The neglected Mersea Island Barrow
This article was written in 1969 and published in Essex Countryside.
The Mersea Island Barrow has for the last twenty-odd years been the home of chickens from the farm next door. The effects of the weather, the activities of the chickens and general neglect have caused it slowly to disappear from the public's view under scrub hedges, brambles, old car bodies and farm machinery. Dug into the side of the mound is a derelict cart shed.
Fifty or sixty years after the death of Christ, a very important person died on Mersea Island. The Romans had captured Colchester some years before and made it into their main city, erecting temples, houses and, of course, a fort. Their boats were laid up for the winter on Mersea hard for careening and repairs. The wealthy had begun to visit the Island for recreation, and were also building villas.
Caractacus had been defeated at Brentwood while defending Colchester, and had lost over 4,000 men and all his equipment. It is possible that one of his many sons was held prisoner, or as a hostage, in Colchester. Perhaps one of the princes of the Iceni, the Norfolk tribe that made an alliance with the emperor Claudius and helped him to capture the British Colchester, came to live in Mersea with his wife, the daughter of one of the Romans. It was the custom for Romans to take hostages from the indigenous tribes and lead them into Roman ways through marriage with a daughter.
British barrows were built only for the most important people, for they involved many thousands of man-hours of labour, every basket-load of soil being delivered on foot, often from some considerable distance from the site. The barrows were built with great care in a circle round a central pole, growing higher in diminishing platforms. On Mersea Island there is evidence that fires were lit on succeeding stages, either for sacrifices or for workmen's meals, for there are bones and sea shells round the ash heaps.
The astonishing thing about Mersea Barrow is that the contents are Roman, and the Romans had been in the area for only about twenty years. Romans did not build barrows, and the Britons did not put their dead into Roman bottles and caskets. It is my contention, therefore, that it is quite likely that the Barrow was built by a British chief for a Roman. He would not bestow this great honour on a man, therefore it was for someone he loved dearly, perhaps his wife, whose family in Colchester provided the Roman items.
Her body was cremated and the partly burned bones and ashes were put into a valuable glass jar encased in a leaden box and buried in a tomb of tiles, which was then covered with a huge mound of earth. From this, her memorial mound, her spirit could see away to the north the flags of Colchester over her home, and to the south, the island she had come to love, and beyond it the new Roman fort of Othona at Bradwell.
The glass bowl is to be seen in Colchester Castle Museum, with its tiny bones and ash. It came from central France, the Roman cultural centre of Gaul. The lead casket, measuring 12 x 12 x 13 inches was Roman too. The British did not use the metal in this way; in fact, the welding of joints was a Roman discovery, only rediscovered in Britain about 1820.
It is on record that in 1912 the mound was 22 feet high and about 100 feet in diameter, but it is smaller today. The flattened top was 16 feet wide in 1912, but today the chickens have scratched away most of this.
"Immediately to the north of the mound is the spot where the Pyefleet Channel is crossed by an ancient and long disused ford made of hard material which must have been brought there artificially", wrote Hazzledine Warren, the investigator in 1912. Beyond are traces of a Celtic track which was perhaps the entry to the Island about AD 60 when the Barrow was built and before the Strood was developed.
In Holman's History of Essex of 1740 there is reference to a second barrow on Mersea Island. There are rumours on the Island of secret digging and discoveries of urns and remains of another barrow in recent years. The story of Mehala connected with the Barrow was borrowed from other sources as the author, Sabine Baring-Gould, confessed. Mersea Islanders have many old stories and legends to tell.
Copyright Mersea Island Museum Trust 2019