Marden Henge Excavations

by Dennis on July 23, 2010

Once again, I’m extremely grateful to Alex Down (pictured above at Stonehenge) for the following fascinating contribution concerning some current excavations at Marden Henge. I had meant to post this up earlier in the week, but events conspired to overtake my efforts, while I felt I had to acknowledge the many links sent in earlier today by people who had learned about the new “Hill Henge” discovery near Stonehenge. Once more, without further ado, I shall leave Alex to present his account, but I’m sure we’re all extremely grateful for these many contributions and we all continue to wish Alex the very, very best.

Marden reveals some secrets

Marden is the Cinderella henge. Few people outside the archaeological community have heard of it, and it doesn’t have any of the glamour or massive structure of its counterparts in Wessex, Avebury and Stonehenge. Yet it deserves to be much better known … it’s one of the biggest henges in Britain at nearly 16 hectares (Durrington Walls, usually advanced as the biggest is, by my calculations, nearer 20 hectares) and it has some really intriguing features that are currently being investigated in a 6-week excavation led by Jim Leary, of English Heritage (EH). That’s the same Jim Leary who led the investigation at Silbury Hill when it was being repaired.

Apart from the features, described below, Mike Parker Pearson has recently put forward a new theory regarding the route for the sarsens from the Avebury area to Stonehenge. He believes that the stones were taken from the sarsen fields of Overton Down, down Clatford Bottom to the River Kennet where there appears to be a causeway that would assist the crossing of the river. From there they would take the easy sloping valley up to Knap Hill on the edge of the Marlborough Downs, and cross the Vale of Pewsey by way of Marden, on a direct route to Stonehenge.

It’s an attractive theory, because it neatly links three highly significant sites. In addition, Marden is very close to the source of the river Avon, which forms a boundary to the henge on its southwest side, in a similar way to Durrington Walls and its short avenue to the Avon. The rivers Kennet and Avon seem to have been important elements in the landscapes of the Wessex henges. Elsewhere, Jim Leary has proposed that the Avon, like the Thames, was a sacred river.

Marden will be disappointing to those who want their henges to have circular banks and ditches, and dramatic stone settings. Instead, it has a discontinuous bank, in four disjointed segments that encompass about three quarters of the area. The remaining quarter uses the river bluff of the infant Avon to complete the encirclement. Except that it’s not a circle: it’s a very irregular ellipse, with the long axis roughly aligned with the north. So, not the sort of henge that we’re used to, and its construction on greensand rather than chalk means that it’s degraded more easily, and now it needs the eye of faith to see many of the features.

Nor does it have any megaliths – there may have been stones there in the past though the geophysics survey doesn’t show any obvious stone holes. But the surrounding area is full of sarsen stones of all sizes, at road junctions, in hedges and outside houses, so the stone was available to the original builders.

This is necessarily an interim report on the English Heritage excavation, for it’s only three weeks into a six-week dig, but the site is potentially so interesting that I thought it was worth alerting EI readers. So what is the excavation revealing at Marden? There are three trenches:

Trench A covers what has been the most controversial part of the Marden complex. It’s the so-called Hatfield Barrow, a huge mound that has now almost completely disappeared. EH describes the mound thus: A huge mound, perhaps 15m high, similar to Silbury Hill, which is 30m high. A huge ditch surrounded the mound, which in 1798 according to local naturalist, James Norris, formed a “sort of moat which does not become dry even in the midst of summer.” The geophysics survey shows the diameter of the mound itself to be about 50m, while the surrounding 4m deep ditch is a further 25 m wide, so the whole hill and ditch is at least 100m across.

What should be an impressive sight has now completely disappeared except, perhaps, to the trained eye. The hill was originally excavated by those two stalwarts of early archaeology, Cunnington and Colt Hoare, in 1807. As was done at Silbury, they excavated a shaft from the top, and at the bottom they found “two small parcels of burned human bones.” They called off their labourers, providentially, for as soon as they’d moved away, the hill collapsed, and by 1817 it had been completely levelled. Perhaps this is not surprising as the greensand soil is very loose and unstable.

