On Tumuli near Guildford, Surrey

The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum holds a series of manuscript and archival materials relating to General Pitt-Rivers. Among these is an unpublished account of his excavations of six Saxon barrows at Merrow Down in October 1876, and of two Bronze Age barrows at Whitmore Common in May 1877 - all of which are located near Guildford in Surrey. The manuscript is titled 'On Tumuli near Guildford' (P40). A transcription of this manuscript by the project team is posted below. Clearly drafted for publication, it vividly describes the excavations, and the recovery of a Saxon knife which survives in the Pitt Rivers Museum today. Written in the General's own hand, this previously unpublished paper also reflects on the changes in practices of cremation and burial during the early medieval period. Pitt-Rivers lived at Guildford between 1874 and 1878. He delivered a version of this paper at the 47th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Plymouth in August 1877. A precis was published in the Report for that meeting in (Lane Fox 1878), and a summary of this manuscript was published by Saunders (1980).

'On Tumuli Near Guildford' by Colonel Augustus Lane Fox
Whitmoor Common
'Col A Lane Fox first described a British tumulus opened by him upon Whitmoor Common near Guildford on the 16th and 17th May 1877 with permission of the landowner Lord Onslow. It was situated on the south-east side of the common near the railway bridge, and a cart road from the village of Worplesdon passed over the lower portion of the tumulus.  The Tumulus was of low elevation, being not more than 2ft in height above the surface and about 37 feet in diameter. Trenches were dug simultaneously from the north and the south, and of sufficient width to embrace the whole mound. 

'The natural soil was defined by hard clay distinguishing it from the natural of the mound, which was of a sandy nature.  No grave was found beneath this level, and it was evident that the actual interment whether burnt or not must have been placed on the surface of the ground and then [illegible] and [illegible] over it, but no trace of it remained.  Near the centre lower in the body of the mound, 3 British Urns were found at a distance of 3 to 4 feet from each other, each containing burnt bones. The urns had all been put in with the mouth down, and the tops on so that the proper bottoms of the urns were so near the surface that that they were all more or less broken by the traffic over the mound, and by which it had no doubt been considerably reduced from it original height.

Eric Gardner's 1924 account of 'The Bronze Age Urns of Surrey' reproduced two plans and sections (reproduced above) of the barrow excavations at Whitmore Common, prepared for publication by Pitt-Rivers but not published at the time. Gardner reported that 'though General Pitt-Rivers never published any account of his excavation on Whitmore Common, he undoubtedly intended to, and a carefully prepared plan was made and a proof printed. By an amazing piece of good fortune, this proof came into the hands of Mr Frank Lasham of Guildford, who obtained it from one of Pitt-Rivers' assistants many years ago. He has kindly allowed it to be reproduced' (Gardner 1924: 29).

'The largest urn was in the centre. It was 1 foot 5 inches in height and 4 feet in circumference, somewhat of a barrel shape, and ornamental with a raised band all round at about 6 inches from the rim.  The other two were smaller, being 10 inches in height and 8 inches in diameter. One of these was ornamental with 5 raised bosses a few inches below the rim. The natural of all three was of an extremely coarse kind, badly baked, and interspersed with minute fragments of some pieces of white shell.  One of the small ones was got out mostly perfect but the others broke into fragments, and can with difficulty be repaired. Sketches of them however were taken whilst they were in situ showing their exact position before they were taken out. 

'It is evident that this was a British Barrow of the Bronze Age. Probably the urns contained secondary interments but it is just possible from the fact of the large urn having been in the centre that it may have been the original interment for which the barrow was erected. 

'The floor was dug throughout the cutting for some distance in search of an actual grave but none was found.  The section across the centre showed first a layer of one foot of blackish peat, then one foot of yellow sand, & below that the clayey floor.

'It is here notable that all the fragments of broken flint were found here and there which did not belong to the soil. No trace of a flake or bulb of percussion was found on any of them.  This shows that the practice of throwing flakes onto the mound, though very usual in interments of this age, was not universal. Slightly different customs no doubt prevailed in different localities, and this is more reasonable than to suppose that this tumulus belonged to an age when this custom had died out; because there is good reason to believe from excavations of the Roman age lately made at both Seaford and Hardham in Sussex that the practice of putting flakes with the grave continued amongst the Romanised Britons.

