Bartlow is home to a number of mounds known as Bartlow Hills – a hidden Roman burial ground, in rural Cambridgeshire. They are well-known to locals, but generally unheard of by the wider populous. They are secreted down a country lane, and just waiting to be explored!
I first went to Bartlow to visit the parish church (naturally) and knew nothing of the hills. I discovered what I had missed while having a quick drink in the local pub, the Three Hills. Inside the aptly named pub is a display about the hills, their history and their excavation in the nineteenth century. I decided to head back out and discover more.
What is a Roman Barrow Cemetery?
Bartlow Hills are a Roman Barrow Cemetery. This style of burial dates from the Roman period. They are the most visually impressive funerary monument, in Britain, from this age. The mounds contain cremated remains of high-ranking individuals, and chambers filled with riches that once belonged to them. This type of burial was popular during Roman-occupied Britain, with most of them dating from the 2nd century. Later settlers re-used the mounds to bury their own dead. This was typical of the Saxons for example. Sadly, antiquarians of the Victorian period felt the mounds were fair-game for excavation. These nineteenth-century antiquarians did not record their findings well and they left few mounds fully-intact.
Bartlow Hills are the best-preserved examples of this type of burial, and are therefore, nationally significant. Natural woodland engulfs the hills, which makes them invisible from surrounding fields and roads. This only adds to their hidden, secretive appeal. The ecology of the area is very rich and the mounds themselves have lots of growth on them.
The History of Bartlow Hills
The Bartlow Hills Roman barrow cemetery dates from the late first to the early second century AD. There are six surviving burial mounds in two rows at Bartlow. Agricultural activity has pretty much flattened the two in the western-most row. They are only around 1 metre high and are difficult to spot behind a fence, amongst the wilderness. The construction of a single track railway in 1862 obliterated a final mound that would have stood in this western row.
The other four are in the eastern row and are much more visible. The largest is almost 13 metres high and 46 metres in diameter. Two others are slightly smaller at around 7 metres high and 30 metres in diameter. The last is 5 metres high, is a little further to the north and more difficult to see.
The public can freely explore three out of the seven hills.
Bartlow Hills give us a real insight into the social and economic situation of this area in Roman occupation. Excavations uncovered coins, glass vessels, a bronze cup and flagon, Samian pottery, a gilt bowl enamelled with blue, green and red and iron lamps. Surrounding the hills excavations and building works, including the construction of a railway line, have uncovered vast amounts of bronze, coin moulds and hoards of coins. A Roman villa has also been uncovered to the east of the hills.
Evidently this area was a hive of activity of which the hills are a very important visual reminder of this Roman history.
Bartlow Hills Today
Bartlow Hills are now a hidden Roman burial ground in Rural Cambridgeshire waiting to be found.
Most of what we know about the barrows comes from the archaeological investigations in between 1815 and 1840. Thankfully these antiquarians left a lot in tact and did a better job at recording their finds than they had in other locations. Although not up to our standards today! However saying that they are massively under appreciated today and no modern detailed plan of these monuments and the surrounding area exists.
A research project in 2007 saw a little more investigative work done into these mounds and resulted in an interpretation panel being erected at the site. The area is generally very well-kept and is a joy to discover.
How to find them
To find the hills park either on the west side of the church or in the car park of the Three Hills pub. From the south-east corner of the churchyard a foot path leads along the side of some gardens, alongside and over the old railway track (very interesting in itself).
Keep following this track and you cannot fail to miss them! Why not make a day of it by visiting the church, carrying out a circular walk and then finishing off the day in the pub!?