Barrow, what barrow?
View of the Barrow from Dawes Lane
Every islander knows the Mersea Barrow - or do they? For nearly two thousand years it has silently guarded the road to East Mersea. Overlooking the north shore of the island and the Pyefleet channel, this earth-built burial mound, or tumulus, was already over five hundred years old when the Strood was constructed by the Anglo-Saxons.
For many years curious visitors have ventured into the tunnel to view the chamber, which once concealed a tile-built tomb. But the same question is on everyone's lips: who built this massive mound, and who was buried within it? Even today, with developments in modern archaeology, we are no nearer the answer. No-one expects to be given the name of the deceased, but despite the many legends we do not even know if it was a man or woman, young or old, Briton or Roman.
2012 marks the centenary of the most momentous event since the barrow was first constructed by its unknown builders. The Morant Club, a society formed to investigate ancient burial mounds, asked geologist Samuel Hazzledine Warren to excavate the mysterious earthwork. He arrived on Mersea in April 1912 to supervise the digging of a trench towards the centre of the barrow. On 21st May the workmen's tools struck something solid. Immediately, Warren gave the order to cease work while he hastened to send telegrams to the Curator of Colchester Castle Museum and the President of the Morant Club: 'Found small built structure wait opening tomorrow.'
The next day a large crowd watched as the tomb at the heart of the barrow was opened. Warren's report states: 'It was a great day for the inhabitants of Mersea Island, to see the secrets of their barrow, which had for so many generations exercised their wonder and speculation, at last revealed.'
Inside a sealed structure made entirely of Roman roof-tiles was a hollow cavity. As the first tiles were removed, Warren glimpsed a square lead box, covered by a lid of two wooden boards. Inside he found a green globular glass bowl in which could be seen a large number of partially- burnt bones. This was final resting place of someone who had lived on Mersea Island in the first century AD, and whose cremated bones had lain under the great barrow, unknown and undisturbed, for nearly two thousand years.
What's the problem?
Serious soil fall beginning to black Barrow entrance.
Since May 1912, visitors from near and far have continued to explore the excavation. In August 2010, just before a group of Chinese students was due to visit, it was discovered that a considerable amount of sandy soil had slipped down in front of the entrance to the barrow. Some of this was cleared by members of the group and the damage was reported to Colchester Borough Council, who own and maintain the barrow. A few days later, a smaller fall of soil was found in the innermost chamber, beneath the unsupported roof. Roots from the trees on top of the barrow penetrate as far as this and probably help to hold the soil together, but there is the possibility of further heavier falls in the future. In July 2011 a structural survey was carried out and several matters of concern were noted. The entrance tunnel was deemed to be in a stable condition, as the walls and roof are shored up with bricks (reassuring for visitors) but issues such as the safety of the inner chamber, the condition of trees on the mound and slippage of soil need to be addressed. A somewhat alarming figure of £47,500 was quoted for the necessary work. However, although some of this would require specialist contractors, other jobs could be tackled by local volunteers. It is thought that the barrow could be put into a basically sound condition for around £12,000.
What can be done and how can you help?
If you want to learn more about this important part of the island's heritage, please come to the museum on Wednesday 28th March at 7.30 pm, when there will be an illustrated talk on "Mersea Barrow - Past, Present and Future" followed by an open discussion. Admission will be free, everyone is welcome, and this promises to be a very interesting evening.
Some ideas already in the pipeline include applying for a grant from English Heritage, getting Time Team involved and, most excitingly, having the cremated bones analysed by a new method which could at last provide more information about the occupant of the tomb. Although the barrow belongs to Colchester Borough Council, funds from that direction are unlikely in these difficult times. However, for the sake of future generations we should not take the attitude that it is "not our problem".
It is important that visitors of all ages continue to have access to the barrow. Already this year over a dozen people have been inside, including workmen preparing the new car park (more about this at the talk). The issues can be resolved but it needs the help and encouragement of the people of Mersea. Not every place has such a rare, impressive Scheduled Ancient Monument.
An article published in Mersea Island Courier 527, 21 March 2012