What is a Tumulus (Burial Mound)? And Where Is It Used?

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In the modern world, we’re used to cemeteries looking a certain way. Specifically, we expect neat lines of individual plots marked with headstones or gravestones. But throughout history, people have been burying their dead in different ways. One of those methods involves the use of a tumulus or burial mound. 

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Burial mounds are a centuries-old way of laying the dead to rest, practiced around the world throughout history. And tumuli (the plural of tumulus) also act as monuments designed to honor and remember the dead. Many of the most well-known burial mounds in the world memorialize ancient, important people. 

If you’re interested in burial mounds and how they’ve played a part of death in different cultures throughout history, you’ll find the answers to your questions below. 

What’s a Tumulus?

A tumulus is a man-made mound of earth and stones covering one or more graves. The term tumulus is Latin, and it translates to “mound” or “small hill.” The prefix tum means “to bulge” or “to swell.” You might recognize it as part of the English words tomb, thumb, and tumor

To create a burial mound, the ancients sometimes dug into the ground and buried the bodies, first.  Then they’d build the tumulus out of the available stones and soil. In other regions of the world, such as England, ancient villages usually built a stone chamber, which they then covered with sod and debris.  Many burial mounds were used to house the ashes of the deceased, rather than the body itself. 

In different parts of the world, burial mounds go by various names. Here are some examples:

Barrow (England)

In the western parts of Europe and the British Isles, burial mounds are known as barrows. Barrows were a primary form of burial in England from the Neolithic Period (4,000 BCE) all the way up until around 600 CE. Early barrows were longer in shape, whereas more modern barrows were round. 

Cairn (Scotland)

In Scotland, an alternative name for a tumulus is a cairn.  Burial cairns in Scotland date back primarily to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. But they’re still used to this day in regions where the soil is difficult to dig into, or where the body might be disturbed by animals and inclement weather. 

Kurgan (Central Asia)

In Central Asia, burial mounds often go by the Turkish name, “kurgan.” The word derives from the prefix “kur,” meaning “to establish.” One of the highest peaks east of the Taurus Mountains, in southeastern Turkey, is thought to be a  royal tomb from around 100 BCE.

Rujm or rogem (Middle East)

In Arabic, the term rujm refers to stone heap, under which a body is buried. In Hebrew, the term for a heap of stones covering a burial chamber is the similar-sounding rogem

Purpose

Why would ancient people create burial mounds when they could simply bury their dead as we do now? It’s important to keep in mind that the ancients didn’t have easy access to technologies we take for granted today, including burial caskets. At the same time, wildlife was intermingled with human life. It was ever-essential not to draw unwelcome attention from predators. 

Here are some of the reasons ancient communities had for creating these structures. 

Protecting the dead

One of the key reasons for constructing a burial mound is to protect a deceased body or the ashes of the deceased. In regions where digging into the earth isn’t feasible due to stone or cold weather, placing the body inside a tomb would have been the best solution. Concealing the body in this way also protects it from wildlife. 

Honoring the dead

One of the purposes of a tumulus is to mark the final resting place of an important person, such as a king. A burial mound dedicated to a king or another important person might include other artifacts, like sculptures and valuable belongings. It might also be more elaborate, constructed with higher-quality stone, or planted over with specific foliage. In some regions of the United States, indigenous people built “effigy mounds” in the shape of animals. 

Burying the dead together

In the modern world, we typically think of a grave as an individual resting place. But when it comes to a tumulus, or burial mound, that isn’t always the case. For example, in England during the Neolithic Period, villages usually buried whole families or clans within a single mound. This type of burial mound is known as a common grave

History

Burial mounds have been a part of history around the world since the Neolithic Period or earlier. In western Europe, barrows date back mainly to 4000 BCE through 600 CE. 

Burial mounds dating back to 1000 BCE can be found in east-central North America. The mounds in this area are numerous, and they were all built within a relatively short period of time. Originally, archeologists thought the “mound-builders” were a distinctive people-group. But we now know the Hopewell and Adena people of that region built the structures. 

Tumuli in East Asia, including China and Japan, date back to around the third century BCE. They were a prominent part of prehistoric Asia, from the third to sixth centuries CE. This period is even referred to sometimes as “the Tumulus period.” 

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3 Examples Burial Mounds in the Ancient and Modern World

Tumuli, or burial mounds, are best-known as an ancient form of burial. And most examples of burial mounds are, in fact, very old. But the practice of constructing burial mounds has also persisted into the modern world. 

Here are some examples of burial mounds—both ancient and relatively new—that you can visit and learn more about. 

1. Dougleby Howe (Britain)

Dougleby Howe (also known as Howe Hill) is one of the largest barrows in Britain. It’s located in an area where there are four such burial mounds, known as the Great Barrows of East Yorkshire. 

Archeologists believe Dougleby Howe was constructed in the late Neolithic period. It consists of a mound that’s 120 feet in diameter and about 22 feet high, with a flattened top. It sits within a circular enclosure of ditches. 

Upon excavation (in 1798 or 1799), archeologists found multiple bodies in crouching positions, buried at multiple levels. The excavators also found cremated remains in heaps within the mound. 

2. Mount Nemrut (Turkey)

Atop one of the highest peaks in the Eastern Taurus mountain range, in Southeast Turkey, is the burial mound known as Nemrut Dag or Mount Nemrut. The tumulus is the temple-tomb of King Antiochos (69-34 BCE), and he had it built himself. 

Mount Nemrut has a diameter of 145 meters, and it stands 50 meters high. It’s made up of stone chips and surrounded by terraces on three sides. There are also five giant limestone statues facing outwards from the mound on the upper level of terraces. The statues’ inscriptions identify them as important deities and guardians. 

3. All Cannings Barrow (England)

Barrows are ancient, but they’re not related to the ancient past. In 2014, work began on the All Cannings Barrow in the UK. The completed, Neolithic-style barrow was split into multiple chambers, each containing about 300 cremation urn niches. And the niches sold out quickly, showing that the public still had an interest in burial mounds. 

Can You Be Buried in a Burial Mound? 

Ancient burial mounds date back to the Neolithic Period and earlier. But what if you wanted to be buried in a tumulus in the modern world? You’re probably out of luck. With limited space for cemeteries in a world with a rapidly expanding population, there’s just not room for everyone—or every family—to have their own tumulus. 

But burial mounds aren’t gone and forgotten. As described above, a new one recently went up in England. And there are plans to construct further barrows in other regions. So if you want to be buried in a modern burial mound, you’ll have to act fast and reserve your spot. 

If you're looking to read more on famous burial sites, read our guides on the Ming Dynasty Tombs and the Paris Catacombs.


Sources

  1. “Burial mound.”Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/burial-mound
  2. “Nemrud Nagi.” Encyclopedia Iranica. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/nemrud-dagi
  3. Whelan, Ed. “A Return to Ancient Burial Traditions: Want to Be Buried in a Barrow?” Ancient Origins. 3 February 2019. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/replica-prehistoric-burial-mound-0011427
  4. “Burial mound owner 'worried' over long barrow's £13,000 tax bill.” BBC. 14 June 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-48613688
  5. “All Cannings 'Neolithic' barrow construction work begins. BBC. 11 January 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-25697062
  6. The Tomb Of Emperor Nintoku (Daisen Kofun). Gaijin Pot Travel. https://travel.gaijinpot.com/the-tomb-of-emperor-nintoku-daisen-kofun/
  7. Hirst, Kris. “Rujm el-Hiri (Golan Heights) - Ancient Observatory.” Thought Co. 24 November 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/rujm-el-hiri-golan-heights-169608

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