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Vectis Archaeological Trust

Image of settlement barrow
How a funeral may have looked at Michael Morey's Hump
painted by Mike Codd

Early Bronze Age barrow burial on Arreton Down:
an Isle of Wight archaeological site re-visited

David Tomalin


Latitude: 50.6841 / 50°41'2"N
Longitude: -1.2432 / 1°14'35"W
OS Eastings: 453560.35241
OS Northings: 87436.015279
OS Grid: SZ535874
Map code National: GBR 9D3.4HH
Map code Global: FRA 8788.KGV
Entry Name: Bowl barrow known as Michael Morey's Hump,
and a Highway Commission barrier on Gallows Hill
Scheduled Date: 6 September 1954
Last Amended: 28 February 1995
Source: Historic England
Source ID: 1010008
English Heritage Legacy ID: 22025
County: Isle of Wight
Civil Parish: Arreton
Traditional County:Hampshire
Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Isle of Wight
Church of England Parish: Arreton St George
Church of England Diocese: Portsmouth

Here is a summary account of an unusual round barrow excavated more than sixty years ago on Arreton Down. In 1956 this excavation was truly a model of its kind, surpassing less thorough investigations of earlier times. This was a full excavation by the quadrant method, fully stripping the entire burial site. Three circular configurations of post-holes were exposed in this excavation. These were promptly compared with barrows in Holland where evidence of this kind had been better preserved. Within a year, the Arreton post-holes had prompted a review of British evidence by Paul Ashbee. This brief retrospection of the Arreton barrow offers no more than some summary thoughts on what was uncovered in 1956 and how some features, particularly the ‘inner circle’ deserve review today. It is also an invitation to everyone to examine the original report published in 1960 in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 26, 263-302.

The barrows on Arreton Down
Aerial photography suggests that there were once some four hundred Early Bronze Age round barrows on the Isle of Wight. Most are strung out along the central chalk spine of the island. Today, only about five are thought to be intact. In 1956 there were just two to be seen on Arreton Down. These can still be seen some 200 metres east of the Chequers pub, on the south side of the downland road leading to Ryde and Brading (SZ.535 874). A century or so earlier there appears to have been at least three barrows at this spot.

In 1956 the western barrow on Arreton Down was so near the face of the active chalk quarry that a rescue excavation was carried out by the University of Cambridge on behalf of the Ministry of Works. Unlike its prominent neighbour, known as Michal Morey’s Hump, this was no more than a low circular mound riddled with rabbit burrows. This mound had endured a very long history of damage, culminating in explosives during World War II and the cutting of military training trenches.

After the excavation was completed, it was determined by the local Planning Authority that quarrying was not permitted any closer to the hilltop road. This finally reprieved the barrow from destruction, and its low mound was then summarily ‘re-heaped’, rather than restored. Today both barrows here are protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments on an area of old chalk grassland that is now a ‘site of special scientific interest’ (SSSI).

After the excavation team had carefully stripped the remaining mound down to chalk bedrock, a remarkable archaeological legacy was revealed. Here we describe the barrow’s story in successive phases.

Late Neolithic activity on Arreton Down
During phase 1, a Late Neolithic community had been active at this spot. The surviving evidence was a scatter of broken pottery. Later, when soil and turf were sought by the barrow builders, these fragments were scraped up and incorporated into their burial mound. No sherds were of sufficient size to enable reconstruction, but sufficient survived to show that they had been mostly decorated with cord or whipped cord impressions characteristic of the ‘Peterborough’ potting tradition. All three sub-styles of ‘Ebbsfleet’, ‘Mortlake’ and ‘Fengate’ could be recognised. Fired at a low temperature, pots of this kind can have a short life after breakage, when rain and frost can soon reduce them to crumbs. In this case the sherds seem to have escaped this fate by being shovelled into the structure of the burial mound.

Fig 1: Decorated Neolithic bowls
Fig. 1. Some distinctive rim sherds of decorated Neolithic bowls of the Peterborough ceramic tradition. These were derived items, re-deposited in the earthen mass of the barrow mound. The favoured decoration on these pots was maggot-like impressions produced with short lengths of whipped cord, and twisted cord. Sherds P9, P10 and P13 have been shaped in the Ebbsfleet style of this pottery tradition. Sherd P14, with it traces of pits in its neck, accords with the Mortlake style. Some 350 sherds were recovered.

