Near Stonehenge and Avebury, the West Kennet Long Barrow offers an atmospheric glimpse into prehistoric Britain.
In rural Wiltshire, the West Kennet Long Barrow is an early Neolithic burial mound dating back about 5,500 years. It was constructed from local sarsen stone and limestone and then topped with chalk. Its eastern segment, which contains five burial chambers, is one of the most impressive and accessible Neolithic chamber tombs in Britain.
The elongated stone burial mounds known as long barrows are one of the earliest architectural styles in existence. Each has vestibule in which rituals were likely performed. Some of these forecourts led directly into a chamber containing human remains, and other long barrows have entrances on the sides of the mound.
Archeologists can only guess at the rituals connected to the long barrows. Some speculate that their shape mimics that of the human body and that placing bodies in the darkness of the chambers is a symbolic way of returning to the womb. They may also have been territorial markers.
The West Kennet Long Barrow was built into a chalk ridge. About 300 feet in length, at its highest point it’s about 10 feet high. It was used as a communal tomb, with the remains of at least 46 people buried here over a thousand-year period. They include both men and women, the young and elderly. Few of the bodies contain complete skeletons. Buried along with the bodies were pottery, beads, and stone implements.
About 4,000 years ago, the tomb was filled with soil and stones and the entrance was blocked with sarsen boulders. It was first excavated in 1859, though it wasn’t until 1955-6 that a modern archeological excavation was done. After its completion, the chambers at its eastern end were reconstructed.
It’s a marvelous, though slightly claustrophobic, experience to walk into the bowels of the West Kennett Long Barrow. The only light comes from the entrance, and once inside it’s possible to get a sense for the powerful spiritual space this once must have been.
The West Kennet Long Barrow didn’t exist in isolation—it’s part of a complex of prehistoric sacred sites that includes nearby Avebury and Silbury Hill, which is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Learn more at the Avebury World Heritage Site. The long barrow is managed by English Heritage and admission is free. The Avebury Stone Circles are within a half-hour walk.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.