Blog Post

Prehistoric Burial Practices of Britain

Prehistoric Britain saw complex and evolving burial practices, starting with the excarnation of bodies. Dolmens, characterised by their capstones balanced on upright stones, were used as platforms to expose bodies to birds, and wooden palisades encircled the platform, preventing terrestrial animals and rodents from scavenging. (Prehistoric Burial Practices of Britain)

Dolmen - excarnation platform
Dolmen – excarnation platform

Once cleaned, the bones were collected and stored in long barrow chambers. These megalithic structures were deliberately shaped like boats, symbolising the voyage to the afterlife. The practice dates back to the seventh millennium BCE in France and highlights the cultural significance of these monuments. The misdating of British sites often results from the continuous use of these burial grounds. Older bones were naturally replaced by newer ones, similar to modern graveyards. This ongoing usage has led to confusion, especially when interpreting the age of these sites.

The Dolmen and Long Barrow Connection
Boat Shaped Long Barrow

Cremation was another ancient practice, but it began many thousands of years after the first excarnations, indicating a change of culture; this adds further complexity to prehistoric burials. Archaeologists sometimes misinterpret cremated remains at sites like Stonehenge, assuming they date back to the monument’s original use. However, these remains often belong to later periods when ancient sites were reused for other purposes. At Stonehenge, cremated bones have been used to date the site, not recognising that the stones were possibly moved or their sockets were repurposed as burial sites. This misunderstanding challenges the interpretation of the site’s original function.

Hole made by a Bluestone – later used as a cremation pit

Round barrows present another puzzle. Often, cremated bones are found on the edges, not in the centre, indicating they were not initially constructed for burials but were later utilised for this purpose. This secondary use complicates the understanding of their primary function.

Prehistoric Burial Practices of Britain
Cremations and Burials are ofter added to the sides of Barrows (none in the centre)

In areas of Britain like Wales and Ireland, misconceptions about the original function of megalithic sites and their reuse over time have led to confusion among archaeologists. These regions have developed unique site names not found elsewhere, and the designs often reflect changes from excarnation practices to later cremation uses. This has further complicated the understanding of these sites’ function. The intricate design and usage of these megalithic structures underscore the sophisticated burial practices of prehistoric communities. They revered their ancestors and treated death as a significant transition, deserving elaborate and respectful processes.

Prehistoric Burial Practices of Britain
Long Barrows can also be used as hill markers – hence their white chalky colour

These burial practices reflect a deep connection with the environment. The boat-shaped long barrows built halfway down the tops of hills symbolised the journey to the afterlife. They were also used as markers for boats on rivers, illustrating the importance of water and travel in their cosmology. Modern archaeological techniques continue to unravel these complexities, revealing a dynamic and continuous use of sacred sites over millennia. Each discovery adds a piece to the puzzle of our ancestors’ beliefs and practices.

tregiffian barrow
Classic Cairn – but misinterpreted by archaeologists as a barrow?

In addition to dolmens and long barrows, other megalithic structures played a role in prehistoric burial customs. Cairns and burial chambers, often constructed on hilltops, provided another method for interring the dead. The fact that they have whole bodies and not disarticulated bones indicates that this may have been a halfway house between excarnation and cremation. The community aspect of these burial practices is also notable. The construction of large megalithic structures required coordinated effort, indicating a strong social organisation and shared cultural or religious beliefs. This collective effort would have strengthened communal bonds and reinforced social cohesion.

Rituals associated with burial likely included ceremonies to honour the dead, invoking protection or favour from deities or ancestors. These rituals would have comforted the living, offering a sense of continuity and connection with the past. In some burial sites, grave goods, such as pottery, tools, and ornaments, indicate beliefs in an afterlife where such items would be needed. These offerings reflect the values and daily life of the communities, providing archaeologists with insights into their material culture.

Prehistoric Burial Practices of Britain
Amesbury Archer – burial and hence the date (not of megalithic origin)

In conclusion, the burial practices of prehistoric Britain were multifaceted and evolved. They reflect a deep connection with the environment, intricate rituals, and a continuous respect for the ancestors, providing a fascinating glimpse into the past. The combination of excarnation, long barrow interment, cremation, and communal effort in constructing megalithic structures illustrates a rich and complex cultural heritage. As modern archaeology continues to explore these ancient sites, our understanding of prehistoric beliefs and practices will continue to grow, revealing how these early societies interacted with their world.

search more accessible and to engage directly with the public can help bridge the gap between current archaeological research and public understanding.

Further Reading

For information about British Prehistory, visit for the most extensive archaeology blogs and investigations collection, including modern LiDAR reports.  This site also includes extracts and articles from the Robert John Langdon Trilogy about Britain in the Prehistoric period, including titles such as The Stonehenge Enigma, Dawn of the Lost Civilisation and the ultimate proof of Post Glacial Flooding and the landscape we see today.

Robert John Langdon has also created a YouTube web channel with over 100 investigations and video documentaries to support his classic trilogy (Prehistoric Britain). He has also released a collection of strange coincidences that he calls ‘13 Things that Don’t Make Sense in History’ and his recent discovery of a lost Stone Avenue at Avebury in Wiltshire called ‘Silbury Avenue – the Lost Stone Avenue’.

Langdon has also produced a series of ‘shorts’, which are extracts from his main body of books:

The Ancient Mariners

Stonehenge Built 8300 BCE

Old Sarum

Prehistoric Rivers

Dykes ditches and Earthworks

Echoes of Atlantis

Homo Superior

(Top Ten misidentified Fire Beacons in British History)