Fra tomten af en sløjfet høj


  • Harald Andersen




Five Stages in the History of a Burial Mound

In the years 1949-50 a fairly large barrow, which had been considerably damaged by casual digging, was excavated in the centre of the city of Esbjerg (fig. 1).

Excavation method

The tumulus was cut away quarter by quarter and the resultant vertical section-walls drawn. In the centre of the mound excavation was carried out by the removal of layers of 5 cms. thickness and the majority of the horizontal planes thus laid bare were drawn to show the changes in the nature of the soil composing the mound. All stones found in the mound were plotted in on special plans and a similar plan was made of changes in soil composition in the subsoil under the tumulus.

The core of the barrow consisted of gravel and over this a later mound of grass-clad or heather-clad turf had been built.

The constructional stages of the gravel mound

The gravel tumulus had been built in three stages, which have been given the names "the lower mound", "the middle mound" and "the upper mound". The oldest grave in the barrow (grave A in fig. 2) had been dug in the original ground surface and the lower mound raised above it. Grave B was later dug in the northern side of the lower mound and grave C in its southern side. These latter two graveshafts went down into the light-coloured sand under the mound. This sand, which was thrown up, during the digging of the shafts, onto the sides of the lower mound and was not all filled in again, could be seen as pale bands in the section through the gravel of the mound (fig. 2), and thereby made it possible to determine the upper limits of the lower mound. Otherwise the line of demarcation between the lower and the middle mounds was completely indistinguishable. On the south side of the lower mound a further grave (D) was later laid and another (grave E) on the northern side. The latter appears to have been constructed as follows: the coffin was laid in a very shallow excavation in the surface of the lower mound and the middle mound thereafter heaped up over the grave and the lower mound. The upper surface of the middle mound could with difficulty be distinguished in the substance of the gravel tumulus. Grave F lay immediately over the top of the middle mound. It was presumably, like grave E, laid on the surface of the previous mound and covered with a new mound (the upper mound). Grave G lay immediately above grave F but it was impossible to determine whether it was dug into the upper mound or whether it too occasioned a raising of the height of the tumulus which can now no longer be distinguished. Grave H was dug down into the subsoil under the southern foot of the gravel tumulus. A stripe of sand in the section wall (fig. 2) doubtless arose as a result of soil dug up from grave H being allowed to lie on the surface of the middle mound, the grave being therefore constructed before this mound was covered by the upper mound.

The graves of the gravel tumulus

All the above graves are from the Single­Grave Period, graves A-E from the later ground-grave and graves F and G from the upper-grave periods. Clear traces of the skeletons and the coffins were found in graves A, B, C and E, the coffins in the first three being formed of tree-trunks while that in grave E was apparently of planks. Grave D was empty apart from insignificant traces of the coffin, and nothing was found in grave H apart from three amber beads. To judge by the size both these graves must have been of children, while the oldest grave in the tumulus (grave A) was also that of a child. For the contents of graves A, B, C, E, F and G the reader is referred to figs. 4-14.

Graves A-E appear to form an associated group which was laid within a comparatively short period of time. There is no doubt that the position of the child-grave A was known at the time when graves B and C were constructed. Grave E was laid exactly above grave B, conforming to the normal Single-Grave practice of laying one grave above another, and showing without doubt that the position of grave B was known at that time, while grave D is older than grave E but later than graves C and A. The fact that no humus layer separates the lower mound from the middle mound is additional evidence that only a short interval separates the two. The circumstance that two men, one woman and two children were buried in the same tumulus within a short space of years appears to lend weight to the opinions already put forward, that Single-Grave barrows were family burial-places. Graves F, G and H, on the other hand, cannot be brought into association with the lower group of graves and it is probable that at least the two former are considerably later in date than graves A-E.

The outward appearance of the gravel tumulus

On the sides of the gravel tumulus down towards the foot lay large quantities of stones (figs. 15 and 20). These stones should doubtless be interpreted as the remains of a "stone collar" (fig. 16). The stone collar is an archeological phenomenon which has been almost disregarded but which occurs on many types of tumulus: dolmens and passage-graves, Single-Grave barrows, Bronze-Age barrows and possibly also Iron-Age tumuli (cf. examples in figs. 17-19), The fact that the collars are so often broken up and disintegrated is doubtless explained by the supposition that the stones originally lay open upon the surface of the completed tumulus. No real boundary-ring of stones was found in the case of this Single­Grave barrow, though a short row of stones which lay under the gravel tumulus should possibly be explained as the remnants of a stone ring around the middle mound. On the other hand traces were found at two points of a circle of posts (figs. 21 and 22). These posts were quite slender and had stood fairly close together; they had doubtless borne a wattle fence (fig. 23). The post ring undoubtedly belonged to the upper mound, but it is remarkable that it appears to have stood eccentrically to it.

