Anglo Saxon Burial Mounds

If you couldn’t be the first son of a wealthy landowner in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and you had a liking for the quiet life, it was generally useful to miss out being the second son, with all its attendant having-to-go-into-the-army-ness, and skip straight to being third, where the chances were that you would inherit a nice little “living” as a clergyman, make the odd sermon, have a cute little cottage, chat up Jane Austen heroines and be left alone to indulge genteel pursuits such as astronomy, botany – or archaeology.
I know very little indeed about the Reverend James Douglas, but I’m guessing he was a third son. I can see him now, standing in his pulpit in his flowing black robes and flappy black bow round his neck. He’s making a very dull sermon, and willing St Alpheges church bell to signal the end of the service, so he can don his little flat hat with its shallow round crown, lace up his gaiters and stride to the hill in Greenwich Park, ready for his Grand Excavation…
It’s 22nd January, 1784 and the Rev. Douglas is all a-quiver about around 50 strange-looking domes on the west side of the park and covering about an acre, which have miraculously survived Le Notre’s remodelling and peep up mysteriously through the long grass. There are a few others dotted around the Observatory. Some are conical, others more rounded. Douglas is particularly excited because he has gained permission to excavate them. He as his notebook at the ready, some burly blokes with pickaxes, and he’s ready…
The excitement mounts as he opens about 18 of them and Hallelujah! He finds some bits and bobs! An iron knife and some remains of an old shield. A spearhead – “one of the largest I ever found; fifteen inches long and two broad to the socket.” Further grubbing around uncovers a braid of auburn hair, some vegetable mould, which he supposes was the remains of a casket and some pieces of cloth with a herring-bone pattern. He also finds some glass beads – a couple of blue-green transparent ones, and one each of white opaque and browny-red opaque. No bones.
Perhaps this is because someone has beaten him to it. According to a suspicious Hasted, about 70 years before Douglas started digging, the park keeper, one Mr Hearne quietly did a little digging himself and “no doubt removed many valuable relics…”
Who can tell. Douglas was happy enough with his find – and at least in 1784 there were still fifty of the things to dig up. If you look at the picture above (from an intriguing set sent to me by Jeff and taken from the airship – more pics where that came from another day…) the best we can boast now is around half a dozen and you’ll need to click on the pic to even see them.
Time has not been kind to these burials. Doubtless a few of them would have been destroyed when Le Notre’s giant park plan was fulfilled, but far more of them disappeared in the building of the Kent Water Works reservoir in 1844. Admittedly there was an outcry at the loss of so many mounds, and the reservoir was moved a bit after the issue of the destruction of the park was brought to the attention of Parliament (anyone getting that feeling of deja-vu?)
Princess Sophia, who was grace-and-favour Ranger of the Park at the time, gave permission for it to go in the park (instead of the heath) and twelve barrows were flattened by enthusiastic workmen before another outcry forced an order to cease and desist. They had to put the mounds back, but they didn’t do a very good job of it and the Hon. Sidney Herbert, Secretary of the Admiralty, had an awkward time trying to explain it all to the House of Commons.
While the barrows were being dug up, several stone implements were discovered. Some were still in the Lecture Hall Museum in Greenwich (anyone know where that was?) in 1902, but more were squirrelled away as private property, never to be seen again. It’s said that almost the entire skeleton of a man was also found – and AD Webster reckons that there’s a drawing of it. Again I have no idea where it would be.
Who were these people? Some say Anglo Saxons; others think they are the bones of the Danes who sailed up the Thames in 1011. There are even those who reckon they are soldiers killed on Blackheath in the Cornish rebellion. Personally I find that a bit far-fetched – I can’t imagine Henry VII wanting burials in his palace grounds. Truth is, no one really knows.
Precious little work’s been done on these sites as far as I can see. English Heritage, who keep records of these things, list virtually nothing (you know you’re onto a loser when the best entries they can list read “1714 – excavation of Greenwich Park – director of ‘fieldwork’ – Hearne…”) though it would seem some general Geo-Fizz was carried out in 1994. I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy of the results.
So. There’s all to play for here. At some point, these tumuli need more research. Another reason to keep them secure until then…

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