Belas Knap Long Barrow
Belas Knap is one of the finest neolithic long barrows in Gloucestershire. Like all the other seventy or so known long barrows in the county, it is located on the limestone uplands of the Cotswolds. The photo to right shows a view of the northern end of the Belas Knap long barrow. It is situated, like the Toots long barrow and Hetty Peglar's Tump, not at the very top of the hill but just below the crest of the slope so that when it was first built it would have been visible as a bump outlined against the sky from the valley below. Intervening trees now partially cut off a panoramic view east over the valley in which lies Sudeley Castle.
Besides the castle, the valley and its slopes evidently held attractions for other people as well. Further down the slope below Belas Knap are the remains of a Roman villa, with another located due west across the valley on Cole's Hill. The Romans themselves evidently visited Belas Knap; the remains of Romano-British pottery have been found at the north end of the barrow.
The ancient path of the Cotswold Way, having passed through Winchcombe in the valley to the north, winds up the west slope to the Roman villa, up higher to Belas Knap, and then, following the high ground, swings round west and north to descend near Cleve Hill into the Severn Valley. Today, visitors leave their cars on the nearest road and take the long walk up through Humblebee Woods and through open fields to the site.
Built about 3000 B.C.E., the barrow originally must have measured about 200 feet in length (today it is approximately 178 feet long), about 80 feet in width (now it is about 60 feet wide), and nearly 14 feet in height. It is a chambered barrow with a false entrance at the larger northern end.
The false entrance is located at the rear of a U-shaped forecourt set back into the mass of the mound with two horn-like projections either side. In a more fully developed megalithic monument, such as the West Kennet Long Barrow, or Wayland's Smithy, orthostats and capstones would have been built into this "forecourt" area. Photo, right, shows the "false entrance" at the northern end of Belas Knap. In his book "Prehistoric Gloucestershire", the archaeologist Timothy Darvill has suggested that the H-shaped portal setting of the false entrance is the remains of an earlier portal dolmen which became incorporated within the larger tomb. The lower courses of the dry-stone walling seen in the false entrance are original. The lintel stone, however, is a modern replacement.
When the original lintel stone was removed during excavations in 1863-5, among the rubble forming the blocking of the false entrance were found the skeletal remains of five children aged between 6 months and 8 years, the skull of a young adult male, horse and pig bones, plus fragments of pottery and serrated flint blade.
The actual burial chambers, four in all, are located on the long sides of the mound and in the tail. The two photographs (right) show the two chambers on the north side (on the left, that in the north-west; on the right, that in the north-east). The two photographs (below) show the chamber on the south-east side side, on the left, and the chamber in the tail. The megalithic roofs of these chambers are reconstructions, undertaken when the mound was restored in 1930-31.
Excavations undertaken in 1963 found the remains of about forty burials in the side chambers. These burials, however, occurred over a long period of time and none may in fact date to the time when the mound was built.
It has been suggested that Belas is derived from the name Baal", an ancient storm god ("Belus", in Latin). Knap on the other hand is thought by some to be a variant form of "Cneph", the Egyptian sacred winged disk. Knap, however, is simply Old English for the top, crest, or summit of a hill. Belas may perhaps be a corruption of the Latin word for "beautiful" -- bellus-- and may describe either the hill itself or the view from it.