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Dictionary Definition

tumulus n : (archeology) a heap of earth placed over prehistoric tombs [syn: burial mound, grave mound, barrow]

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From tumulus


  1. A mound or earth, especially one placed over a prehistoric tomb


Extensive Definition

A tumulus (plural tumuli) is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds, or kurgans, and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn.
The method of inhumation may involve a dolmen, a cist, a mortuary enclosure, a mortuary house or a chamber tomb. Examples of barrows include Duggleby Howe and Maeshowe.
The word is Latin for 'mound' or 'small hill', from the PIE root *teuh2- with extended zero grade *tum-, 'to bulge, swell' also found in tumor, thumb, thigh and thousand. Tumulus can also refer to a formation caused by the uplift of lava on a pahoehoe flow field. The lava pushes up against the recently solidified surface creating tumuli along the surface.

Tumulus burial accounts

The funeral of Patroclus is described in book 23 of the Iliad. Patroclus is burned on a pyre, and his bones are collected into a golden urn in two layers of fat. The barrow is built on the location of the pyre. Achilles then sponsors funeral games, consisting of a chariot race, boxing, wrestling, running, a duel between two champions to the first blood, discus throwing, archery and spear throwing.
Beowulf is taken to Hronesness, where he burned on a funeral pyre. During cremation, the Geats lament the death of their lord, the widow's lament being mentioned in particular, singing dirges as they circumambulate the barrow. Afterwards, a mound is built on top of a hill, overlooking the sea, and filled with treasure. A band of twelve of the best warriors ride around the barrow, singing dirges in praise of their lord.
Parallels have also been drawn to the account of Attila's burial in Jordanes' Getica. Jordanes tells that as Attila's body was lying in state, the best horsemen of the Huns circled it, as in circus games.
An Old Irish Life of Columcille reports that every funeral procession "halted at a mound called Eala, whereupon the corpse was laid, and the mourners marched thrice solemnly round the spot."

Types of barrows

Archaeologists often classify tumuli according to their location, form, and date of construction. See also mound. Some British types are listed below:
  • Bank barrow
  • Bell barrow
  • Bowl barrow
  • D-shaped barrow A round barrow with a purposely flat edge at one side often defined by stone slabs
  • Fancy barrow A generic term for any Bronze Age barrows more elaborate than a simple hemispherical shape.
  • Long barrow
  • Oval barrow A type of Neolithic long barrow consisting of an elliptical, rather than rectangular or trapezoidal mound.
  • Platform barrow The least common of the recognised types of round barrow, consisting of a flat, wide circular mound, which may be surrounded by a ditch. They occur widely across southern England with a marked concentration in East and West Sussex.
  • Pond barrow a barrow consisting of a shallow circular depression, surrounded by a bank running around the rim of the depression. Bronze age
  • Ring barrow a bank which encircles a number of burials.
  • Round barrow a circular feature created by the Bronze Age peoples of Britain and also the later Romans, Vikings and Saxons. Divided into sub classes such as saucer and bell barrow. The Six Hills are a rare Roman example.
  • Saucer barrow circular Bronze Age barrow featuring a low, wide mound surrounded by a ditch which may be accompanied by an external bank.
  • Square barrow A burial site, usually of Iron Age date, consisting of a small, square, ditched enclosure surrounding a central burial, which may also have been covered by a mound


split List of tumuli

Eastern Europe, Central Asia

The word kurgan is of Turkic origin borrowed from Russian language. In Ukraine and Russia, there are royal kurgans of Varangian chieftains, such as the Black Grave in Ukrainian Chernihiv (excavated in the 19th century), Oleg's Grave in Russian Staraya Ladoga, and vast, intricate Rurik's Hill near Russian Rurikovo gorodische. Other important kurgans are found in Ukraine and South Russia and are associated with much more ancient steppe peoples, notably the Scythians (e.g.,Chortomlyk, Pazyryk) and Proto-Indo-Europeans (e.g., Ipatovo) The steppe cultures found in Ukraine and South Russia naturally continue into Central Asia, in particular Kazakhstan.


Hundreds of Thracian burial mounds are found throughout Bulgaria, including the Kazanlak and Sveshtari tombs, UNESCO World Heritage sites. Located near the ancient Thracian capital cities of Seuthopolis (of the Odrysian kingdom) and Daosdava or Helis (of the Getae), perhaps they represented royal burials. Other tombs contained offerings such as the Panagyurishte and Rogozen treasures.


There are many tumuli in the Great Hungarian Plain, the highest is near of the settlement of Békésszentandrás, in Békés county.(see the picture of "Gödény-halom")



In Britain, early references to tumuli were made by William Camden, John Aubrey, and William Stukeley. During the 19th century in England the excavation of tumuli was a popular pastime amongst the educated and wealthy middle classes, who became known as "barrow-diggers". This leisure activity played a key role in laying the foundations for the scientific study of the past in Britain but also resulted in untold damage to the sites. Barrows were popularly used to bury the dead from the late Neolithic until the end of the Bronze Age, 2900-800BC. Square barrows were occasionally used in the Iron Age (800BC-43AD) in the east of England. The traditional round barrow experienced a brief resurgence after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, as Scandinavian burial practice became popular 500-600AD. These later barrows were often built near older Bronze Age barrows.


