks likely that the feature is entirely natural (Grinsell 1977 :5).
1970 Excavation The laying of a pipe trench to the north of the King’s Men provided an opportunity to investigate any below-ground remains, but this showed little more than periglacial features, and an undated pit (Lambrick 1988 :24)
1983 Excavation A trial excavation at the Whispering Knights was undertaken to establish whether, as the antiquarians had suggested, there was a mound beneath the megalithic remains and whether it would be possible to establish with any certainty whether the Whispering Knights was a Portal Dolmen, or was the end chamber of a ‘terminally-chambered cairn’ (Lambrick 1988 :28).This led to the conclusion that Portal Dolmen was the most likely interpretation, owing to the lack of quarries to form ditches or a mound as might be expected at a long barrow. No direct dating evidence was found but Neolithic and Beaker pottery was discovered in a ditch nearby, and a Mid-Neolithic date seems likely (Lambrick 1988 :32-34).
1986 Excavation A trench was put across the stone circle to facilitate the removal and restoration of the broken stone 61 (Lambrick 1988 :1). The stones were found to be set into a low bank, which had been enhanced on at least two occasions including during the Romano-British period. Evidence was found that the stone circle was intended to be of touching stones, to form a solid, smooth wall, with the circular shape being defined by the inner faces of the stones, which have been noted as being smoother than the outer (Lambrick 1988:41-46).


Chronology and Current Interpretation

The Rollright Stones have not been dated directly by any evidence found by excavation, so any chronology is based on the dates that would be expected for such monuments, rather than evidence (NMR SP 23 SE 14). The earliest monument in the landscape would appear to be the Whispering Knights as this is interpreted as being a Portal Dolmen and may be important in the development of the Cotswold-Severn tradition of megalithic chambered tombs, with the false entrance of Belas Knap an echo of the front of portal dolmens (Lambrick 1988 :25). An aerial photograph showed a pair of parallel ditches to the north-west of the Whispering Knights, previously interpreted as a cursus, but this interpretation has been rejected (Lambrick 1988 :25).

The King’s Men is compared by Burl to the Cumbrian stone circles, and this transmission of ideas he claims is related to the trade in stone axes to north Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, where the majority originate in the Langdales (Burl 1993 :41). He draws a contrast between the size of area enclosed within the circle, and the narrowness of the apparent entranceway and suggests this has a ritual, processional purpose (Burl 1993 :39). This suggestion of the entrance being of importance is reinforced by the enhanced size of the stones directly opposite to the entrance (Lambrick 1988 :42), and the ritual purpose of the circle possibly suggested by the evidence that the ground surface had been deliberately pared back to the bedrock to form a hard, cobbled surface (Lambrick 1988 :47). The evidence for Roman remodelling of the bank beneath the stones may suggest a Roman reuse of the site as a small arena, possibly for activities involving animal-baiting, for which a circle of touching stones, would form a suitable site (Lambrick 1988 :47).


Berry, J., 1929. Belas Knap Long Barrow, Gloucestershire: report of the excavations of 1929. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 51, pp.273–303.

Bird, H., 1865. An Account of the Human Bones Found in the Round and Long Tumuli, Situated on the Cotswold Hills, near Cheltenham. Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 3, pp.lxv–lxxiv. Available at:

Burl, A., 1993. From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press.

Darvill, T.C., 1982. Megalithic Chambered Tombs of the Cotswold-Severn Region (Vorda research series), Highworth: Vorda Archaeological.

Fleming, A., 1973. Tombs for the Living. Man, 8(2), pp.177–193. Available at:

Grinsell, L. V., 1977. The Rollright Stones and their folklore, St Peter Port: Toucan Press.

Hemp, W.J., 1929. Belas Knap Long Barrow, Gloucestershire. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 51, pp.261–272.

Lambrick, G., 1988. The Rollright Stones, Megaliths, Monuments, and Settlements in the Prehistoric Landscape, Swindon: English Heritage.

Parsons, J., 2002. Great Sites: Belas Knap [Online]. British Archaeology, 62. Available at: [Accessed April 5, 2013].

Thomas, J., 1988. The Social Significance of Cotswold-Severn Burial Practices. Man, 23(3), pp.540–559. Available at:


Written on February 10th, 2013 , Diploma Year One Tags: , ,

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