Belas Knap

Cotswold-Severn Cairn (Chambered Long Barrow) - Gloucestershire

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SP 02098 25456 (GPS 15min). False entrance lintel.  Cairn 55m x 18.5m
Visited August 2001

Belas Knap is a chambered long barrow, more specifically a type of monument known as a Cotswold-Severn cairn. As the name implies, these monuments are distributed along both sides of the river Severn with the highest concentration of cairns being found in Gloucestershire. The Cotswold-Severn group is very heterogeneous, having a wide variety of chamber configurations, their one unifying trait being strict adherence to a trapezoidal mound plan. Another common feature is the care taken in the construction of the mound and the high quality dry-stone walling used as revetment. Belas Knap is an excellent example of this monument class and has also been extensively excavated, although the earlier investigations were crude and have been poorly recorded.

Belas Knap stands above the steep slope of Humblebee Woods about 3km south of Winchcombe.  The origin of the name "Belas Knap" is something of a mystery, we have seen various translations based on its derivation from Old English, Latin, and even Egyptian or Babylonian, none of them agree. Whatever the meaning of its name, the huge trapezoid mound is about 55m long, 18.5m at its widest, and about 4m high at the northern end, but virtually all of what is visible at the site today is due to reconstruction by the Ministry of Works during 1929-31. Excavation showed that the mound was originally over 60m long and over 25m at its widest point, the original height can only be guessed at. Also revealed was the presence of lateral quarry ditches, a common feature of Cotswold-Severn cairns, although this feature is difficult to spot from ground level at the site today.

THE FORECOURT

As can be  seen from the diagram above, Belas knap has a forecourt positioned at the northern end of the cairn. The forecourt is funnel-shaped and is impressively walled with high quality dry-stone work. As is common in Cotswold-Severn cairns, it is thought that this stonework formed a revetment that ran around the entire mound periphery. In the centre of the forecourt is a false entrance comprising two upright "portal" stones, a lintel, and a large "blocking" slab. The portals, blocking slab and some of the lower dry-stone work are all original, but the lintel is a modern replacement for the original which was removed in the excavations of 1863-5. Several other laterally chambered Cotswold-Severn cairns have false entrances in the centre of their forecourts, but the example at Belas Knap is one of the most elaborate known. In common with terminally chambered Cotswold-Severn cairns, the forecourts of laterally chamber cairns were filled with blocking material. The blocking at terminally chambered cairns shows signs of being removed and replaced as access to the chambers was required, but the blocking material at laterally chambered cairns usually remains undisturbed after deposition. 

CHAMBER STRUCTURE

The remains of four chambers, B, C, D and E can be seen at the site today, B, C, and D are lateral chambers positioned in the long sides of the cairn and E is let into the tail of the mound at the south. 

Chambers C and D are arranged symmetrically on opposite sides of the cairn and share similar construction. They both have polygonal chambers constructed from orthostats inter-filled with dry-stone work and are just under 2m wide, they are thought to have had corbelled roofs. The chambers were approached from the cairn edge by passages of narrower width constructed of dry-stone walling. Both of the chambers show transverse features which emphasize the transition from passage to chamber, chamber D has a slab set transversely in the northern wall, and chamber C may have had transverse portal stones. Although possibly displaced, the present portal stone candidates in chamber C both show hollowed facing edges and it is possible that they may have formed a "port-hole" entrance to the chamber (1). Port-hole chamber entrances have been found at other laterally chambered Cotswold-Severn cairns, most notably at Rodmarton where both north and south chambers had this feature, and also at Luckington in chambers A and B. The polygonal plan of chambers C and D at Belas Knap is not common in laterally chambered cairns, a rectangular chamber layout being more usual, although some structural distinction between passage and chamber is almost always maintained.

Chamber B has the more usual rectangular plan and has walls of dry-stone walling above low orthostats, the stones being particularly diminutive in the rear section of the chamber. Only 1m across at its widest point, the chamber narrows about halfway along its length, this distinction between inner and outer sections is further reinforced by a transverse slab that projects into the chamber from the northern wall at this point. Unlike chambers C and D, chamber B was roofed with flat slabs, it was approached by a passage constructed of dry-stone walling which had a corbelled roof.