Assuming triangular sections, my calculations show a maximum height of 12m if the hill was created solely from ditch material, a significant difference from the EH figure. It’s probably a coincidence, but the angle of slope created by a height of 12m gives 31 degrees, almost exactly the angle of slope of Silbury Hill. Given the nature of the greensand, I’d be surprised if the mound could have been any higher, as the angle of repose (maximum “steepness”) of dry sand is 32 degrees, 35 for wet sand. A height of 15m would have required an angle of 38 degrees.

The trench has little to show the casual visitor. It aims to reach the original bedrock (and perhaps evidence of the Cunnington/Colt Hoare shaft), and recover dating material.

Trench B is placed over a ditch terminal in the southeast quadrant of the site. In this respect it echoes Geoffrey Wainwright’s excavation in 1969 when he found a lot of Neolithic remains in a ditch terminal in the north of the site. Trench B has a few finds (including Roman) in the upper layers but these were probably washed in. The excavators are encountering a sort of slurry of sand and mud at a depth of less than 2m, and it looks very heavy going before they reach the bottom and possible depositions.

Trench C is fascinating. It investigates what is known as the “southern circular feature”, a feature probably unique in Neolithic Britain. It’s a sort of henge-within-a-henge: EH describes it as a large circular depression 30m wide and half a metre deep, containing a small off-centre platform. The depression is surrounded by a bank almost 90m in diameter and nearly 1m high. The geophysical survey over this feature shows it has two parallel gullies running under the bank, and extending off to the east like antennae. They may represent an earlier phase of the feature. Cunnington and Colt Hoare also excavated here, and found “a few bits of old pottery and a little charred wood, but no marks of any interment.”

The trench covers part of the northwest quadrant of the bank. And the fascinating discovery is a chalk platform that is believed to represent a dwelling, because to one side is a midden. In the photo, the area between the two pieces of textile is fully-excavated chalk surface, while the midden is the darker soil under the left hand end of the plank. The chalk surface extends towards the camera, but has yet to be fully exposed. The midden has already yielded fresh flint flakes, pottery, and bone pins. Charcoal has also been discovered, which give rise to hopes that the corresponding hearth will also come to light.

Obviously, popular interest will focus on Trench C, and its dwelling on the bank. There were three significant questions that occurred to me, and I discussed them with Jim Leary.

First, the discovery of a dwelling on one relatively small part of the bank seems beyond happenstance, and implies to me that there may be more to be found elsewhere on the bank. Jim thought that this was likely, but geophysics seems problematic in this soil, and it’s very unlikely to show anomalies like this – the current floor didn’t show in the survey. The perimeter of the bank is about 280m, while my guesstimate of the size of the dwelling plus midden is about 6-8m (scaled from the scaffolding plank of 3.9m – I wish I’d taken better measurements on-site.) The chances of encountering a single dwelling by chance seem to be about 1 in 40, or 2.5%. Archaeology doesn’t often get that lucky!

Second, the chalk floor is obviously of interest, as it seems to have been specially imported. And that raises the question of whether the chalk itself is sacred. My feeling is that the chalk landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge are in some way sacred through the medium of the brilliant white chalk, and that special quality was imported into Marden. Jim was rather more cautious, saying that the chalk could have been present locally through solifluction [movement of soil in periglacial areas when upper layers thaw in summer and slide over the permafrost below.]

Third, the discovery of a structure in such a strange place gives it some special quality – is it possible that it’s a dwelling that’s more sacred than domestic? There appears to be precedent for this at Durrington Walls, where recent digs have shown separate houses that seem to have been more associated with a priestly caste than the other buildings that were decidedly more domestic. Jim cautiously supports this idea, through comparison with Durrington Walls, but there is much more excavation to be done and evidence to be collected before any conclusions can be drawn. However, it seems to me that, if the hypothesis is correct that there are more dwellings around the perimeter of the bank, then we could imagine a priestly caste of “guardians” around the focus of the ring, the enigmatic mound in the centre. But while I’m allowed to imagine this, it’s denied to an archaeologist, at least in public!

I plan to revisit the site near the end of the excavation, to see what else has come to light. But we already have enough new information to make Marden an even more intriguing and significant site in Wessex.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie Lake July 23, 2010 at 11:07 am

Thanks for this interesting article Alex. We are very lucky to have you in the right place to be our ‘roving reporter’ and especially to write such descriptive pieces that there’s hardly any need for us to visit to see it first hand!

