NGR: SP 02093 25434. Standing at the western side of Humblebee Wood on Cleeve Common, 1¾ miles south of Winchcombe, Glou-cestershire, is the ancient Megathlic monument known as ‘Belas Knap Long Barrow’, a Neolithic chambered tomb of the Severn-Cotswold type and dating from 3,800 BC. The monument can be found on the Cotswold Way footpath – with Cleeve Hill over to the northwest. It is certainly the best known of all the Cotswold long barrows and, now that it has been restored, it is an amazing sight with its 51m long wedge-shaped mound, and its height of 4.3m. There are four burial chambers, three of these along its sides, and the fourth chamber at the south side. The N. end has a false entrance (portal). These chambers, excavated in the 1860s and 1920s, were found to contain the bones of at least 31 people. From Winchcombe in the N. take the B4632 road SW., then the country lane S.E. over river Isbourne (watch out for signposts to Belas Knap) toward Corndean Hall, and then a steepish climb S. through the woodland to meet the Cotswold Way path heading E. to the ancient Long Barrow on a ridge of land.
Timothy Darvill (1988) tells us that it is: “Perhaps the most well known of all the Neolithic long barrows constructed on the Cotswolds, this site lies on a windswept ridge above the town of Winchcombe. Now fully restored, Belas Knap displays many classic features of barrows constructed in the Cotswold-Severn tradition. The wedge-shaped mound, now grassed over, measures more than 50m long and stands nearly 4m high. At the north end is a deep forecourt between two rounded horns, and in the back of the forecourt is a false portal resembling the H-shaped setting at the front of a portal dolmen. The dry-stone walling in the forecourt is partly original Neolithic workmanship; only the upper portions have been subject to restoration.
“Three chambers, all of which can still be entered, open into the mound from its long sides, while a fourth chamber which lacks a roof opens from the narrow southern end. Although heavily restored, the three side chambers still preserve the gloom and dampness that must have pervaded them when in use. The remains of about 30 people were found in the burial chambers during excavations which took place early this century. The name Belas Knap derives from the Old English words bel meaning a beacon and cnaepp meaning a hilltop. In addition to Belas Knap itself, a small round barrow is visible in the ploughed field to the west of the site.”
Jacquetta Hawkes (1973) tells us that after Notgrove Long Barrow: “The second notable long barrow is called Belas Knap (it is worth noting that not very many of the Cotswold barrows have folk names attached to them) and it lies far to the west of the rest, about two miles south of Winchcombe and not more than half a dozen miles from the centre of Cheltenham. Luckily the mound is well preserved and judicious restoration has made a monument which gives at least some idea of what these tombs and holy places looked like four thousand years ago. It shows well the oblong form of the mound held within a low retaining wall of fine drystone masonry and it possesses the characteristic ‘horns’ or recessed forecourt at the larger end. This court makes the approach to a dignified megalithic portal with a pair of large jambs, transverse slab or door stone between them, and a large lintel across the top. But whereas at Notgrove an entrance in just this position must have led into the gallery and its cells, this construction at Belas Knap is a sham, it is built against the solid mass of the barrow and has never at any time given access to anything. It is, in fact, a classic example of the ‘false entrance’ for which we have already seen close parallels in the south-west and
in Kent. The true burial-chambers open from the long sides of the mound and are infinitely smaller and meaner than the central chambers of the Notgrove, Hetty Pegler and Nympsfield kind. Some have compared these dummies to the false entrances to Egyptian pyramids, claiming that they, too, were made in an attempt to mislead tomb-robbers and keep the burial chambers; others have attributed the device to human laziness, seeing them as a degenerate form which kept the portal, essential for ritual purposes, but shirked the construction of a large and complex megalithic chamber. For myself I do not find either explanation satis-factory; primitive peoples do not violate their own sanctuaries and here in the Cotswolds there is no evidence to suggest the presence of alien invaders in any force at a time while long barrows were still being built; nor were these New Stone Age peoples in the habit of burying precious grave-goods with the dead which could provoke cupidity. On the other hand if the builders were still willing to raise tons of stone and earth to make the mounds. I cannot think that the small amount of extra labour needed to make the dignified central chamber would have been found burdensome enough to promote such a radical change of plan. I believe that the false entrance was intended to mislead not human beings but supernatural creatures—spirits—but more than that I will not attempt to guess.”
Harold Priestley (1976) says Belas Knap is: “A very good example of a barrow with a false entrance and with entries to its chambers in the sides, reached by means of short passages. The barrow, more than 170 ft (51.8m) long, is orientated N–S; it had a revetment, a false entrance and a forecourt with two horn-like extensions at the N end. This may have been designed either to ward off evil spirits or to fool possible tomb robbers. Two of the chamber entrances are let into the E side, one half-way along the W side and a fourth at the S end. The barrow had a revetment of stone all round it.”
A few miles to the northwest on Cleeve Hill (NGR SO 9847 2659), near Woodmancote, there is the ‘Ring Settlement’ which was probably an Iron Age or Romano-British village and, below the hill at the southeast side, is the ‘Cross Dyke’ earthwork.
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
Darvill, Timothy, AA Glovebox Guide — Ancient Britain, The Publishing Division of the Automobile Asssociation, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1988.
Hawkes, Jacquetta, A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales, Cardinal (Sphere Books Ltd), London, 1973.
Priestley, Harold, The Observer’s Book of Ancient & Roman Britain, Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., London, 1976.
Wood, Eric S., Field Guide to Archaeology, Collins, London, 1968.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2020.