This week we travelled to Gloucestershire to do a workshop in Yate. We took this opportunity to visit one of what we think is one of the best named archaeological sites in Britain – Hetty Pegler’s Tump. It has been on the list of places to visit since I first heard of it back in the 1990’s. So, how did it get that name and what exactly is Hetty Pegler’s Tump?
So what’s in a name?
The short answers are firstly, that Hetty Pegler’s Tump named after the Hester Pegler a former landowner who lived in the 17th century. A more modern, and we think somewhat less splendid name, is Uley Long Barrow, named after the nearby village. The second answer is that it is a Neolithic long barrow. These were tombs built in the Neolithic or New Stone Age. The first such tombs appeared in Britain in the decades around 3900 BC. A slightly longer answer is that it’s a megalithic chambered tomb of what archaeologists call the Cotswold-Severn tradition.
How does Hetty Pegler’s Tump fit in the Cotswold-Severn tradition?
Archaeologists are human. They like order and classifying archaeological sites or material is one way of creating order. We seek patterns in our world, and early archaeologists, we call them antiquarians, began to see patterns in the distribution of particular sites. Simply put, they are found within the geographic region of the Severn Valley and the Cotswolds. This region stretches from the Gower peninsula in the west, to Oxfordshire in the east. As you can imagine, this allows for some variability. For instance, they range in length from 27m at Nympsfield to over 100m at West Kennet.
Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University writes in detail about the tombs Cotswold-Severn tradition* and includes a distribution map and a plan of Hetty Pegler’s Tump. Just click on the images to enlarge them.
So, given the variations what Darvill considers the ‘core features’ or characteristics to be are:
- The presence of a stone or rubble cairn and forecourt.
- A monumental aspect beyond burial. The burial chambers are typically less than 5% of the whole monument.
- The material for the cairn is quarried close-by, often forming ditches along the length of the mound.
- Often preceded by timber structures on the same site.
- Burials were ‘collective’ and placed in chambers over time.
- Aligned on an east-west orientation.
You can see from the plan that Hetty Pegler’s Tump is approximately 37m long and has a cairn at the ‘business end’ which is a small proportion of the whole monument. You can also see the chambers and this is an example of what archaeologist call a ‘transepted passage grave’. Put more simply, a number of small chambers located off a central passage. In this case there were originally five such chambers, but two were destroyed in the past, by whom we don’t know.
When was it built and how long was it used for?
For a long time archaeologists had only a hazy idea of when tombs like Hetty Pegler’s Tump were built and used. They had to rely on the similarity of sites and the associations of artefacts for example, to determine if sites were of a similar date. This was called ‘relative dating’. As you can imagine, it wasn’t too accurate. Then in 1949 an American researcher published results of the first use of radiocarbon dating.
The development of radiocarbon dating revolutionised our understanding of long tombs and other sites. Radiocarbon dating has shown that the Cotswold-Severn tombs that have been dated so far, began to appear around 3800 BC, so within the first 200 years of the Neolithic or New Stone Age. They appear to go out of use in the decades either side of 2300 BC, so they were in active use for some 1,500 years!
Excavating Hetty Pegler’s Tump
Early excavations of the barrow were carried out by a Dr Fry in 1821 and in 1854 by Dr Thurnam and Professor E.A. Freeman in 1854. Dr Fry’s excavations revealed human skeletons in two locations. Firstly, there were two found in the blocked entrance. Secondly, there were more in the chambers and entrance passage – not to be confused with the blocked entrance! The entrance passage contained two crouched burials, the eastern chamber contained four burials and some pottery. A single burial in the western chamber had more Neolithic pottery and there were two more burials in the from the north-eastern chamber). A much later, Roman burial, was also found, and this had been cut into the mound above the north-eastern chamber. In total that’s 13 Neolithic burials. In addition to this some wild boar jaw bones were discovered in the blocked area.
These early archaeologists had very different ideas about excavation and what was considered to be ‘useful’ information. They were rarely interested in the stratigraphy of a site, which tells modern archaeologists so much about the sequence on construction for example. Nor were they too concerned with how they left a site. In the image on the right the various hollows are the remains of these earlier excavations.
The latest excavations of Hetty Pegler’s Tump took place in 2010/11 and you can get the report here. It is quite technical, but it does have some good images of the excavated chambers! If that’s too much for you, a short summary is next.
The 2010/11 excavation
Much of the work undertaken in 2010/11 was to consolidate the monument after years of neglect and further vandalism. As a result, archaeologists were able to examine both disturbed and undisturbed contexts or layers. Several pieces of Early Neolithic pottery were found, but these came from the backfill of earlier excavations. As you might imagine, there was also some ‘modern rubbish’, although modern is a relative term. Among the items found were tea-lights, batteries, bottle glass and pencil graphite!
Almost a hundred pieces of human bone were recovered from the disturbed layers. Although no whole skeleton was found, these allowed the osteoarchaeologist to state that there were bones from at least four individuals – three adults and an adolescent. There was evidence of some disease on several of the bone fragments. It was not possible to identify an individual male or female, but it using a sample of ten bones was possible to estimate the heights of people. The range of estimated heights was from 154cm (5 feet ½ inches) to 173cm (5 feet 8 inches) (SD = 6.69). This gave a mean estimate of height as 167cm (5 feet 5 ½ inches) and such a wide range in estimates suggested that both males and females were buried there.
More interesting was some of the environmental data and during the work samples of soil from undisturbed areas were taken and analysed for their pollen content. This analysis showed the presence of both Neolithic and pre-Neolithic pollen. Dominating the samples was Hazel, and several hazelnut shells were recovered. The pre-tomb environment was a mature hazel-dominated woodland. In addition to the Hazel, there was pollen from Alder and Lime with fewer amounts of ‘herbaceous vegetation’ including just a single cereal pollen grain. On it’s own it can only suggest that in the Neolithic there was the beginnings of cultivation after initial forest clearance. This is very much the picture found at other Cotswold-Severn tombs such a Hazelton North.
On it’s own a hazelnut shell might not sound thrilling, but it was important as it allowed the team to radiocarbon date it. The shell returned a date in the earlier 5th millennium BC (Late Mesolithic), indicating some pre-Neolithic activity as has been shown under other Cotswold long barrows. Also tested were two of the redeposited human bones. The gave dates in the mid 4th millennium BC (c3500 BC) which places them in the Earlier Neolithic. So in addition to the environmental samples, the bones also show that Hetty Pegler’s Tump conforms to the wider picture of the date of use of these monuments.
The wonderfully named Hetty Pegler’s Tump you see today is a partially restored Neolithic tomb. It has sat on the crest of a ridge overlooking the dales to the north of it for over 5,000 years. It was the burial place of at least 13 people, including men, women and adolescents. Despite the ravages of time, vandals and ‘archaeologists’ it is still there to tell us something of life and death many thousands of years ago. Some people today experience the site as a spiritual, and imbue it with symbolic power. Others just visit for the view. Whatever you believe, it is well worth a visit to this most impressive Stone Age monument.
*Darvill, T.C., 1982. The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region . Highworth: Vorda
Darvill, T.C., 2004. Long Barrows of the Cotswolds and surrounding Areas. Stroud: Tempus.