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Basic Information

A barrow1 is a funerary structure consisting of a mound of earth surrounding one or more burials. At their simplest, a barrow may simply consist of a grave with a mound over it, but more complicated versions can approach the level of a mausoleum, with stone walled chambers set off a central corridor. Likewise, a given barrow may serve a single burial - typically of a king or other magnate with his retainers - or a series of interrments - perhaps of sucessive generations of a given family. Intermediate forms include those where the dead are placed in a stone cyst and ship burials (like the famous example at Sutton Hoo), where the barrow-mound is raised over an entire ship. More obscure forms include ring-shaped barrows surrounding a central pit tomb. Barrows can also be raised over mass burials or even as a form of cenotaph.

The tops of barrows might also be used as a ritual site, either by the culture that built them or by later cultures: it was not unknown for the top of a multi-interrment barrow to be used for funeral rites before the dead were carried below, and the form might well exist long after the function had been forgotten.

Any given barrow may have an obvious access point to the outside (especially common for those that were used for repeated burials) or may not show any sign of what lies beneath. Obviously excavation or natural erosion can expose previously unseen structure - and, indeed, extensive erosion could leave only the stone chamberwork standing (as in the case of many dolmens, stone tables and similar structures which were once covered by barrows).

The majority of barrows were creations of stone-age societies and posed something of a mystery to tribes which displaced them - whilst at least some were recognised as tombs and occasionally plundered for grave-goods, they were also suspected of being homes of Fairies (or at least gateways thereto), and/or the homes of dangerous undead or other fell creatures and thus either avoided or, in a few cases, show signs of later additions to burial goods, perhaps in propitiation of the "inhabitants". In a world with genuine undead, this may or may not be helpful.

In fantasy works the wight (or "barrow wight") is closely connected with these structures, at least partially thanks to Professor Tolkein.

Note that a barrow is (intended to be) a permanent structure - the mounds of earth typically found over a fresh grave do not count as they are expected to settle back into the excavation over time. If a "barrow" consists mostly of a pile of stones, it will normally be called a cairn instead.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • These structures were extensively excavated by amateur archaeologists (and grave robbers) in the real world, especially once "The Enlightenment" had removed the fear of the angry dead. In a campaign with some magical/horror elements, this may lead to early modern hilarity.
    • Alternatively, it may involve nothing more than the destruction of archaeological evidence and a colossal waste of time, depending on what is under the mound.
    • In any era, turning up something … unexpected … whilst barrow-digging might be a major issue.
  • In a fantasy campaign, an accessible barrow may be full of undead, or fae, or of other things pretending to be either.
    • Indeed, in a historical campaign, outlaws may take residence in a barrow and pretend to be something nastier to avoid scrutiny.
      • Where such a campaign has fantasy elements, the problem may start with people pretending to be undead, only for them to disturb the real thing and cause a nasty surprise for law enforcement.
  • Some reckless castle builder might decide that a hill (which just happens to be a barrow) would be a nice place to put his keep. Even assuming that the foundations don't disturb anything, trouble may still ensue.
  • Some of the ring barrows actually surround a pit containing little or nothing in the way of remains and are suspected to have had a ceremonial function - perhaps they really were gates to somewhere.
  • Where such things are observed, barrows may often lay on ley lines or other paths of power - this may increase the chance of undead rising or, alternatively, the presence of an undead creature may block, corrupt or subvert the flow of power.
  • Not every earth mound is a barrow - especially in an early modern setting. That pile of dirt you are digging into in C18 England might be a barrow, or some kind of neolithic ritual mound, or the motte of a temporary castle from The Anarchy, or the cover for a plague pit, the tailings from a medieval mine or canal or just some landscaping.
  • In a more esoteric sense, some barrows may be burials, other may be "fairy hills" covering gates to "the other world" … or tunnels to K'n-yan or the underground haunts of the deros.
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