During the early Middle Ages, Slavic tribesmen inhabiting what is now the Czech Republic used to bury their dead under barrows. This practice has been widespread in southern and eastern Bohemia and some neighboring regions, like Upper Austria and Lusatia, which at that time have been also populated with Slavic people. However, there are no known Slavic barrows in central part of the country (around Prague), neither they are found in Moravia. This has led some of the archaeologists to speculations about at least three distinct waves of Slavic settlers, which have colonized Czech lands separately from each other, each wave bringing its customs with it (including burial rituals).
At places where barrows have been constructed, they are usually found in groups (10 to 100 together), often forming several clearly distinct lines going from the west to the east. Only a few of them have been studied scientifically so far; in them, both burials by fire (with burnt ashes) and unburned skeletons have been found, even on the same site. It seems that builders of the barrows have at some time switched from burials by fire to burying of unburned corpses; however, the reason for such change is unknown. The barrows date too far back in history (700 AD to 800 AD) to contain any Christian influences - it is almost certain that all people buried in them were pagans.
As Czech barrows usually served for burials of poor villagers, only a few objects are found in them except for cheap pottery. Only one Slavic barrow is known to have contained gold.
Most of the Czech burial barrows have been damaged or destroyed by intense agriculture in the densely populated region. Those which remain are usually located in forests, especially at hilltops in remote places. Therefore there is no general knowledge about burial barrows in the Czech population.
The best Slavic barrow sites can be found near to Vitín, a small village close to České Budějovice. There are two groups of barrows close to Vitín, each containing about 80 barrows ordered in lines. Some of the barrows are as much as 2 meters high.
There are also some prehistoric burial barrows in Czechia, built by unknown people. Unlike Slavic barrows, they can be found all across the country, though they are scarce. Distinguishing them from Slavic ones is not an easy task for the unskilled eye.



A tumulus can be found close to the Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal. It has been suggested by historians such as George Petrie, who surveyed the site in the early nineteenth century, that the tumulus may predate the ringfort of Aileach by many centuries possibly to the neolithic age. Stones surrounded it which were laid horizontally and converged towards the centre. In Petrie’s time, the mound had been excavated but nothing to explain its meaning was discovered. It was subsequently destroyed but its former position is marked by a heap of broken stones. Similar mounds can be found at The Hill of Tara and there are several prominent tumuli at Brú na Bóinne in County Meath.


Some big tumulus tombs can be found especially in the Etruscan culture. Smaller barrows are dated to the Villanova period (9th - 8th century BC) but the biggest were used in the following centuries (from the 7th century afterwards) by the Etruscan aristocracy. Burial mounds were in use until the 11th century in Scandinavia and figure heavily into Norse paganism. In their undamaged state they appear as small, man-made hillocks, though many examples have been damaged by ploughing or deliberately damaged so that little visible evidence remains.
By burning the deceased, it was believed that the person was transferred to Valhalla by the consuming force of the fire. The fire could reach temperatures of 1500 °C. The remains were covered with cobblestones and then a layer of gravel and sand and finally a thin layer of turf.
As the old Scandinavians worshiped their ancestors, the mounds were also places of worship.
Of note is King Björn's barrow in Håga (Old Norse name: Haug) near Uppsala. This location has a very strong connection with Björn at Haugi. First, the Nordic Bronze Age barrow gave its name to the location Håga ("the barrow"), which became part of the cognomen of the king, at Haugi ("at the barrow"), and interestingly, the mound was later named after the king.
In Norse mythology, the draugr was an undead creature that haunted burial mounds.

Αegean and Near East


Some of the world's most prominent Tumuli, the Macedonian tombs and a cist-grave at Vergina, tomb of Philip II (359-336 B.C) of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great (336-323). Speculation that the other grave found there is that of Alexander IV is controversial. His corpse was allegedly buried in Memphis during the turmoil of the Diadochi after his death in 323 BC.
Aigai is the ancient capital of Macedonia, homeland of Phillip II. During the 19th century, the tomb of Philip II was discovered in Vergina, northern Greece. The Monumental Palace is lavishly decorated with painted stuccoes and mosaics accompanying a burial ground with as many as 300 tumuli. Some tumuli date from the 11th century B.C. However, the most renowned is the royal tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, who manage to unite by force many Greek cities, architect of the Hellenistic expansion. This city lies on the northern slopes of the Pierian Mountains; Aigai has been identified as the capital of the Kingdom of Lower Macedonia. The site was inhabited continuously form the Bronze Age. By the 11th – 8th century BC it was a densely populated and rich centre. The 7th-6th centuries BC saw the premium point of its prosperity and popularity; this continued into the 5th century BC. Traditional sanctuaries were established, as were the seats of the Macedonian Kings. Royal tombs were known in antiquity to be opulent. Excavations were first undertaken at this site by 19th century. Archaeologists L. Heuzy of France and K. Rhomaios of Greece began but were stalled by the First and Second World Wars and excavations were not resumed until approximately 1952. In the 1960s M. Andronicos was director of the excavations and the cemetery of the tumuli was investigated. The Palace of Philip II was excavated by a team from Thessaloniki University along with part of the necropolis being investigated by the Ministry of Culture. 1977 was the pivotal date that M. Andronicos brought to the attention of the world, the royal tombs in the Great Tumulus of Vergina, (ΜεγάΛα) tomb. Unfortunately, the townspeople of Vergina have put a halt to any more excavations for the time being, under the auspices of preserving their beautiful surroundings and heritage.


