(KS2: Bronze Age religion)
On the high ground of Bursdon Moor there are nine barrows, or burial mounds, which form part of a widespread group of prehistoric monuments in the Hartland area. They are the earliest known evidence for human activity on the moor and were constructed during the Bronze Age, when burial practice changed from group burial within earth mounds (long barrows) to the burial of an individual beneath a circular earth mound.
The barrows on the moor lie in two groups, with an isolated example to the south. Eight of them have been identified as bowl barrows (c.2400-1500 BC), with one, rare, bell barrow (1500-1100 BC) in the north-western group. In common with many other surviving barrow groups, they have a commanding position with wide ranging views.
People made the barrows by digging earth from a circular ditch, using this to make a central mound. Bronze Age barrows usually started out as the burial place of a single person. Later burials were often added to the earth mounds.
The ditches filled in slowly over time, with mound heights possibly lowered by later ploughing. Medieval farmers are likely to have shared the moor for grazing their animals, and in 1842 the moor was described as being used for growing crops and for grazing. Long field-boundary banks and narrow ridges left by ploughing can still be seen. Some of the ridges, probably caused by deep ploughing to improve drainage in the 1900s, have gone straight over the top of the burial mounds.
Hollows in the tops of some of the barrows suggest that amateur archaeologists, or just grave robbers, had dug into the mounds in the past, but the barrows have been legally protected as Scheduled Monuments since 1953.
Most of the barrows are marked as ‘tumuli’ on the historic Ordnance Survey maps, dating to the 1880s-1890s, and information about the recent history of the barrows in the 20th century has been recorded from aerial photographs.
An artist’s impression of how Bursdon Moor would have appeared in the Bronze Age, by David Powell. Study of ancient pollen from nearby Kennerland suggests that the surrounding area was wooded at this time, although the barrows themselves were probably in a clearing.
One of the Bursdon Moor barrows in October 2008, visible as a low wide mound covered in green gorse. © Stephanie Knight, Devon County Council.
One of the Bursdon Moor barrow groups in October 2008, with Lundy Island in the background. The barrows are difficult to see but the one in the centre of the image is most clearly visible as a green low mound covered with gorse. © Stephanie Knight, Devon County Council.
A black and white aerial photograph of four of the barrows in 1985, visible as circular earthwork mounds with dark vegetation growing on them. The one in the bottom right of the image is most difficult to see. The long narrow ridges across the moor are probably a result of nineteenth century land improvement and drainage. © Frances Griffith, Devon County Council, 15th March 1985.
Further information about barrows is available in this Historic England Introduction to Heritage Assets.
Specific information about the barrows at Bursdon is in the National Heritage List summary.
Details about the recent history and condition of the barrows at Bursdon can be found on Heritage Gateway.
Bursdon Moor is an open access area, but it is waterlogged in parts with an uneven ground surface, and is actively farmed including cattle grazing, so please make yourself aware of health and safety considerations and any specific access issues before visiting.
The barrows on Bursdon Moor are considered to be of national importance and have been designated Scheduled Monuments in order to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. It is a criminal offence to cause damage to the monuments. Further information on scheduled monuments is available from Historic England.