When my friend Peter suggested we visit his family in West Mersea (that’s England for those who don’t know it), one of the incentives was that there was a Roman barrow near his home.
As a long-time fan of the works of British author J.R.R. Tolkien came across the idea of a barrow when I first read The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) almost 50 years ago. But I had never visited one. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – barrows in Tolkien’s world were rather dangerous places and not recommended for tourists.
If you don’t already know, a barrow is a burial place covered by a lot of earth and stones. Think mound, not pile. Barrows get archaeologists excited because they suspect there will be buried treasure there. Unless thieves have beaten them to it, though I suspect your average thief may not be willing to put in the effort that is involved in excavating a barrow. I thought of it as similar to an Egyptian pyramid, just a lot less complicated and considerably smaller.
The West Mersea Barrow is listed as an historic site, one of many thousands of such places in the UK. West Mersea is a small place, but has 42 different entries on the national register of historic sites including the barrow.
Being an historic site does not automatically make something a tourist destination. If you want to see inside Barrow Hill you have to know someone with a key to the gate, which Peter did.
I have mentioned my fascination with history. I believe we can’t hope to understand the present without a firm understanding of the past. So I was delighted that Peter’s friend took it upon herself to educate us before we entered the barrow, to give us a rundown of the first excavations, who was involved, what was found and the aftermath (I read a book about the barrow the following day, and you can find more information, including a 1913 account of the archaeological dig on the Mersea Museum’s website). It surprised me that no-one thought to excavate the hill until 1912, but I guess England has so many barrows it just wasn’t high on anyone’s list.
The barrow was candle-lit for our expedition, just as it would have been for those who first explored it in 1912. I understand there are plans for electrification and increased tourist traffic, which I think might ruin the atmosphere, make it seem a bit less fun, but nobody asked for my opinion.
Inside the barrow, more or less at the centre of the mound (which is 23 feet high and 100 feet around, more or less), was the burial chamber, where archaeologists found the cremated remains of a wealthy Roman citizen who lived at around the end of the first century A.D. (Note that I refuse to capitulate to political correctness and call it C.E.). I am sure there are scholars who hope to someday discover who was buried in the Mersea Barrow, but it doesn’t really matter. After almost two millennia it’s not like there are next of kin to notify. Those remains and jar were inside a lead casket, all of which was taken to a museum in Colchester, as at the time there was no suitable display facility on Mersea Island. Our timing was bad: Two weeks after our visit the urn and its contents were returned to the Mersea Museum for display.
Unlike Frodo and his companions in the Lord of the Rings, there was no treasure buried in the Mersea Barrow for us to find, no gold, jewels or weapons. But we didn’t have to fight evil barrow-wights either. And for me, learning something new is treasure enough.