I also wondered if the clay had been imported for its ‘sacred’, ‘white’, qualities. My ramblings below might have given a good reason for this!
However, it is just possible that they were rather like us, and often installed the most fashionable and / or hard to obtain floor covering just for ‘one-upmanship’ and the pleasure of seeing the inside of the building appear more light and airy in the reflection of the floor surface? If chalk was present naturally, as proposed, then its not such an issue. Maybe all the ‘houses’ have such floors?

It did also intrigue me, when you said that the southern henge-within-a-henge was in a bit of a dip, or ‘large circular depression’, and there was an off-centre platform. I was already wondering if the area around the platform could have been flooded by water channelled into it from the nearby stream, when I saw that mention of ‘two gullies’ running under the bank and going off in an easterly direction. As you don’t mention if they also enter from the river side of the feature, that doesn’t necessarily follow. If they only exit from the east side, then they would apparently be some kind of ‘overflow’. I wonder if the river was higher in those days, or the land lower? That dip would often be flooded unless there were very dry summers. Perhaps there were too many of those, and this feature was created to hold ceremonies to pray to their gods for rain?

The other thing I did wonder about was how Mike Parker Pearson discovered the hard floor surface of a ceremonial pathway at Durrington, leading SE down to the Avon… and could it be possible that there is a similar one here, leading SW to the river from the centre of the southern circular feature? Possibly tying in with Winter Solstice sunset….?

Just musings, for what they’re worth!
(You can tell I’ve missed Dennis’s posts on EI..!) ;-)

Alex Down July 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Because of its sheer size and lack of prominent features, it’s difficult to make sense of the Marden site at first. That will be even more true for readers here who have to depend on a written description. I wanted to include a photo of a rather good combined graphic that was on display at the site, overlaying a topographic plan on an aerial photo. However, Jim Leary tactfully reminded me of copyright problems, so be sure to follow the first link, in Dennis’s introduction, and click on the Gallery link, top right, where you’ll see the topographic plan and aerial photograph separately.

The BBC national TV news showed a short feature on the site at lunchtime today, focussing on the dwelling on the bank of the henge-within-a-henge. It seems to have caught everyone’s interest, and made a great follow-up to yesterday’s news of the new henge at Stonehenge. It’s obvious that the team at Marden are regretting the short time that they have available this season but, with what they’ve found, there should be no problems about funding for next year. Archaeology seems to be on a roll!

Alex Down July 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Angie, our posts must have crossed in moderation, so I didn’t see the interesting points that you raised.

First, chalk. Your observation that chalk might have reflected light within the building is very insightful. While most Neolithic dwellings could, even at my most polite, only be described as filthy, I seem to remember that the “religious” (or separate, at least) dwellings at Durrington Walls were characterized by much less rubbish. So a chalk floor at Marden may well have had some reflective use. The dwelling is in the northwest quadrant of the bank, and I assume that the doorway faced inwards, hence southeast. This may simply have been to maximize light on dark winter mornings, or perhaps it faced an important midwinter sunrise. Of course, if there were more dwellings, then the orientation of this one is probably not significant.

The chalk was either specially imported, or was found locally in patches via solifluction. I thought that the chalk was many kilometres away, but I found from the BGS that the nearest grey chalk is only 800m away, while the nearest white chalk (and I’m assuming that would have had a higher perceived value) is about 2.3km away. So it would have been easy to import whatever the builders required from the native source. Equally, solifluction has a higher probability of leaving deposits near the henge.

As for the gullies, I wasn’t very precise in describing them, partly because the on-site geophysics plan was water-stained. But they have the appearance of the horns on a beetle, symmetrically placed about a diameter of the bank that runs northeast/southwest with the origin appearing to be towards the Avon, in the southwest. (Take a look at the EH website plans.) They fall just within the inside of the banks of the henge, so it’s – just – conceivable that they were used to fill the depression from the river. But the land slopes slightly, around 2-3 metres, across the henge, from the northeast side towards the river, according to Google Earth. The EH excavation information board says that the depression is only about half a metre deep, while the gullies are about a metre deep and a metre wide … but probably dating from an earlier phase of the site. I’m still struggling to interpret this information.

