The Early Barrow Diggers Barry M Marsden
160pp, 77ills, Tempus 1999 hardback
At first sight I didn't think I'd find this book very interesting. However it quickly develops into a lucid account of the rather eccentric English Country Gentlemen of the 18th and 19th centuries who virtually made a field sport of searching for 'Gothick' relics in the thousands of round and long barrows that cover the country. The book is filled with stories of labourers nearly buried alive in collapsing trenches, inexplicable excavations by candlelight and in inclement weather, and the dark romance that inspired the barrow diggers. It is surprising to read of the wide variation in which the same diggers treated the finds on various sites, from quite careful planning to kicking the bones around like footballs. The more I read on the subject of ancient British sites, the clearer it is how much we owe to the early researchers, working as they were before or during the wholesale destruction of many of these monuments. This book, originally written in 1974, shows how the barrow diggers of the later part of the 19th century, such as Lieutenant General Pitt-Rivers virtually invented modern archaeological excavation techniques.
Marsden writes with expertise about Dorset, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire; the latter seems to have been home to the worst kind of barrow desecrators. Many of their targets have since been completely flattened by 20th century agriculture, which puts an interesting slant on the tone of moral superiority with which we sometimes decry the efforts of our forbears. As Marsden astutely points out, barrows are not immune to the effects of the treasure hunter or imperfect excavation today. Stoney Littleton, described by the author as 'one of the finest examples of a transepted gallery grave in Britain' was left in a shocking state and exposed to the elements a few years ago. Failure to rectify the damage resulted in structural damage and the sealing off of the barrow to visitors. Filling with gravel and sealing is probably the eventual fate of Stoney Littleton, and this only when funds can be found.
Getting back to the book in question, I would liked to have seen some maps and locations of the barrows described, but this is not really necessary as the book concentrates on the personalities more than the monuments themselves. An interesting read, and a break from stones and megaliths!
Review by Andy Burnham
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