West Kennet Long Barrow is situated just south of Avebury in Wiltshire, today offering views of the great Avebury henge, the Sanctuary and Silbury Hill. None of these monuments were present when the barrow was built, although likely the locations already had special significance.
The barrow was built around 3650BC, and comprises five chambers around a central passage, all built of sarsen stone and drystone walling, covered in a vast mound of rubble and turf, 104 metres long.
Like many other long barrows such as Wayland’s Smithy, it is not especially prominent and doesn’t appear to have been designed to draw the attention, respect and admiration of human observers, as later Bronze Age barrows were. It seems more about commanding a view of the land, probably the land the entombed people lived on and farmed, and continued to offer their guidance and guardianship after death.
It seems the barrow was used for little more than a generation – perhaps the ‘founding fathers’ of this farming community – and then the entrance was sealed with the huge sarsen stones seen today. The remains of thirty six men, women and children were excavated. Bones and cremated remains were occasionally added over the next thousand years by removing the roof slabs.
Inside the barrow
The barrow was far more than a tomb. It was a place for the living as well as the dead, and some interesting research has been done into the acoustics of the chambers. Many long barrows of the Cotswold-Severn area were built to similar proportions, incorporating a 4:3 ratio into the chambers, which produces a particular musical resonance when singing or chanting. Infrasound – sound too low for human ears to hear – is also produced by the resonance inside the chambers, and this produces unsettling effects such as the feeling of an unseen presence, a sense of panic and danger, and glimpses of movement. This would all contribute to the feeling of the presence of the ancestor spirits around the living.
Around 2200BC, the chambers were filled with chalk rubble and the monument abandoned. This time period reflects the arrival of bronze in Britain and a cultural upheaval which saw the abandonment of the old monuments and a surge in the building of new monuments such as stone circles.
But the old ways were never forgotten. Coins dating to the Roman period have been found inserted into the mound, perhaps offerings to millennia-old spirits whose presence was still uneasily felt.