MPP’s discovery of the short roadway leading down to the Avenue at Durrington Walls seems to have been one of those inspired shots in the dark. The roadway there is roughly 100m long, coincidentally about the same as the distance of the southern feature’s bank to the very wiggly Avon. But there appears to be no break in the bank which might indicate a processional way. And while the DW road appears to have had a purpose in connecting the DW site with Stonehenge via the Avon and the Avenue, there isn’t (as yet) any similar pattern at Marden. Both Avebury and Stonehenge sit in rich and extensive prehistoric chalk landscapes, while Marden, the Cinderella, sits between them, alone and separate on greensand. And there must be a message from the past, somewhere in that last sentence, but it’s proving too elusive …

JohnWitts July 23, 2010 at 6:21 pm
Angie Lake July 23, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Thanks for the info Alex,… and that’s a useful graphic John, thanks again.

Alex Down July 24, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Lots more information coming in about the wooden building with the chalk floor: it appears to have been the (temporary) site of a ritual feast, involving pigs. (We’ve heard a lot about pigs and feasting in connection with Durrington Walls.) You can read more about the latest finds in this Independent article. It reveals that the building was 25 sq m (ie, 5x5m) which means either a small party, or a very cosy one. I wonder if the pigs were shot with arrows?

JohnWitts July 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

Jacquetta Hawkes viewed hunting as instinctive, inherited from tens of thousands of years of hunting gathering. Gradually with farming it became a practice which more and more became the preserve of the elite. Perhaps pigs consumed at Durrington were part of a ritual that was based on the hunt, a way of life that had passed away?

Red Raven July 28, 2010 at 9:03 pm

The presence of the pig bones suggests to me that this site, like Durrington, was more concerned with the living than the dead. It would appear to me that domesticated animals were implicitly linked to the living generations whereas the presence of “wild” animals, for example the auroch mentioned in one of Dennis’s previous posts, signify the ancestors, which may answer why pig bones weren’t present in the same numbers at SH, SH being the domain of the ancestors.
The moat is an interesting feature, especially with the raised circular chalk section. My initial reaction would be that a moat filled with water with a raised circular section that stands above the water may be representative of a full moon in a night sky. Could this be an early physical recreation attempting to draw down the moon into the ritualistic landscape?
The chalk strata has also been in my thoughts recently, specifically why it seems to have been important. The floor appears to have been a specific endeavor, so why chalk? Well, I have been busy developing what I consider to be a possible contender for an early Brythonic theological viewpoint (at present over 3200 words with several links) and using its conclusions, it occurred to me that chalk may have been viewed as consisting of the same material as bleached bones. Therefore, is it possible that the chalk may have been considered to be an example of some of the bones of the Earth possibly left or created, by the actions of the ancestors? If so, then the positioning of the whole ritualistic landscape in the area makes more sense to me, especially it’s connections to the ancestors. The composition of the floor may be a physical interaction with these bones of the earth, bringing the ancestors into the life’s of the inhabitants, possibly guarding it’s entrance?


Dennis July 28, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Very interesting and informed speculation, Red Raven, so thank you for taking the time and trouble to write in. I can’t remember where it is now, but I wrote at some great length about this ‘white’ business here on Eternal Idol, thinking along broadly similar lines to yourself in connection with the various possible meanings of the word ‘Albion’.

Your contender for a possible early Brythonic theological is certainly of interest to me, so please by all means feel free to post excerpts or links here, if you wish.

JohnWitts July 28, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Sorry, but I still cannot abide the living/dead theme. It might be so, but could they not have organised a symbolic hunt and party (wake) where everyone has a good time? It was then a big thank you for coming many many miles (by foot) and also leaving a suitably aged male family member to continue the work creating monuments.

They may just have considered this was the order of things and accepted their role for the “greater good” (as per Hot Fuzz)

Angie Lake July 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Here’s a very interesting link to the latest findings:

Red Raven July 29, 2010 at 6:34 am

Thanks for the reply Dennis, for yours, and anyone’s else interest……

Hello John, my thoughts behind the post was one that suggested that just like modern day graveyards are a part of the modern landscape, you wouldn’t normally be having parties there, so I would suggest there would have been differences in behaviour when in either. Marden to me, seems to be more of place for normal activities and it’s entirely possible that the scenario you describe may have been an actuality. However, I remain of the opinion that there were deliniating cultural lines set in this particular ritualistic landscape.