The turf tumulus

A little cremation grave (I), which could not be dated, lay buried in the top of the gravel tumulus and perhaps was the grave which provided the reason for the building of the turf tumulus. Another - and a more likely - possibility, however, is that the cremation grave had nothing to do with this tumulus, which was constructed later over a central grave which must be assumed to have been destroyed in the course of modern digging. A few Iron-Age urns and a heavily damaged stone cist built on the original ground surface at the foot of the tumulus to the east (fig. 21) were found in the turf tumulus. The cist could not be dated but was most probably from the Early Bronze Age. It would appear that the cist had provided the occasion for an addition to the turf tumulus (fig. 24). It had clearly been placed in an excavation in the foot of the earlier turf tumulus, and thereafter covered by a layer of earth laid over the east side of the tumulus.


After this descriptive survey of the successive stages of construction of the Esbjerg tumulus certain of the problems raised by it are treated in a wider context. The stone collars and the stone and post rings, three widespread and long-lasting features of prehistoric barrows, are first discussed. Support is given to the view that these features - at least originally - served a double purpose, being designed both to prevent the foot of the mound from flowing outwards and to give monumentality to the barrow. On the other band the magical or cult-significance which has been suggested from certain quarters in association with these features is considered to be doubtful, or at best to be of secondary origin. The stone collars are considered to be of decisive importance in supporting the "practical" interpretation, as it appears obvious that their purpose was to hold the substance of the mound in place. Stone rings consisting of comparatively small stones have been declared to be useless as supports to the soil of the mound but they may well have been admirably effective as a foot-support to a covering layer of turves. The argument has been put forward that certain stone rings in Bronze-Age tumuli have never been visible but were covered by the substance of the mound immediately after being laid. The correctness of this view is doubted as the Esbjerg tumulus has shown how impossible it may be on occasions to distinguish the line of demarcation between an older mound and a later one which covers it; it may therefore well be that these buried rings may originally have been visible as the edge-ring of an older mound. In attempts at reconstructing the Dutch "palisade-tumuli" which have been published the authors have clearly been inspired by the resemblance of these features to Stonehenge, and this resemblance has further given rise to theories on the cult-significance of post­rings. It is, however, doubtful how much weight may be laid on resemblances between such simple geometric figures as those formed by these rings.

The infant-grave H in the Esbjerg tumulus is of special interest in being placed at the foot of the mound and not in its centre as was normally the custom. It is, however, possible that the reason why graves are so seldom found near the edges of tumuli is simply that earlier excavators only interested themselves in the central portion of the tumuli. A number of graves lying out toward the edges have been found in a little Single-Grave tumulus at Vebbestrup south of Aalborg. These graves lay parallel to the circumference of the mound without reference to the cardinal points of the compass, nor to the normal east-west orientation of Single-Grave burials. This method of siting secondary graves becomes normal practice in the Bronze Age (fig. 26).

Child-burials in Single-Grave barrows are extremely rare. This tumulus, with its three child-burials, is therefore worthy of special attention. The fact that two infant graves were found in the Vebbestrup tumulus sited on the outer edge of the mound could be taken as suggesting the possibility that it is there, in the hitherto neglected edge-areas of the barrows, that these graves should be particularly sought.

The three trunk-coffins in the Esbjerg tumulus are the earliest coffins of this type found in Denmark. However, this type of coffin appears to have won considerable ground towards the end of the Single-Grave Period and the short, wide plank-coffin which had been previously used appears at that time to have gone completely out of use. Similarly in the early Single-Grave Period the dead were buried lying on their sides with legs flexed; but it appears that towards the end of the Single-Grave Period this practice was changed and the bodies were laid flat on their backs. This change in the position of the body should doubtless be seen in connection with the new type of coffin which was not suitable for containing a contracted body.

Harald Andersen





Andersen, H. (1952). Fra tomten af en sløjfet høj. Kuml, 2(2), 144–186. Hentet fra