Fingerprints of the Clean Up Team - Part Two

Steep-sided conical mounds appeared in 17th Century Britain and America. Most were quickly ploughed under. Mon 03 January 2022

Bartlow Hills, Cambridgeshire in 1776. Steep-sided and conical. But old? Source

Why do historians think neat, steep-sided, conical mounds found in 18th century eastern England are old?

This 1776 engraving claims Cambridgeshire's Bartlow Hills were built by the Danes 750 years earlier:

It says: "Built by Danish King Canute in 1016". Source: Tracery Tales

They don't even look old.

But some time around 1845, Bartlow Hills were relabelled as 'Roman' and therefore were at least 1,400 years old.

On top of the hills were neatly planted young trees. Perhaps they were recently landscaped. But under the mounds were:

extraordinarily rich burials containing a wonderful collection of artistic objects, the best found in Britain

These artistic objects included a folding iron chair and large wooden chests - presumably treated with long-lasting Roman wood preservative. 1845 excavator Richard Neville also found a small Roman villa 100m east of the hills - a villa whose occupation history is surprisingly well understood given what happened next.

What happened next is that the Bartlow Hills artifacts - stored at high aristocracy-owned Easton Lodge, Dunmow, Essex - were all lost in 1918 when the Lodge burned down.

And, when archaeologists re-excavated Neville's Roman villa in 1950, they found no trace of it. Nor could a later excavation in 2007.

In other words, there is no evidence the Bartlow Hills were Danish or Roman. Nor is there any surviving evidence the Romans - or the Danes - sent off their dead with folding iron chairs and preservative-treated wooden chests.

Though a folding iron stool was found in an almost equally suspicious circumstances at Prittlewell Priory, Essex in 2003, along with remains of wooden containers and bronze bowls.

The only evidence provided by Bartlow Hills - and still provided by the three remaining hills - is that they were conical:

The 15m (49ft) high tallest Bartlow hill. Source

An equally confused narrative has been spun around Worm Hill in Fatfield, Tyne & Wear. Before quarrying and erosion, Worm Hill was also conical.

In Historical descriptions of Worm Hill, Audrey Fletcher quotes an 1820 description of Worm Hill from Robert Surtees' History and Antiquities of County Durham Vol 2. The hill was a:

small artificial cone formed of common earth and river gravel.

Despite being "small", when measured 24 years later, Worm Hill was taller than the highest mound at Bartlow Hills. From Local Historian's Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Traditions, Legendary & Descriptive Ballads, Vol 2, Moses Aaron Richardson, 1844, p124, second footnote:

The Worm Hill, near Fatfield, is a considerable oval-shaped hill, 345 yards in circumference, and 52 feet in height

Being 52 feet (16m) high made Worm Hill two metres (6 ft) taller than Bartlow's tallest hill. Which is, according to Wikipedia:

the largest Roman barrow north of the Alps.

Despite its noteworthy height and - eventually - its well-known place in England's serpent folklore, Worm Hill seems to have escaped anyone's notice until after 1610. Says Fletcher:

on earlier maps Worm Hill is not shown. For example: on the 1610 John Speed map, Wardenlawe Hill and Penshaw Hill figure prominently, but there is no sign of Worm Hill.

Wardenlawe Hill and Penshaw Hill dominate the 1610 landscape. Worm Hill is not indicated. Source

If Worm Hill had been mapped, it would have been at the green dot in the map below:

Worm Hill site shown in green.

Fletcher also points out that Worm Hill wasn't documented until Hutchinson described "an eminence" in 1785. And Hutchinson didn't mention Worm Hill's most well-known attribute - its reputation as the home of the Lambton Worm. Nor the equally well-known Lambton Worm-related curse on local landowners, the Lambton family.

In other words, Worm Hill didn't exist in 1610, was "an eminence" by 1785, a "small, conical hill" by 1820, and a 16m (52ft) hill by 1844.

Not surprising, then, that Surtees thought Worm Hill was artificial and that later descriptions apparently describe a hill that was still being built.

Today, Worm Hill is described as a natural glacial deposit left over from the Ice Age.

And this tips us off to the real motive for all the mistakes. First, though, let's get a general sense of the mis-attribution problems visible for other mounds.

  • In late 17th Century south east England, William 'Gulielmo' Stukeley reported passing three Roman tumuli outside the west gate of Sandwich, Kent, followed by six large Celtic mounds near the road south of the town. (See this excerpted version of Itinerarium Curiousum, p126.)

