Researchers from University of Leicester Archaeological Services have recently completed work on the results of three closely related Bronze Age round barrows excavated at Cossington, Leicestershire and show how the ancient cemetery was reused by successive communities.

Their excavations revealed a variety of burial practices from Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon times. They offer the first definite example of an Anglo Saxon cemetery sited on an earlier monument to be found in Leicestershire.

One of the barrows included the crouched burial of a child of around eight years, who lay with grave offerings including two pots, a stone bowl and three flint knives. One of the knives had been made from a much earlier object, perhaps making a physical link to past ‘ancestors.’

The research project, funded by English Heritage through the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, has brought together the results of three separate excavations undertaken in advance of gravel extraction at Cossington Quarry.

The three barrows form part of a small cemetery located at the confluence of the Rivers Soar and Wreake. This may have been an important location where Bronze Age people met up at certain times of the year to trade, foster relationships, forge alliances and swap stories. The formation of the cemetery is likely to have been due to the importance of this part of the landscape to the people who lived in it.

John Thomas explained the significance of the finds: “The three barrows are likely to have been built as community projects, with different families pooling resources to create monuments for wider kinship use. Evidence for the careful maintenance and re-building of the barrows shows that they were not built for single use, but had a long history and were used and re-used many times.

“A cremation burial close to the child’s grave also had broken pieces of Beaker style pottery that must have been quite ancient even before they were placed in the grave so it is possible that these were also treated as a link to the past – almost as heirlooms or antiques – with ancestral connections.

“Another burial, probably of a woman, was accompanied by a remarkable composite bead necklace. This was made of jet, shale, amber and faience beads and is a remarkable find for the region. Although the sandy soils had destroyed the bone evidence, the necklace still lay in the order that the beads had been strung, allowing it to be reconstructed.

“It is thought that such necklaces, fairly common in burials from the Wessex area, were made at the graveside from beads taken from other necklaces before being buried with the deceased. In this way they can also be seen as having been charged with the power of the ancestors, as well as giving a link to the wider family network to which the deceased belonged.

“The style of the necklace (associated with Wessex) and the origins of the material for the original beads also show links with wider areas, perhaps through trade or other social networks.”

“After their original period of use the three barrows continued to attract attention. A small cremation cemetery developed on the edge of one of the barrows, which probably represented the burial ground of a single family group. The location of the burials suggests that this family wished to be associated with the barrow and those buried in it.

“Later still, one of the barrows, which survived as a low earthwork mound, apparently became a meeting place for people making flint tools. They left over a thousand waste pieces behind, suggesting that this was a regular meeting spot.”

The earthwork monument also became the focus for activity during much later periods. In the Iron Age a settlement grew nearby and the significance of the barrow is shown by a number of pots (perhaps once containing offerings) that were buried in the barrow mound. This practice continued into the Roman period when more whole pots were buried.

Finally the barrow mound became the setting for a small Anglo-Saxon cemetery. This association between Saxon burials and earlier monuments is a recognised phenomenon nationally but the first definite example from Leicestershire. No bone survived but iron spears, knives, buckles and brooches indicated that at least five people had been buried there. A small settlement also existed nearby.

John Thomas added: “The re-use of the barrow by Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon people is very interesting. These people could not have had any knowledge of the original use and meaning attached to the monument – but it survived as a prominent landmark in a fairly flat landscape and became the focus for settlement in these periods. It was perhaps imagined to contain the ancestral spirits of the land and by associating themselves with the long dead, the living could make claims to be their successors and heirs – giving them a ‘right’ to live there.

“The results of this project have shown how the three barrows were used repeatedly, resulting in a long history and providing a remarkable insight into how these burial monuments were used by local communities living in the surrounding landscape.

“Rather than seeing these barrows as single use monuments it is clear that through their repeated use they became rich in memory and myth, even during the Early Bronze Age, and that their significance endured, influencing later settlers wishing to stake a claim on the surrounding landscape.”

The findings have been published in Monument, Memory, and Myth, by University of Leicester archaeologist John Thomas, offering an important addition to understanding how burial monuments were used, not only by the people who built them in the Bronze Age, but also by later generations living close to the monuments.