Death and remembrance in Wight’s Early Bronze Age
In phase 2, a great deal of the activity had begun on the Down. Some thirty-two post-holes were dug into the chalk sub-surface. Posts were then inserted in a slightly distorted circle that was approximately 5.5 metres in diameter. The holes were suited to posts varying from 7-10cm in diameter, mostly set some 0.46m apart. In 1956 these holes were generally thought to be traces of a simple post circle. At that time, archaeologists had yet to consider what else such a circle might be.

Today, the purpose of the posts may still be debated although we now know that their size and spacing is well suited ton the wall of a wattle constructed roundhouse. Inside the circle, no traces of occupation could be found and the most persuasive suggestion is a ‘house of the dead’. Moreover, another funerary roundhouse of this kind has since been discovered under another hilltop round barrow on the Isle of Wight.

Early Bronze Age round barrow
Fig, 2. After the Early Bronze Age round barrow on Arreton Down had been stripped to chalk bedrock, a complex of post-holes was revealed. In this picture, taken in 1956, we see the central grave marked by a ranging rod. This is surrounded by a circle of 32 post-holes then marked by short modern posts. To the left there are taller posts demarcating a ‘courtyard’ in front of the house. The outermost posts follow the inner edge of the barrow ditch and appear to be associated with the raising of the mound. This view looks east with Michal Morey’s Hump to the left.

Picture 3
Fig. 3. The post-hole complex beneath the round barrow on Arreton Down. The orange outline, we suggest, represents a mortuary house with an enclosed forecourt. The green circuit of posts follows the limit the barrow mound that replaced the house.

The primary inhumation burial: a woman of status
At Arreton, the roundhouse still retained an occupant. This was a middle-aged woman who had once been laid to rest in a chalk-cut grave at the centre of the house. Unfortunately her bones had been hopelessly scattered by medieval treasure seekers.

In the disturbed back-fill of the grave, just one of her possessions survived. This was a tiny turquoise faience bead. This delicate segmented tube had been created at a very high temperature by melting glass sand with copper salts. This technique appears to have been a by-product of early bronze-smelting technology. When these beads have been found elsewhere, their context has been generally dated around 1300 BC (BCE), a suitable date for this burial.

Fig 4: Posts of the mortuary house.
Fig. 4. The posts of the mortuary house from the east with the primary grave of the high-status woman at centre. The course of the barrow’s outer ditch can also be seen.

Posts, pits and structures
In its completed state, it is evident that the roundhouse was provided with an enclosed ‘yard’ or forecourt requiring the erection of some forty more posts. These post-holes were slightly larger, ranging from 9 to 14cm in diameter, perhaps intended to gain greater height. An obvious gap marked an entranceway. The twin structures of house and forecourt may have remained standing for some time, perhaps while offerings were deposited in the house, or simply until the wood construction eventually became unstable. The clean vertical condition of the post-holes suggested to the excavators that the posts had eventually been withdrawn, rather than left to rot or topple.

Perched on this hilltop, this structure was certainly in a very exposed position and could become unstable after a few winters of high winds. When respecting the dead, an organised dismantling of the funerary house would seem appropriate before the monument entered its next stage of development.

Raising a cairn
It seems possible that the roundhouse and its enclosed forecourt may have been left standing until a sufficient workforce could be assembled to carry out the next stage of barrow construction. This might well depend on the timing and completion of all of the essential agricultural tasks that would seasonally challenge a small community. Postponement might also be controlled by generational considerations when other deaths might be awaited.

After the removal of the wooden structure, the next step was to raise a flint cairn. A great heap of heavy flint nodules offered an ideal way of converting this burial into a truly lasting monument. It seems possible that the cairn could have grown over several years, with flints being gathered from the community’s agricultural plots. Some three millennia later, a similar practice of occurred when gathered flint was needed for the construction of some of the Wight’s medieval churches.

Like churchyard memorials and hilltop obelisks, it would by be easy for the size of a cairn to be considered an explicit expression of status. Unfortunately, the quantity and volume of flint nodules gathered for this cairn remains unknown. In 1815, labourers for the local Turnpike Commission dug into the barrow to remove as many flints as possible for metalling the new Newport to Brading highway.

In 1956, the excavators found only minor remnants of the flint cairn, but where these can be seen on the excavators’ drawn cross-section (Y’-Y”) they might accord with a cairn some 10 to 12 metres in diameter and perhaps up to 2 metres high. This would be sufficient to fully cover the remains of the funerary roundhouse but little else.

Fig 5: Cross-section through the site of the mortuary house
Fig. 5. The 1956 cross-section through the site of the mortuary house showing the position of primary burial and remnants of the robbed out flint cairn. The conjectured profile of the cairn has been added. The house posts were not shown.

