Roman cist burials in Gorsley Wood


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Roman cist burials in Gorsley Wood
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Canterbury (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TR 17098 52014

Reasons for Designation

Earthen barrows are the most visually spectacular survivals of a wide variety of funerary monuments in Britain dating to the Roman period. Constructed as steep-sided conical mounds, usually of considerable size and occasionally with an encircling bank or ditch, they covered one or more burials, generally believed to be those of high-ranking individuals. The burials were mainly cremations, although inhumations have been recorded, and were often deposited with accompanying grave goods in chambers or cists constructed of wood, tile or stone sealed beneath the barrow mound. Occasionally the mound appears to have been built directly over a funeral pyre. The barrows usually occur singly, although they can be grouped into "cemeteries" of up to ten examples. They are sited in a variety of locations but often occur near Roman roads. A small number of barrows were of particularly elaborate construction, with masonry revetment walls or radial internal walls. Roman barrows are rare nationally, with less than 150 recorded examples, and are generally restricted to lowland England with the majority in East Anglia. The earliest examples date to the first decades of the Roman occupation and occur mainly within this East Anglian concentration. It has been suggested that they are the graves of native British aristocrats who chose to perpetuate aspects of Iron Age burial practice. The majority of the barrows were constructed in the early second century AD but by the end of that century the fashion for barrow building appears to have ended. Occasionally the barrows were re-used when secondary Anglo-Saxon burials were dug into the mound. Many barrows were subjected to cursory investigation by antiquarians in the 19th century and, as little investigation to modern standards has taken place, they remain generally poorly understood. As a rare monument type which exhibits a wide diversity of burial tradition all Roman barrows, unless significantly damaged, are identified as nationally important.

The group of three barrows in Gorsley Wood have been shown by partial excavations to represent an unique blend of two Roman burial traditions - those of cemetery burials and burials beneath mounds. As such they add to the known diversity of Roman burial rites. Despite the excavation and removal of the principal burials, the barrows retain significant archaeological potential since the excavation was limited in scale. Much evidence still exists in the makeup of and beneath the mounds, in the form of evidence of the environment in which the mounds were constructed and possibly in the form of further cremation burials.


The monument includes a series of three stone cists of the Roman period, each of which was originally covered by a low, circular earthen mound, together with the low enclosing bank and the surrounding area from which earth for the mounds and bank was quarried or scraped up. Partial excavation of these barrows in 1882/3 revealed some of the details of the monument. The three cists are similar in their method of construction: each took the form of a stone box 0.9-1.2m long by 0.7- 0.8m wide made of Kentish ragstone, and each was sunk about 1m below the level of the surrounding ground. Around the cists had been raised earthen mounds which varied in size, the southernmost being 10.5m across and 1.2m high before excavation, the middle example measuring 9m across and 1m high and the northernmost 7.5m across and 0.6m high. On the western side of the southernmost example, a large number of tiles, edged with a row of flint nodules, paved the sloping ground surface leading to the cist. All three mounds were enclosed within a low earthen bank some 5m across and up to 0.5m high, which survives best on the northern side. Amongst the items found during the excavations were poorly cremated human bone, fragments of bronze and a few pieces of glass. Pottery urns were also found which confirmed the Roman date of the barrows. The cists were left exposed after excavation, and are still visible to the present day.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 3 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Vine, F, On Three Tumuli in Gorsley Wood, near Bridge and Canterbury, (1883)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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