'Close to this, on the same Common, Col. Fox opened another tumulus much smaller, not any more than 18 feet in diameter, and one foot three inches in height.  No central grave was found beneath this but a layer of black soil probably the result of fire was discovered further beneath the surface, and in the centre a small hole was clearly seen in the smooth sandy section not more than 2 feet from the tumulus and about the same diameter. 
There, no doubt, a burnt body had been deposited but no trace of the bones remained.  The sand of this district, admitting the rainwater freely, is very unfavourable with preservation of bone especially so close to the surface.  Here above the line of black mould numerous fragments of charcoal were discovered and an immense quantity of burnt but no trace of a flake or implement of any kind. 

Merrow Down
'Col. Fox then described six tumuli which he opened on Merrow Down, 3 miles to the south of the former locality, accurate sections of which were exhibited. Four of them were in a cluster on the top of the hill just south of Level’s Dean. They were so small that they had never been noticed as tumuli, and Col. Fox was himself in doubt when he commenced whether they would turn out to be graves.  The first was 24 feet in diameter & one foot three in height. The section clearly shows the process that had taken place: a hole 2 foot in diameter had been dug in the green sward about 15 inches deep, at the bottom of it beneath the surface mould which is 10 inches thick, and extended 5 inches into the chalk beneath.

'Then the body – which had been burnt elsewhere, for no trace of charcoal or burning was found here – had been brought and deposited in the hole with earth, the numerous fragments of a burnt body being found just about the top of the hole. Then the tumulus was raised over the interment.  This was the norm but the practice differed even in the same cluster of tumuli.  The second was 33 feet to the west of the first. It was 11 feet in diameter and only 8 inches [in] greatest height – in fact scarcely perceptible, but a green spot of grass in the centre showed that there was something unusual in the soil beneath. In fact, immediately the turf was removed burnt earth for a space of four feet in diameter was found beneath, and a burnt body one foot beneath the top.  There was no trace of a hole here, but the burnt bones were an inch or two beneath the natural surface. If the hole did not extend into the chalk it would not be perceived in the section.  This body must either have been burnt on the spot or the burnt earth must have been brought with the body and interred with it.  There was no object in culture of these two graves to denote the age of the burials or the people by whom they were made.

'The third tumulus of the cluster was the most important of the cluster because it determined the date of the whole. It was 50 feet to the NW of the last, 13 feet in diameter, and one foot [in] greatest height.  It had a green spot of grass in the centre.  Like the last, immediately on removing the turf, black earth was found as before in a circle of 4 feet diameter. A small flint core and a flint chip lay under the turf, but this may have been accidental.  In the black earth was a quantity of charcoal which had not been found in the other tumuli. Two or three pieces of burnt bone – the remains of a body that had decayed – were found in this black mould, and on the same level (5 inches from the top, and 2 feet to the west of the centre) an iron Saxon knife 6 inches long – including the tang of 1½ inch, and ¾ inch [in] greatest breadth. This iron knife is of the well known Saxon type, not altogether unlike a pen knife in form, & having near the back the groove, which is so well known in connection with Saxon weapons. It determines the whole cluster to be of the pagan Saxon period, before their conversion to Christianity when they ceased to burn their dead, and began to bury extended in the usual Christian fashion.  It was evident that this body was burnt on the spot as beneath the black earth and charcoal was found a seam of red burnt earth where the fire had been. 

The knife described by Pitt-Rivers survives in the Pitt Rivers Museum today (Accession Number 1884.121.11), and is illustrated above

'Three other tumuli were opened close by. They were of the same form but nothing was found in them.  It is evident however from their unusually small size & the similarity of the contents of those which had any, that the iron knife determines the age of the whole group.  It is not often that in connection with tumuli we are able to answer the question so often put to us determine their date in years.  Here however we can’t be far wrong in saying that the interments were made between the years 500 & 600 Anno Domini, that is landing of Hengest in 477 and the conversions of Augustine in 597.  Probably the first and only important change of habits which accompanied these events was their alteration in the mode of burial. There is good reason for supposing that cremation was actively abandoned at this time.'

Transcribed by Judith White and edited by Dan Hicks. From Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Pitt-Rivers manuscripts, item P40.

References & Further Reading

Gardner, E. 1924 Bronze Age urns of Surrey. Surrey Archaeological Collections 35: 1-29.
Lane Fox, A.H. 1877. On some Saxon and British Tumuli near Guildford. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 116-117.
Saunders, P.R. 1980. Saxon Barrows excavated by General Pitt Rivers on Merrow Down, Guildford. Surrey Archaeological Collections 72: 69-75.

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