Neolithic burial mounds at Five Knolls

A view of Pascombe Hill on the Dunstable Downs Five Knolls walk

Lying on the edge of the Downs, this Scheduled Monument is the only such site known in Bedfordshire. The bumps visible against the skyline are barrows or burial mounds, constructed in chalk over individual burials. Later burials (usually cremations) were dug into the outside of the original mounds. First noted by William Stukely in the 18th century, the burial mounds were excavated in the 1850s and 1920s, revealing that they originated in the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages and were re-used for burial in the Roman period and beyond.

The history of Five Knolls

An overview

At Dunstable Downs there is a group of seven round barrows, consisting of two bowl barrows, three bell barrows, and two pond barrows. It is thought that they were initially used as burial grounds for Kings or Chiefs, although excavations of two of the bell barrows in August 1850 revealed no treasure to support this.

Excavation history

When the northern-most barrow was excavated in 1928 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a crouched female skeleton with a late Neolithic knife at her shoulder was found. This was later put on display at Luton Museum and Art Gallery.

Other excavations throughout the 1920s revealed over 90 skeletons from various periods. For instance, in Saxon times about 30 bodies were buried there with their hands apparently still tied behind their backs. Gallows were set up on the northernmost barrow in medieval times and some of the people hanged there were also buried there.

Witch lore has also been connected with the barrows, as in the trial of Elizabeth Pratt of Dunstable in 1667. She was arrested whilst meeting with three other women, plotting to bewitch the children of Thomas Heyward.

Other monuments nearby

Two other Scheduled Monuments can be found either side of the adjacent hilltop. Two long, low 'pillow' mounds, first noted by W.G. Smith in 1894 are considered by their form and location to indicate the sites of  medieval rabbit warrens.

These were possibly constructed and managed by the Augustian Priory at Dunstable. Warrens being areas of land set aside for breeding and management of rabbits, to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and skins.