Stukeley doesn't say how he knows who built which mounds. Nor how he knows none of them were Saxon - despite Kent being in the heart of Saxon England and the part of England closest to Saxon territories.

  • In 1825, Rev George Oliver claimed the Saxons and the Danes never settled long enough to build mounds. Describing Grimsby's mounds, Oliver says mounds are British (ie, not Roman, Danish, Saxon or Norman). Unless they're massive, he says, in which case they're Roman. From Monumental Antiquities of Grimsby, Chapter III, pp 20-21:

    we may be almost certain the Britons were settled (in Grimsby); for the Romans threw up few sepulchral mounds, except those of enormous size, 1 which were sometimes raised over the bodies of the slain, after a bloody battle, because they were acquainted with a more magnificent method of honouring their illustrious dead. And the Saxons and Danes did not at any time enjoy sufficient peace and security, to afford them leisure to throw up the gigantic elevations for residence, which are frequently found amidst extensive morasses, in different parts of this kingdom.

  • And in Forty years' researches in British and Saxon burial mounds of East Yorkshire, John Robert Mortimer 2 describes digging out British and Saxon mounds in East Yorkshire. Even though the Saxons didn't settle Yorkshire and the Danes did (the pink Danelaw on the map below)...

Danish versus Saxon settlement in AD 878 England. Source

Stukeley, Oliver and Mortimer seem to have been making it up as they went along. As did Richard Neville at Bartlow; as did whoever sold Worm Hill as Ice Age.

In each case, the mounds are attributed to the oldest possible settlers. Sometimes to the oldest impossible settlers. Failing that, the mound is attributed to the oldest likely natural cause: the Ice Age.

The despite the evidence that at least some mounds still looked new - or were even still being built - in the 17th Century.

Bartlow Hills reveal another oddity of the past, the ability of engravers to produce slightly different engravings of the same subject, despite the laborious effort required for each engraving. Spot the differences:

Source: The Heritage Trust

Source: Tracery Tales

Source: The Lost Byway

As if the three engravings were created from three adjacent frames of an 18th century movie.

The maintenance history of the Bartlow Hills also hints at when they were really built. According to The Heritage Trust, images like the three above show the hills before they were damaged by excavators. How patient England's lords, peasants and many invaders were prior to 1815. That's when the the Busick Harwood excavation started in on the tallest mound. This despite the temptation provided by England's rich folklore of treasures hidden in burial mounds...

Some 80 years or so after the 1776 engraving, Bartlow Hills were just beginning to show their age:

Undated sketch of Bartlow Hills by GN Maynard. Source: Barrows in England and Wales, Leslie V Grinsell, 1979.

After that, things went to pot.

From The Bartlow Burial Mounds:

The surviving mounds became overgrown before they were taken into guardianship by Essex County Council in 1978. The scrub was cleared and fences built for protection.

So that, according to The Heritage Trust, today Bartlow Hills looks like this:

Dark Age peasants and medieval serfs trumped modern machinery. Source: The Bartlow Burial Mounds

So why did Bartlow Hills look so very new - so very neat - in 1776?

Because they were.

Young-looking mounds full of bones also appeared in north America:

Steep sides and approx 50-year old trees. Source: The Giants of Conneaut

This image is probably taken from The Adena People, William S. Webb and Charles E. Snow, and was likely near Conneaut Creek, Ashtabula County, Ohio.

Webb and Snow pointed out that the unusual skulls and skeletons of Adena people buried in American mounds were remarkably similar to the skulls and skeletons of Bell Beaker people buried in European mounds.

UK mound locations.

Approx Conneaut mound location.

© All rights reserved. The original author retains ownership and rights.

  1. Hoare-Wiltshire (says the footnote. It is probably a reference to The History Of Modern Wiltshire, Richard Colt Hoare, 1822.) 

  2. Note: this mound-excavating 'Mortimer' should not be confused with Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who 25 years later fabricated a vast Roman attack on south east England to explain the high body-count found at Maiden Castle, Dorset. On the other hand, perhaps the two Wheelers should be confused. A couple of 'Wheelers' also crop up around the same time - each publishing accounts of the drainage of eastern England's fens that contradict other evidence. 

More in category: The Reformation Was A Reformatting
More by tag: #mounds, #giants