The Marlborough Mound: Prehistoric origins confirmed!
Jim Leary, who led the recent archaeological investigations for English Heritage at nearby Silbury Hill, and is co-author of the recently published The Story of Silbury Hill, coordinated EH's contribution to the investigation of Marlborough Mound, the initial results from which have been made public today... continues...
COUNCILLORS in Marlborough have called for a meeting with the College to discuss a plan for proposed landscaping work, which could affect the setting of the ancient mound in the school grounds... continues...
...but climb it and it seems even larger still. Phew -whee! As you climb, its spiralling terraced design and construction become more apparent and from the top its bulk is quite overwhelming and makes the ugly school buildings seem tiny. Lurking in a dip at the top of the mound is a huge ugly water tank and a kilny/chimney thing. I wondered if it was a rudimentary crematorium for disposing the bodies of schoolboys who'd been thrashed to death by an over-zealous master. Maybe not. But perhaps it should be.
On our way for a wee bit of a visit to the smaller less-visited bits of Avebury and surroundings (main target: Swallowhead Spring) I suddenly remembered the Mound.
Taking a cheeky diversion through the main gates ("Private") I drove down to the car park ("Private") and thought if anyone should ask, I'm lost and am just turning round! Ooh, I'm such a rebel!
Nearly drove straight past it! It's massive and I didn't expect it to be so close to the road! So we parked up, reasonably happy that it was before term starts, and it was Sunday. Saw a security type chap that just gave a friendly wave, bless him!
Surprised by it all, really. Didn't read up on it before I went. Surprised by the shell grotto (which I thought was quite nice really! Sorry!); totally surprised by the water tank at the top! Yuk! And what's that chimney for? Didn't even know there was a white (yellow!) horse nearby - modern or not!
It is very high, and the views that you can squeeze out of the trees are pretty good. I liked it and will probably hazard a return at some point. Mightily impressive.
I quite like the fact that, enormous as it is, you don't really notice it till you know it's there!
Access as it's in the middle of Marlborough College, the areas leading to the Mound are all pavement and tarmac. Other than if you want to climb the Mound it doesn't necessitate any steps, unless you wanted to view it from the chapel that backs onto the road.
Monday 15 September 2003
Visiting for the second time (this time when the students/pupils were about) I get the impression that most people'd only stop you if you were acting exceedingly suspiciously. Walking purposefully probably helps as may (in this context) carrying a camera!
This time I had time to climb the mound, and as Baz has said it's well worth it. It seems even bigger from the top, and apart from owt else, you can see the (from here, rather small) 19th century Marlborough White Horse.
Also had time this time to walk round the mound and found that there are some quite nice views of it from the side nearest the college churchy-thing.
Still a bit of a shame it's covered in trees. And a hell of a shame it's surrounded by the bl**dy college buildings! I'm surprised they didn't build the college gym on top of it! (Ah, but then where'd they have put the water tank...?)
Sunday 27 July 2003
Having followed the signs into the visitors car park, I was now to the west of the college. Out of the car, I turned to look at the college and noticed that there were some unfeasibly high treetops towering over the buildings.
Knowing that there are trees on the Mound, I headed between the buildings and was soon standing beside the mound.
What a monster!!
And what a bizarre setting it has in the present day! It really is 'squished in' amongst the college buildings, almost giving the impression that should it decide to flex its muscles it would just sweep the encroaching buildings away.
The buildings make the mound difficult to photograph, but at the same time make for some interesting juxtapositions…. And I'm not even going to mention the irritating 'faux' standing stones etc 'littering' the college grounds….
Reckoned to be a close relative of Silbury Hill the Mound is very impressive once you manage to really see it and to ignore the nearest college buildings and the trees growing from the mound itself. According to most sources it is definitely the second biggest manmade mound in Europe after Silbury.
Unfortunately, it's actual purpose seems to be even more mysterious than Silbury's, and surely it simply wouldn't be big enough to play a similar role to Silbury in any landscape of special significance that once existed here?
Even though it's huge and second only to Silbury, it's actually pretty tiny in comparison to Silbury itself, so any parallel may be limited at best.
Yet on the other hand I couldn't help speculating. If it truly is next biggest to Silbury, so close to Silbury, and of a similar age to Silbury, could they have had purposes in common?
Maybe it's fanciful, but get rid of the town, make the mound white with chalk as Silbury was, see it from the surrounding ancient paths. Could it have 'worked'?
Wonder if it was bare white chalk ….
I wrote the above before checking the big papery TMA. It turns out that on pages 78-9 Julian actually says something quite similar, but written (as is Julian's tendancy) as if it is proven fact. Perhaps it is. I was going to delete my musings but then I thought 'well, not everyone has the book….'
And he says it WAS chalk.
As far as arranging visits is concerned, Baza's 'Sunday visit' tactic certainly worked for me at about 9.45am – absolutely nobody about to object to the fact that I hadn't got permission….
I visited this mound yesterday on my way back from Avebury after the solstice celebrations.
As it was a Sunday, I drove straight through the main college gateway, parked in the central area and asked a student for directions. I was told to go down a small flight of steps which led behind the canteen....and there it loomed before me.
Hemmed in behind the backs of buildings, overgrown with trees, yet quiet and peaceful because of it.
You have to climb this mound to fully appreciate it and there are steps on the opposite side.
Another fierce contender for the 'second biggest manmade hill after Silbury' this 18m high mound sits overgrown in the grounds of a school. It's not a quarter of the volume of Silbury though. It was long said to be Norman, but when the Hartford family reshaped it John Aubrey reported that Roman coins had been found in the side - so surely it must be at least Roman in age (unless some joker put the coins in later - unlikely I feel). They also found red deer antler picks - which also backs up the theory the hill was built in the Neolithic.
Like Silbury Hill and the lost barrow at Marden it lies partly surrounded in a bend of a river. Stukeley believed that a spring rose under it - or at least from inside the ditch.
The name 'marlborough' comes from the site perhaps, from the anglo-saxon 'Maerle beorg' - Maerla's barrow. It is also said to be the burial place of Merlin - the town's motto is 'Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini' ie Where now are the bones of wise Merlin. I don't know if this is a statement or a question..
According to messages on the TMA forum, it is fairly easy to obtain permission to visit if you say you are a student of archaeology - but maybe given the news above, visitors will be encouraged in the school holidays in future anyway?
The mound apparently sported a spiral path in the past, a charming gazebo on the top - but now a rather ugly water tank.
Perhaps the idea that the Marlborough Mound is not merely a motte is not a new one. In 1782, in his 'Observations on the River Wye', William Gilpin (the prebendary of Salisbury) wrote:
Marlborough-down is one of those vast, dreary scenes, which our ancestors, in the dignity of a state of nature, chose as the repositories of their dead. Every where we see the tumuli, which were raised over their ashes; among which the largest is Silbury-hill.. At the great inn at Marlborough formerly a mansion of the Somerset-family, one of these tumuli stands in the garden, and is whimsically cut into a spiral walk; which, ascending imperceptibly, is lengthened into half a mile. The conceit at least gives an idea of the bulk of these massy fabrics.
Could this have been an idea he was told as a visitor - that the mound was a giant barrow? Maybe he heard it was Merlin's burial mound.
Quoted in 'Notes on Marlborough Castle' by JHP Pafford, in WAM v60 (1965).