2 miles south of Winchcombe, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Belas Knap, very vaguely translated as something along the lines of "beautiful hill", is an extraordinary long barrow, accessible only by a quite exhausting, though rewardingly picturesque, hike up a steep hill in the Cotswolds. Built around 2,500 B.C., it consists of a great trapezoidal mound, facing north-north-east, now measuring about 54 x 18m but originally 60 x 25m, with an impressive dry-stone walled forecourt and four burial chambers, one in the centre of the western face, another in the south, and two in the east. These chambers may have been in use for several centuries before they were deliberately blocked up.
A word of caution, however. The site that we see today is largely the result of reconstruction by the Ministry of Works in 1929-31; made necessary by a series of clumsy 19th Century excavations which left the site battered and bruised with few clues as to its original appearance. As has already been alluded to, the original mound was significantly larger than that which we see today, and although its trapezoidal profile is not in doubt, we can only hazard a guess at how high it once stood and what shape this took. Such a downgrading of a Neolithic mound, however, is nothing unusual, as several millennia of erosion commonly results in a degree of deformation, and has even been known to remove it completely.
On entering the site one is confronted with the impressive entrance at the north end of the long barrow, consisting of a partly original dry-stone walled forecourt, tapering down to two standing stones either side of a sealed door, with a modern lintel overhead, replacing the original which was removed during the 1863-65 excavations. Despite its obvious appearance, however, this is a false entrance and there is nothing whatever beyond it. It has been suggested that it could have been placed there to attract the attention of thieves and so discourage them from further disturbance of the site, but this was never the lavishly furnished tomb of a Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings and would hardly have been worth raiding, so a more likely theory is that it was the focal point of religious ceremonies that took place here; a symbolic door through which one would consult the ancestors entombed within.
Moving in an anti-clockwise direction around the long barrow, we begin to encounter the real burial chambers. The north-west chamber, located towards the centre of the western face, consists of a brief passage leading to a slightly broader, roughly square-shaped interior, defined by dry-stone walling with four small stones stood vertically inside. It is difficult to say how close this and the other restored chambers are to their original condition, but we can say, without the slightest doubt, that the ceilings of all of them are completely incorrect. Most probably a great cap stone once covered them, but the Ministry of Works replaced these presumably absent members with concrete slabs, and, in one of the more surreal moments in the history of interior decoration, disguised this fact by cementing surplus dry-stone wall stones to their underface, in the manner of inverted crazy-paving. It looks impressive, but, in terms of an accurate restoration, it could not have been much more removed from reality had the ceiling been wallpapered.
The south chamber is in a very poor condition, reconstructed as a simple 5 metre long roof-less channel cut into the end of mound, and certainly bearing no resemblance at all to the original, which was, in essence, utterly demolished by the excavators. They did, however, do the kindness of leaving some drawings of its initial appearance, revealing a layout that is very similar to the north-west chamber.
The south-east is the narrowest of the four chambers, and can only be entered on one's hands and knees; something which I neglected to do in deference to the inevitable mess that would befall my clothing. Its layout is markedly at odds with the others, consisting of a long but very narrow rectangular shape with no obvious distinction between the chamber and the entrance passage, as opposed to a narrow passage leading into a broader square chamber. Almost the whole of the base of the walls are lined with small standing stones, and the remainder is dry-stone walled.
The north-east chamber is very impressive. It is located directly opposite the north-west chamber, and their designs are very similar. Inside are six rather large standing stones, all of which have been stabilised by fitting metal braces into the surrounding dry-stone walling.
A total of 38 skeletons, of both sexes and a variety of ages, were uncovered during the excavations; 14 in the north-west chamber, 12 in the north-east, 6 probably in the south-east, and, curiously, an adult and 5 children inside the false entrance; these are something of a mystery, but possibly indicate a secondary burial that took place many years later. The skeletons were not discovered intact but were instead jumbled together, with the sole exception of one which was found sitting near the entrance of the north-east chamber. It has been speculated that the recent dead were deposited in such a manner to allow the flesh to rot from their bones before they were stacked with the rest.
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