If left too long, an unattended cairn can be overrun by nettles and roots, presenting nothing but an image of abandonment and decay. On the other hand, a maintained or growing cairn could offer enough time for further appropriate burials to be added, before sealing the entire monument with a final mound.

More people come to rest
At least three more burials seem to have been added to this monument before, during or after the building of the cairn. All were cremations. Within the south-west perimeter of the barrow two short crescentic pits were cut into the chalk bedrock. These formed a symmetrical U-shaped bracket around a flat surface bearing a ‘conical mass of cremated bone’. These bone fragments were those of an adult male whose small bronze knife-dagger was found some 60cm away on the edge of the crescentic ditch. Close by was a bone belt-hook that was presumably associated with the carrying of the knife. The excavators noted a soil stain left by the decay of the knife handle but no photograph or drawing seems to have survived.

Fig 6: Bone belt-hook
Fig. 6. Bone belt-hook found close to cremation burial 1 in the Arreton Down round barrow; seen here on a 50 pence coin of 1971.

In the 1960 report, the whole of this feature was considered to be a secondary insertion into the side of the barrow. These bracketing pits cut into the bedrock chalk now seem difficult to reconcile with a burial party digging its way into the side of the mound. In this review we consider the possibility that cremation 1 and its bracketing pits were added during or after the construction of the cairn and before the raising of the mound. The same possibility applies to cremation 2 that was deposited in very close proximity to cremation 1. In this case its context had been virtually obliterated by rabbits.

Fig 7: Proximity of the adult cremations burials
Fig. 7. The proximity of the adult cremations burials to the primary grave of the Arreton Down woman. Both men were buried with daggers, shown here in green.Fig. 7. The proximity of the adult cremations burials to the primary grave of the Arreton Down woman. Both men were buried with daggers, shown here in green.

The pathology report on these two cremations considered both adult to be males, an independent conclusion that sits very well with their individual possession of a dagger. There remains, however, the excavators’ observation that a perceptible pit passed through the denuded the mound material above cremation 1, of which just 30cm remained. With no other information we can question this observation little further. Nevertheless we are left to wonder whether the ‘fill’ of this poorly defined pit may have been grave-marking earth heaped up shortly before the building of the barrow mound.

Fig 8: Replica of the bronze dagger
Fig. 8. Replica of the bronze dagger found close to cremation burial 1 in the Arreton Down round barrow. This was cast in 2014 by Neil Burridge. The whereabouts of the original is unknown.

The ‘stake lines
In addition to the encircling post-holes under the barrow, two principal alignments of post-holes were described as ‘stake lines’. The longer line comprised sixteen holes set north to south across the enclosure annexed to the funerary roundhouse (alignment SLA on plan). With its northern end intercepting the outer ring of posts, it seems that this was probably added after the withdrawal of the posts of the house and its annexed enclosure. As the holes were the same size as the inner configuration, perhaps the earlier posts were simply re-used.

The second alignment appears to have been a blocking fence drawn across the single entrance through the barrow’s narrow ditch (SLB on plan). The thirteen posts in this alignment were quite tightly spaced. The positioning of these posts conveys an impression of finality, a permanent blocking of all formal access to the site. Presumably, this alignment was installed when mound-building was complete or perhaps when mound-building was about to take over.

Prior to the erection of SLB, we might question the purpose of SLA. For those entering the barrow domain by the entrance causeway in the encircling ditch, this inner alignment effectively guides visitors away from the house site and its flint cairn, and steers them towards the smaller burial feature containing male cremation 1. Here, it seems, are two alignments of posts best set to control formal access during the very last stages of pre mound activity.

Where we see some short lengths of additional posts following the outer rim of the barrow ditch, and occasionally sited within the ditch, it seems that these may have been the very last to be installed on the site. It is difficult to envisage these supporting any cohesive structure, but it is noticeable that these all hug the eastern and leeward side of the barrow. Knowing the severe effects of Wight’s predominant south-westerly winds, perhaps these posts were markers for offerings or deposits brought to the barrow subsequent to its completion.

Digging a ditch
It seems that the digging of the barrow ditch was little more than a marking out exercise before the raising the barrow mound. Being only some 30cm wide and never more than 46cm deep, this was certainly no effective source of mound-building material. Moreover, the excavators concluded that it had been filled-in again before mound building commenced (p. 266). Due to its extreme narrowness and vertical sides, the excavators of 1956 also concluded that the ditch could only be cut by individuals working in allotted stints. The result was a weakly defined polygon perhaps comprising around eight stints.

