Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Lucas Meurkens: The late medieval/Early Modern reuse of prehistoric barrows as execution sites in the southern part of the Netherlands

6 Parallel developments: barrows, gallows and boundaries in England

The medieval custom of granting prehistoric barrows a new life as a gallows hill or execution site is not restricted to the Netherlands. We also know of many examples of comparable reuse from Germany and, to a lesser extent, the Scandinavian countries (Van der Sanden 2010). Recent extensive research has focused on this custom in Great Britain (Reynolds 1997, 2002, 2009a, 2009b; Whyte 2003a, 2003b). Since there are a lot of similarities in the relationship between barrows, execution sites and boundaries between the Netherlands and England, the situation in England will be considered more closely below.

In Britain, the late 5th century saw a distinct increase in the reuse of prehistoric barrows as cemeteries. This is in marked contrast with the Roman period, from which we have virtually no evidence of this practice (Williams 1998, 92). This intensifying reuse of barrows as cemeteries is thought to be associated with efforts of the Germanic immigrants (among whom were probably also Saxons from the northern part of the Netherlands) to legitimise themselves as the heirs of the original occupants. This custom peaked in the 7th century. In that same period various new mounds were erected and they were much larger than their prehistoric predecessors. They were intended for spectacular (pagan) burials of elites. As in Merovingian Europe, this brief revival is assumed to represent a reaction against the expansion of Christianity in this period (Williams 1998, 103-4).

The pagan burial rite died out in the early 8th century. From then onwards, the deceased were always buried in churchyards. Around the same time attitudes towards barrows changed, presumably as a result of the expansion of Christianity and the associated demonisation of pagan views and customs. It is assumed that in the early Anglo-Saxon period barrows were seen as the homes of spirits, ancestors and gods, and that they played important roles in pagan rituals. Verses and other texts written in Christian times describe barrows as abominable, terrifying haunted places, inhabited by monsters, spirits and other demons. Barrows were incidentally unique in this respect as other types of prehistoric monuments do not seem to have had such negative connotations (Semple 1998, 115-118).

Another important development in 7th-century England, besides conversion to Christianity, was the establishment of individual Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The centralisation of power led to a penal system intended to secure peace and stability. The laws issued by the Anglo-Saxon kings contain long lists of crimes that were punishable with death. Laws from after the 10th century also stipulate that convicts were not to be buried in the hallowed ground of a churchyard. This resulted in formal cemeteries for executed individuals, the earliest of which date from the 7th century. Many of the skeletons in these cemeteries show indisputable evidence of an unnatural death. Almost all the known cemeteries for executed convicts lie at the boundaries of the ‘hundreds’ into which Anglo-Saxon England was divided. Two thirds of those cemeteries are moreover associated with barrows, the others with linear earthworks. The locations of those sites are comparable with those of the Dutch gallows hills and they are interpreted in the same way. Executed criminals had not only violated the laws of the secular authorities, they had also sinned against God. The appropriate way of disposing of such sinners was to bury them in pagan cemeteries, thus denying them a grave in a Christian churchyard. Barrows were specifically chosen for the execution and burial of criminals so as to ensure the most impressive visual impact, and probably also with the intention of ensuring that in their afterlives the executed criminals would suffer under the evil influence of the spirits that resided in the barrows (Reynolds 1997).

Anglo-Saxon charter bounds also show that there was a close relationship between boundaries, barrows and cemeteries for executed convicts. The charter bounds frequently refer to cwealmstowa (execution site), heafod stoccum (stakes on which severed heads were displayed), beorh or hlæw (barrow) and hæðenan byrigels (pagan burials) (Grinsell 1991; Reynolds 2002).

This situation continued in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, as revealed by a recent study focusing on Norfolk (Whyte 2003a). In the Middle Ages the gallows were used both for executing convicts and for displaying their corpses. Maps show that eight of the eleven gallows in Norfolk stood on mounds lying within 300 metres from a parish boundary. In later periods, the gallows for displaying corpses stood at points where parish boundaries intersected common grounds, underlining the banishment of criminals from the spiritual core of the community. The parish boundaries of the Norfolk communities were defined and reviewed by means of ‘perambulation ceremonies’, processions in which the occupants of a parish would confirm their boundaries by walking along them. During these perambulations the occupants would point out striking landscape features such as barrows and places that were of importance in the parish’s collective memory, such as gallows hills. So barrows and gallows hills were both important elements in the interpretation and organisation of the (post-)medieval landscape. Many of the known barrows in Norfolk indeed appear to lie at medieval boundaries. And, as in the Netherlands, most lie in peripheral areas. Whyte suggests that their distribution pattern is not just the consequence of patterns of land use, with the barrows in the fertile agricultural areas having disappeared. It is quite possible that many barrows owe their survival largely to the key role they played in marking boundaries and their distribution pattern is as much a reflection of their later use as boundary markers as of their original use as burial monuments (Whyte 2003b).