Within a very short distance of the church are the remains of five bronze age barrows, four ploughed in and only visible from crop marks or geophysical surveys, and one upstanding, just 25m to the east of St Andrew’s church . This is an early bronze age barrow, one of the very few in the country sited so close to a church. The surrounding ring ditch from which the barrow was created lies only feet from the end of the 13thC chancel. With springs in the vicinity it was almost certainly a “holy place” and saw pagan and Christian use, with both an Anglo Saxon and the present Norman church built there. The barrow was only incorporated into the church grounds in the late 19th century.
When in 1885 Henry Cunnington, a gentleman landowner with a passion for antiquity, dug into the barrow expectations were running high. Prehistoric barrows within Christian churchyards are rare and in 1882 one had been excavated at Taplow in Buckinghamshire where a hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure was discovered. Thought at the time to be Viking, it was on a smaller scale but of similar quality to that of the famous Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial later found in 1939. Cunnington’s disappointment is apparent in the opening line of his St Andrew’s report: ‘We found no Viking at Ogbourne’. However, his discoveries have proved to be nonetheless fascinating……
At a depth of about 2 feet from the top of the barrow 20 skeletons had been interred without coffins, apparently the victims of a single catastrophic event. Their relatively good state of preservation and their orientation – all with their heads towards the west in the Christian tradition – confirm these people were not Ancient British. There are two theories for their origin:
they were Medieval victims of one or more of the outbreaks of plague which swept the country during this period with the infamous Black Death occurring 1348-1350 that in England caused the death of an estimated 1.5 million of a total population of c.4 million;
or they are casualties from the Civil War, possibly from the siege of Marlborough in 1642 when 120 defeated Roundhead defenders of the town were marched in chains to the Royalist capital of Oxford, proceeding along the valley of the Og.
Were these unfortunate 20 among the walking wounded who failed to make it past the first village?
Near the centre of the barrow at a depth of about 5 feet was a male skeleton buried in a straight wooden chest which had decayed but several of these corroded iron clamps were found which would have secured the coffin as shown. No grave goods were present and the head was aligned to the west - both consistent with the Christian rather than Pagan burial tradition.
During the late 5th and the 6th centuries there were many burials in Anglo-Saxon Britain that re-used ancient burial mounds. However, experts consider this secondary interment at Ogbourne St Andrew to be a relatively rare example of an early Christian conversion from paganism of a Saxon leader who nonetheless wished to keep one foot in the ‘old religion’.
The pre-Christianity settlement name of Oceburnan, first recorded in 946 but earlier in origin, deciphers as ‘Oca’s stream’.
Could the barrow be Oca’s final resting place?
At a depth of 7 feet, about 4 feet above the ancient ground level, Cunnington found cremated bones which had been picked out from the ashes, carefully wrapped in cloth and placed on a plank of wood laid on a low mound that was raised over the site of the funeral pyre.
This was the ‘primary burial’, i.e. the cremation and burial of the person for whom the barrow was constructed.
Close by a small food vessel was found which was broken into pieces during the dig. The vessel, which would have contained some food and was intended to give sustenance to the deceased in the afterlife, would have been very similar to the intact example shown below in the collection of the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
The barrow itself is also significant. Geophysical survey in 2016 located the 50metre diameter ditch from which the material to construct the mound was excavated. This is a ‘bell barrow’, much larger than other types and relatively rare, suggesting the recipient was a high status leader who commanded considerable resources needed for its construction.
The burial rites, the pottery and the type of barrow are all consistent with the Early Bronze Age ‘Wessex 1’ period and a burial date at some time between 1900BC – 1700BC is indicated.
An Early Bronze Age high status cremation burial, an Early Saxon leader’s Christian burial in a pagan barrow and medieval or later burials following a catastrophic event - A quite remarkable mound!
Roger Harris 2017
The remaining four barrows:
All four have been ploughed in over the centuries and no visible trace remains on the surface. The first is situated in the field to the north of the church and has only just been discovered (February 2018) via a magnetometer survey. The second was revealed in 2017 by a Google Earth crop mark image, which needs comfirmation with a geophysical survey. This image is flanked in adjoining fields to the east and west by ring ditches observed by aerial photography. These three are closely aligned. More information is available on the HER record.