The ditch was closely associated with an outer ring of some 50 posts that followed its inner edge. The need for both ditch and posts is rather difficult understand, unless the ditch proved to be an impediment to those dragging their mound-building materials to the site. Where some post-holes have been driven through the ditch-fill, it seems clear that the need for the posts outlived the role of the ditch.

From the bottom of the ditch, sampling of snail-shells produced some helpful results. Surprisingly, the species Oxychilus cellarius and Vitrea contracta were particularly well represented. Both species thrived on weed growth, a habitat that might take a year or two to develop in a freshly cut chalk ditch. The ditch, it seems, had been left open for quite some time before it was apparently replaced by the outer post circle.

Fig 9: The barrow ditch
Fig. 9. The barrow ditch, a narrow slot in bedrock chalk. This was described by the excavators as no more than one and half feet wide.

Animals in a landscape
Animal bones recovered from below and within the body of the barrow were sparse, yet interesting. Best represented were cattle, of which minor parts of seven individual animals could be identified (surface bones and rabbit disturbed bones have been discounted here). Given that this was high chalkland, it seems surprising that no more than two sheep or goats could be detected. Pig bones accounted for only four animals and these make an interesting comparison with the number of grassland sheep when we consider that woodland was their the favoured browsing and breeding ground. The wooded clayland zone of northern Wight, well suited to the pigs, was less than 300 metres away.

Of the sheep and ox bones, sufficient was recovered to show that they had all died at prime age for eating. These animals had probably been consumed during the raising of the mound. A feast, after all, was a good means of assembling a willing workforce as well as enticing more distant visitors. Wild animals on the site were represented by no more than a tooth of wild pig and another of otter. Antlers of a young red deer hint at a further hunting success.

The prehistoric flint industry on Arreton Down
The report on struck flint artefacts from the Arreton barrow remain an outstanding landmark in the development of lithic studies. The number of flint cores amounted to 165 and the quantity of struck flakes amounted to a staggering 12,892. When all of these had been examined, just 311 (2.38%) pieces showed modification by secondary working. Here, perhaps for the first time, was a true insight into the prodigious output of flint waste/debitage that Late Neolithic flint knappers could produce before selecting so few pieces to make into tools.

In the 1960 report, the classification of cores offered a new means of characterising the preparatory procedures for a range of tools that could be consistently reproduced throughout an entire Neolithic flint knapping industry. Set methods in core and flake production might also offer a tantalising glimpse into cognitive processes that could prompt each flint-knapper in the performance of his craft. Although many forms were already familiar, the fourteen tool types described and drawn in this report have remained archetypal in lithic studies pursued over the last sixty years.

On Arreton Down In 1956, the wheelbarrowing away of 153 kilos of flint into the back of a car might then have been viewed as an incomprehensible proposition, the metrical parameters alone being truly daunting in a pre-computer era. Yet through this objective gathering of all waste flint artefacts on an unparalleled scale, the lithics report for this site marked a new standard in the study of Neolithic flint technology. At some point, on the Down, there seems to have been an Eureka moment from which everyone, studying man’s oldest craft, is now still counting.

The second female inhumation
The second inhumation burial clearly belonged to a later event because it was located higher within the barrow mound. Here was an adolescent girl who had been laid in a sleeping or ‘contracted’ position on her right side. Scattered with her were fragments of carbonised hazel. Her left arm had been badly mutilated, leaving us to wonder the cause of her death. Although there is no evidence to indicate when she arrived in the barrow, there is firm evidence to show that the mound was re-used in pagan Anglo-Saxon times when female burials were certainly made at this spot. Alternatively, her sleeping position is typical of an Early Bronze Age burial so perhaps she was buried in a simple manner while the mound was being raised.

Fig 10: Skeleton buried in sleeping position
Fig. 10. The adolescent girl with mutilated arm, buried in sleeping position in the upper part of the mound.

As time goes by
Before the close of the second millennium BC, barrow-building had been generally abandoned in Britain. By now, simple cremation burials were a common rite, yet barrows of ancestors could still be seen and used as an appropriate place for the ashes of the dead, often when heaped in a domestic pot. More often, preference had shifted to flat cremation cemeteries.

In early Anglo-Saxon times, some Islanders of Wight returned to certain barrows to inter their dead. It is evident that our two barrows on Arreton Down were both chosen, for the remains of several burials of this period were found here when the Turnpike Commission was active in 1815. A scatter of broken clay tobacco pipes in the disturbed soil showed exactly where the labourers had been digging.

