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Tar Barrows

Round Barrow(s)


I was just watching a programme presented by Julian Richards, about Roman roads near Cirencester. He claimed that one of the roads heading in / out of the town (White Way) deliberately makes a dog-leg to avoid the Tar Barrow, showing the amount of respect between the invading Romans and the resident Dobunni.

Looking at the map it's 'kind of' convincing. I'd have thought it was a bit hard to say really. I shouldn't argue with Mr Richards but then again there is such a thing as Making Good Television.

There are actually two 'Tar Barrows' and they have a bit of folklore. They show how facts are a nuisance when you're Making Good Folklore, also:
GLOS. Cirencester: (S)Tarbury barrow. 'East of the town, about a quarter of a mile, is a mount or barrow called Starbury, where several gold coins have been dug up, of about the time of Julian, which we saw.' This must be the same as Tar Barrows, from which an account written about 1685 refers to urns full of coins among the finds, the rest of which show the story to have been greatly 'improved' in the telling.
W. Stukeley, Itin. Curios., 2nd edn. (1776), 67; Trans. B. and G.A.S. 79 (1961), 51-2.
Barrow Treasure, in Fact, Tradition, and Legislation
L. V. Grinsell
Folklore, Vol. 78, No. 1. (Spring, 1967), pp. 1-38.

This 'great improvement' is a weird tale indeed. I know I've got the words of the original.. somewhere.. but until I find them, here's a summary from Jeremy Harte's 'Hollow Hills' article on At The Edge.
To see any English legend as having derived from imaginative response to a chambered tomb is premature until alternative explanations have been ruled out. At Torbarrow Hill near Cirencester, for instance, two men are reported in 1685 to have 'discovered an entrance into the hill, where they found several rooms with their furniture'. That is exciting - one immediately thinks of them stumbling across something out of the Cotswold-Severn group. But the story goes on, getting wilder, with Roman urns, coins, groaning heads, and a figure in armour that strikes out the light. The details are taken from mediaeval legends of the magician Gerbert, probably via the Gesta Romanorum, and there is no long barrow at the site. Instead, the two men challenge credulity by claiming to have entered the hill itself, sinking a gravel pit twelve feet down and then working sideways. The fact that pamphlets of this kind were frequently made up by some London publisher a hundred miles away does not help our unbelief much either.
And more from Grinsell:
In a recent essay, Piggot [Piggott, Stuart, 1976. Ruins in a Landscape. p77-99] argues persuasively that this story, placed at 'Colton's Field' within two miles of Cirencester, conforms to an International Popular Tale in vogue in the late 17th century, and that its location near Cirencester may have been provided to add plausibility to the story which was probably without factual basis.
Notes on the Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain
L. V. Grinsell
Folklore, Vol. 90, No. 1. (1979), pp. 66-70.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
27th March 2008ce
Edited 27th March 2008ce

Comments (2)

A comment on your first paragraph, and Julian Richards theory on the "dog leg" in the Roman Rd.
This is something that I've noticed at a few sites-the official line being that the Romans built these dead straight roads and, every so often, had made a slight detour in them to go around a barrow (or a Silbury Hill even).
I would suggest that a more likely explaination is that the Roman roads followed trackways that were already established. We were told in school that the Romans built the first roads across the country: They certainly improved upon what was there before, but the routes would have been established long before their arrival.
I did not see the programme you mention, but it does sound like another case of "nothing was there before the Romans"!
Posted by Ledger
29th March 2008ce
That is an excellent point. It's strange how even people that should know better (like JR) carry on propagating the myth.
Fitzcoraldo's got some similar thoughts on the roads crossing the North York Moors, like Wade's Causeway.. (you'd have to see him for the details!) It's not like you can have it both ways, people say roads are straight because of the Romans, and then find excuses why they're still Roman when they're not straight!
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
23rd April 2008ce
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