Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds: Princely Burials in the 6th & 7th Centuries by Stephen Pollington

By Peter Graystone

Published: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008.  ISBN: 978 189828151 1, 263 pages, paperback,  £14.95.

Our ancient burial mounds, of which the Sutton Hoo set are the most well-known, are a mysterious and intriguing feature of our landscape, whether they occur singly or in groups.  Stephen Pollington has produced an excellent and detailed reference book about them.  

I turned first to the second section of the book, 126 pages in length, where all the known Anglo-Saxon barrows – some hundreds of them – are listed alphabetically by region. It includes the very many barrows that have disappeared through ploughing or other activities: for example, between 80 and 100 barrows were visible at Chartham Down, Kent, in 1729-30, and dozens of them were dug, but all traces of them had been ploughed out by 1856. The most important have lengthy entries – for example, Taplow has four pages including a diagram, Sutton Hoo seven pages – while the rest all have entries covering their identification and excavation. One of the earliest known excavations was at Barham, Kent, where a cremation urn was dug up at the time of King Henry VIII. It is fascinating to dip into, and rummage through, this section. I turned to my own area, the Peak District, where the Benty Grange mound, dug in 1848, was exceptional in its well-known boar-crested helmet. The common finds from my area are typical of all locations: corroded metal, such as shield bosses, knives, spearheads, arrowheads and buckles; female items, such as beads, pendants, pins, combs and needles; pottery and, of course, bones.

 Pollington takes 80 pages (in the first part of the book) for discussion and analysis. He defines ‘princely burials’ and ‘chamber burials’. He takes a special interest in the latter, wherein the dead are laid out in a room surrounded by display, discussing their construction, funeral rites and meaning. He looks at ship burial, burial with a horse, and bed burial. He looks at the mythical link between dragons and barrows. He talks about the way barrows were perceived were perceived in later centuries, their fate from treasure hunters and antiquarians, and their disappearance through agricultural practice. There are accounts of some of the known antiquaries, such as Bryan Faussett (1720 – 1776), who opened Kentish barrows and recorded their contents, and Thomas Bateman (1821 – 1861) who dug in the Peak District and discovered the Benty Grange helmet.

 Indexes include a listing of barrow placenames – that is, names including the elements hlaw (low) and beorh (barrow). Drakelow, Derbyshire, being dracan hlaw (dragon low) and Taplow, Buckinghamshire, being Tæppan hlaw (Tappa’s low).

September 15th, 2010