Chamber E is somewhat of a mystery as it has been severely disturbed during early excavations. What is certain, is that the present reconstruction of a straight-sided chamber of dry-stone walling with a single large stone at the rear is incorrect. Drawings of the chamber from the excavations of the 1860's show a polygonal plan similar to chambers C and D, although the chamber and passage seem to have been constructed of dry-stone walling throughout. Another interesting distinction is that the dry-stone revetment of the cairn periphery seems to have continued unbroken across the entrance to this chamber, a feature shared with chamber B. 

A bizarre feature of the restored chambers at Belas Knap today is their roofing. Although the chambers are now roofed with single concrete slabs, this would not have been too bad if the concrete had been textured to look like a stone slab. Unfortunately the restorers have chosen to embed what looks like dry-stone wall elements into the underside of the slabs creating a structurally impossible "crazy-paved" ceiling that could never have existed. Admittedly even stone-textured slabs would have been inaccurate roofing, especially for chambers C and D, but at least they would have had the saving grace of resembling roof structures actually found in megalithic burial chambers.

CAIRN STRUCTURE

The cairn itself was erected with great care and skill, internal walling structures were used in its construction, but again, details of these features revealed in early excavations are vague, Berry (1) writes "The mound was not a mere heap of stones thrown up anyhow. It had very definite structure". It is possible that the cairn was covered or "roofed" with flat slabs that continued above the revetment, an arrangement seen at several other Cotswold-Severn cairns, such as Rodmarton. During the excavations of the 1860's at Belas Knap a trench was dug from just behind the false portal stones down the axis of the mound until it met another trench dug across the cairn beside chambers C and D, at the junction of the trenches was found a circular arrangement of stones. Winterbotham (2) reports that the soil around the stones was "deeply impregnated with wood ashes. The diameter of the circle was about 7ft. No remains of any sort were found near it.".  Belas Knap was re-excavated by W.J.Hemp in 1929 but he could find no trace of this circle, stating "It is certain that they could not have been upright stones planted in the ground" (3). The most intriguing finding from the excavations of 1929-30 comes from Berry (1) who suggests that the chambers were first constructed separately, each with its own individual covering mound, before being incorporated into the larger cairn. This is a very interesting suggestion as Corcoran (4), in his coverage of Cotswold-Severn cairns points out  that "The most common type of chamber in laterally chambered cairns in the region is therefore indistinguishable from a Passage Grave.", which is just what the chambers (particularly C and D), at Belas Knap would have been before their incorporation into the main cairn.

If the chambers did exist as free-standing units before the cairn construction, this may explain some of its unusual features. The forecourt at the majority of Cotswold-Severn cairns is aligned between NE and SE (5), very few are aligned to the north. If pre-existing, the positions of chambers B, C, and D force a N-S axis for the cairn and chamber E rules out the south, leaving only the north as a possibility for the forecourt. The rear of the cairn is angled about 10 degrees from being perpendicular with the long axis of the cairn, it may be that this distortion was necessary to accommodate the existing structure of chamber E.

CLASSIFICATION

A scheme for the classification of Cotswold-Severn cairns was first suggested by Thurnam (6) in 1869, his scheme was later modified by Crawford (7) in 1922, and again by Daniel (5) in 1950. The main distinction in all of the schemes is between terminally and laterally chambered mounds, each scheme then employs analysis of chamber type for sub-categorisation. There can be no doubt about which main category Belas Knap falls into.

FINDS

The main finds at Belas Knap were human bones - lots of them. The first recorded investigation by Winterbotham and Chamberlayne in the spring of 1863 involved the lifting of a large slab at the SE corner of the mound revealing the remains of four skeletons including two skulls. This was probably the remains of chamber B, encouraged by this find the excavators turned their attention to the northern end of the mound and uncovered the magnificent dry-stone forecourt and the false entrance. On removal of the lintel stone of the false entrance the remains of five children and one adult male skull were found in the blocking material. Walter Lawrence joined the team the following spring when chambers C and D were discovered, C held the remains of 12 skeletons and D the remains of 14. Later excavations such as Hemp and Berry's investigations of 1929-30 clarified the picture, and Belas Knap finally yielded the remains of 38 individuals.
An interesting finding in chamber C was of one articulated skeleton near the entrance, whilst the other remains in the chamber were all mixed together in confusing way. Several other Cotswold-Severn tombs have revealed a similar pattern of intact skeletons near the entrance with mixed remains inside, this may be the result of bodies being allowed to de-flesh near the entrance before the redeposit ion of their bones in the chamber. Although the exact nature of  burial rituals practiced in Cotswold-Severn cairns will probably never be fully understood, the remains within the chambers were certainly revisited, manipulated, and added to, over a considerable period of time.
Other finds were sparse, Winterbotham (2) records finding Roman pottery near the false entrance and "a bone scoop, four pieces of rough sun-baked pottery and a few flints" in chamber B. Finds from the 1929-30 excavation were mainly from the extra-revetment material including Roman pottery and "two small Roman bronze coins of late third century date" (1).
Of all of the finds from Belas Knap, it was to be the adult skull from the false entrance area that would cause the most debate.