On the Anatolian peninsula, there are several sites where one can find the biggest specimens of these artificial mounds throughout the world. Three of these sites are especially important. Bin Tepeler (and other Lydian mounds of the Aegean inland), Phrygian mounds in Gordium (Central Anatolia) and the famous Commagene tumulus on the Mount Nemrut (Southeastern Anatolia).
This is the most important of the enumerated sites with the number of specimens it has and with the dimensions of certain among them. It is in the Aegean inland of Turkey. The site is called "Bin Tepeler" (a thousand mounds in Turkish) and it is in the northwest of Salihli district of Manisa province. The site is very close to the southern shoreline of Lake Marmara (Lake Gyges or Gygaea). Bin Tepeler is a Lydian necropolis which dates back to 7th and 6th centuries B.C. These mounds are called "the pyramids of Anatolia" as there is even a giant specimen among them which attains 355 meters in diameter, 1115 meters in perimeter and 69 meters of height. According to the accounts drawn up by Herodotus, this giant tumulus belongs to the famous Lydian King Alyattes II who ruled between 619-560 B.C. There is also another mound belonging to King Gyges. The Gyges mound was excavated but the burial chamber hasn't been found yet. In this site, there are 75 tumuli dating back to Lydian period which belong to the nobility. A large number of smaller artificial mounds can also be observed in the site. There are other Lydian tumuli sites around Eşme district of Uşak province. Certain mounds in these sites had been plundered by raiders in the late 1960s and the Lydian treasures found in their burial chambers had been smuggled to United States which later had to cede them to Turkish authorities after a series of negotiations. These artifacts are now exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Uşak.
Gordium is the capital of the Phrygian Kingdom. Its ruins are in the immediate vicinity of Polatlı district of the Turkish capital Ankara. In this site, there are approximately 80-90 tumuli which date back to Phrygian, Persian and Hellenistic periods. Only 35 tumuli were excavated so far. The mounds had been built between 8th century B.C. and 3rd or 2nd century B.C. The biggest tumulus in the site is believed to belong to the famous Phrygian King Midas. This mound had been excavated in 1957 and several bronze artifacts were collected from the wooden burial chamber. Among these artifacts, "omphalos bowls" and famous "Phrygian fibulae" (hooked needles which were used by the Phryigians to bond the clothes they wore) are especially important.
The Mount Nemrut is 86 km in the east of Adıyaman province of Turkey. It is very close to Kahta district of the same province. The mountain has, at its peak, 3050 meters of height above the sea level. A tumulus which dates back to the 1st century B.C. is situated at the peak of the mountain. This artificial mound has 150 meters of diameter and a height of 50 meters which was originally 55 meters. It belongs to the Commagene King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene who ruled between 69-40 B.C. The most interesting thing about the tumulus is that it is made of broken stone pieces which renders the excavation attempts almost impossible. The tumulus is surrounded by ceremonial terraces in the east, west and north. The east and west terraces have tremendous statues (reaching 8 to 10 meters of height) and bas reliefs of gods and goddesses from the Commagene pantheon where divine figures used to embody the Persian and Roman perceptions together.


The first burial mounds in Korea were dolmens which contained the material culture of the first millennium CE, such as bronze-ware, pottery, and other symbols of the elite of society.
The most famous tumulii in Korea, dating around 300 AD, are those left behind by the Korean Baekje, Goguryeo(Kogyuro/Koguryo), Silla, and Gaya states and are clustered around ancient capital cities in modern-day Pyongyang, Seoul, Jian, and Gwangju. The Goguryeo tombs, shaped like pyramids, are famous for the well-preserved wall murals like the ones at Anak Tomb No.3 which depict the culture and artistry of the people. The base of the tomb of King Gwanggaeto is 85 meters on each side, half of the size of the Great Pyramids. Goguryeo Silla tombs are most noted for the fabulous offerings that have been excavated such as delicate golden crowns and glassware and beads that probably made their way to Korea via the Silk Road.
Many indigenous Korean artifacts and culture were transmitted to the tomb builders of early Japan, such as horsetrappings, bronze mirrors, paintings and iron-ware.

North America


  • Knight, Peter, Ancient Stones of Dorset, 1996.
  • LMLK--A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1
  • Grinsell, L.V., 1936, The Ancient Burial-mounds of England. London: Methuen.
  • The Archaeology of Korea
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