With the rise Christianity, the pagan practice of re-using prehistoric barrows was eventually abandoned. Mounds of this kind became places of legend and the subject of discomforting stories of faeries, curses and devilry. Later, in the year 1237, Isle of Wight barrows were dug into once again – this time in search of treasure. This was the result of a command issued by Henry III, after, it seems, something of value had been found by ‘certain persons’ whose enterprise was were clearly unapproved.

There is no doubt that the barrows on Arreton Down were pillaged, because various fragments of thirteenth century sagging-based cooking pots were found scattered throughout disturbed parts of the mound. Barrow-digging, it seems, was hungry work and the workforce was apparently keeping long hours and eating on the job. From what we now know of these prehistoric mounds, their labours were likely to be very disappointing.

Fig 11: Image of cross-section of a pot
Fig. 11. In 1237, King Henry III ordered barrows in the Isle of Wight to be opened and searched for treasure. A scatter of broken fragments of 13th century sagging-based cooking pots showed where the searchers had been at work in the Arreton Down round barrow.

By now, most God-fearing Christians saw barrows as uncomfortable reminders of a dark pagan past; yet when real wickedness occurred in their community, the local barrow could be an appropriate place to dispose of a felon or murderer who was unworthy of a churchyard burial. A barrow containing ungodly people could also be just the right place for a gibbet or an execution. Hence the story of Michal Morey and the large barrow on Arreton Down that is now known as his ‘hump’. Later, the ‘hump’ finds yet another use when it becomes the perch for an experimental radio station in the prelude to World War II.

Fig. 12. ‘Jumbo’ Sherratt’s radio station on Michal Morey’s Hump.
Fig. 12. ‘Jumbo’ Sherratt’s radio station on Michal Morey’s Hump.

A mound to memory
It is an interesting speculation to consider how many years might pass before a barrow mound was finally raised. There are so many potential factors to consider. We have already touched upon the time of the year and the effects of the seasons. To this we might add the size of the family; the size of the community; the number of people that might attend a funeral feast; the eventual need to cover a decaying primary cairn and finally the social, political or religious status of the deceased. As well as personal expressions of grief and loss, we should also consider a community’s territorial drives to impose a symbol of ownership over the surrounding landscape. Barrows on a skyline can be particularly emphatic.

With a coerced workforce labouring to erect absurdly extravagant tombs, Cheops, Rameses and Francisco Franco all had their egos to satisfy. For Qin Shi Huang with his vast mound surrounded by his terracotta army, and for Shah Jahan, bereft of his wife, that angry fight against oblivion was much the same. For more of that same stubborn stand against the inevitable we might also turn to Shelley’s fictional Ozymandias, ‘King of kings’. Elsewhere, the occupants of Easter Island carved and erected their grand statues while seeking to overcome an all-pervading territorial imperative.

Back on Arreton Down, perhaps we should ask who went into the large barrow now known as Michal Morey’s Hump and what had been the role of that third barrow, lost more than a century ago. When we see how much attention was focussed on the middle-aged woman at centre of our excavated barrow, we must surely ponder her role and status as a Bronze Age Islander. Had there once been a society that was happier and better socially adjusted than the Mammon mayhem we experience today? As silent witnesses to the past, it certainly seems that Wight’s fragile round barrows deserve deeper thought as well as some well deserved TLC.

David Tomalin. Covid Lockdown, June 2020.

Some further reading

Alexander, J. & Ozanne, P. C. & A., 1960. ‘Report on the investigation of a round barrow on Arreton Down, Isle of Wight’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 26, 263-302.

Ashbee, P., The Bronze Age barrow in Britain. London. Phoenix.

Grinsell, L. V. & Sherwin, G. A., 1940. ‘The barrows of the Isle of Wight’. Proceedings of the Isle of Wight Natural History & Archaeological Society 3, (3), 179-222.

Grinsell, L. V., The ancient burial mounds of England. London, Methuen.

Grinsell, L. V., 1978. The Stonehenge barrow groups. Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. Salisbury.

Marsden, B. M., 1999. The early barrow diggers. Stroud. Tempus.

Tomalin, D. J., 1993. ‘Combe cluster barrow cemeteries in the Isle of Wight’. Proceedings of the Isle of Wight Natural History & Archaeological Society 11, 85-96.

Tomalin, D. J., 1996. ‘Towards a new strategy for curating the Bronze Age landscape of the Hampshire & Solent region’ in D. A. Hinton & M. Hughes (eds.), Archaeology of Hampshire: a framework for the future. Salisbury. Hampshire County Council.

Woodward, A., 2000. British barrows: a matter of life and death. Stroud. Tempus.

Woodward A. & Woodward P., 1996. ‘The topography of some barrow cemeteries in Bronze Age Wessex’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 62, 275-291.

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