THE MYSTERY OF THE SKULLS

 One of the visitors to the 1860's excavation was John Thurnam, the superintendent of the Wiltshire County Asylum who had a keen interest in the study of the proportions of human skulls - craniology. Thurnam had examined many skulls found in prehistoric barrows and had noticed a sharp distinction between the skulls found in round barrows and those from long barrows. He found that the skulls divided into two types, long narrow skulls from the Neolithic and broad rounded skulls from the Bronze Age. These findings prompted him to coin his famous saying, "long barrows, long skulls; round barrows, round skulls". Thurnam was not imagining things, as recently as the 1990's the evidence has been extensively reexamined and the shape distinction between the skulls of the two time periods was confirmed.
Thurnam was given 17 skulls from Belas Knap to study, this was then the largest number recovered from a chambered long barrow. When he examined the skulls he came across an anomaly that challenged his theory - one of the skulls was of the round type. The single adult male skull found in the blocking material of the false entrance had all of the characteristics of the broad rounded brachycephalic skulls usually found only in Bronze Age round barrows. The finding caused much debate, there were suggestions that the round skull was a secondary burial, a reuse of the monument in later times, but eventually it was decided that the man was of different tribe to the long barrow constructors and that he had been captured and sacrificed in honour of the long-skulled people buried in the chambers. Even as late as 1936 Grinsell (8), described the round skull as being that of a Beaker man who strayed into a Neolithic area and was executed, his severed head being buried at the tomb's false entrance.
More modern ideas reverted to the secondary burial theory, as excavations at several Cotswold-Severn cairns had found Beaker pottery in the upper parts of mounds and also around the forecourt areas.
Finally, samples of bone from Belas Knap were subjected to radiocarbon dating, the results spanned the range 4000 to 3700BC, this was in good agreement with findings from other Cotswold-Severn cairns. The result for round-shaped skull lay in the middle of the range for the other samples, it was definitely contemporary with the long-skull remains, and more than a thousand years younger than the round skulls from Bronze Age round barrows.

So today we are left with new puzzles, were there two groups of long and round skull people co-existing in the Neolithic? If so, why do we only find long headed skulls in long barrows? Was the Neolithic round head skull a one-off deformity? Were the long-headed Neolithic natives replaced by an influx of round-headed metal-using Beaker People from Europe?

VISITING

The barrow is in the care of English Heritage and is open at all reasonable times, it can be approached from the minor road that runs between Charlton Abbots and Winchcombe, but it is a very steep climb up from the road. There is a track running to the west of the site that has a footpath leading to the barrow, this is a level walk but the track is unsurfaced and may not be suitable for some vehicles.
As we mention above, most of what is visible at Belas Knap today is pure restoration, but we felt that the barrow still had a strong atmosphere, despite the constant rain during our visit. If you want to visit a good example of a laterally chambered Cotswold-Severn cairn, this is it.

1. Berry J. Trans. Bristol & Gloucestershire Arch. Soc. 52, p123-50 1930.
2. Winterbotham L. Proc.Soc. Antiquaries London, 2nd ser., 3, p279 1864-7.
3. Hemp W.J. Trans. Bristol & Gloucestershire Arch. Soc. 51, p261-72 1929.
4. Corcoran J.X.W.P., in Megalithic Enquiries in the West of Britain, (Powell T.G.E. ed.) p61 1969 Liverpool University Press.
5. Daniel G.E., The Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, p80 1950 Cambridge University Press.
6. Thurnam J., Archaeologica 42, p161-244 1869. 
7. Crawford O.G.S., "The Cotswolds and Welsh Marches", O.S. Prof. Paper No.6 1922.
8. Grinsell L.V., The Ancient Burial Mounds of England, 1936 Methuen London.

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