JohnWitts July 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm

What was it the ancestors did on behalf of the living? How can the dead and living be separated if a society is obsessed with dead ancestors intervening on their behalf? If ancestors were important to guarantee crops, fertility and ensure life in harmony with nature then they would be very much part of life. And there is evidence they were. The dead were buried (or their bones) in communal graves and then reburied, or parts of them, somewhere else. That certainly does not imply the dead were separated from the living in any sense and, as such, it follows a sacred landscape would not be divided in that way either.

What is clear is there was a shift away from the ancestors when the communal long barrows were in-filled and stone circles, with astronomical alignments, became dominant. This strongly suggests a move towards sun / moon deities. A deity is supreme so monuments would be devoted to the god or goddess and not ancestors. It is also more than likely a priestly caste formed (I think almost certainly what came to be known as the Druids) who communicated with the gods through ritual and magic, and provided the means by which the gods were appeased.

Effectively that made the ancestors redundant. Indeed the ‘ Druids ‘ in order to assert their own authority would not have wanted ancestors involved directly at all. Perhaps the the dramatic in filling of chambered tombs was symbolic to emphasise the point and confirm Druidic status within the new belief structure.

In terms of numbers the most significant feature added to the landscape at this time was the round barrow. It is clear that they do seem to occur in clusters and so could indicate a dead zone. But this may be an illusion as over time a great many more barrows have been destroyed than now remain (including of course Hatfield).

I do not believe anything can be made of these remaining barrows in terms of zones other than they were merely the best placed to survive. However I do think they were part of a living landscape and positioned so as to enhance that landscape and the fertility of the land. The barrows at Winterbourne Stoke are aligned as Stonehenge is NE -SW and that may hint at the deity also having an affect on their relative positioning.

So I just do not feel that living and dead zones fit into the scheme of things. Yes they may have been duality but that was perhaps divided along the practicalities of fertility: male- female; north- south; cold-hot; wet-dry but not the living and, by this time, now redundant the dead.

Red Raven July 29, 2010 at 8:01 pm

I think we may be at cross purposes here. I’m not suggesting the dead were kept separate from the living. My hypothesis is implicit in that I consider the earth banks as the physical medium in which, through observed ritualistic depositing, these people may have considered these earlier ancestors to be still present in the soil and thus in their everyday lives. By creating these earth structures suggests a desire to be proactive with these ancestors. The communal building of these banks is suggestive of interactions that were also communal in nature as opposed to the later individual intercessions evidenced in Britain at later dates by the new priestly caste, the druids, thus placing these interactions into the interpretation of a structured power base, which if I am reading this correctly, is in accordance with your comments.
The working of stone provides a route that may demonstrate a possible shift away from a collective ancestral worship, (in some ways, suggestive of an animistic stance) as the stones, if now understood to be endowed with an otherworld presence, were then able to be dressed to house examples of individuals as opposed to the continuous banking that would not differentiate between otherworld individuals.
Life in these times would not have, IMO, allowed for the luxury of setting aside an area for the dead. In all probability, the dead would have been far more a part of everyday living than they do today, with bones and carcases being present in the environment.


Red Raven July 29, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Just to clarify further, my earlier post referring to cultural delineation was meant in a ritualistic sense, delineating between the two with different rituals in different sections at specified times, hence my observation about the presence of different animal bones at different sites.


JohnWitts July 29, 2010 at 10:58 pm

RR any cross purposes are entirely my fault – there is a lot to take in in what you say and I am not sure that I understand it fully. But I can see one problem – why was so much proactive contact needed at Avebury but much less at Stonehenge?

I do think the ditch may have had a specific role to play and that Marden’s moat is perhaps indicative of what was intended. I feel that the Avebury ditch was so deep to get to the water table and I have still not given up on the notion that water was also supplied to Stonehenge – and there is a mention of stones and water by Geoffrey of Monmouth

That aside my understanding of causeway camps and later henges is that ditches were used to define an area, a sort of neutral zone or sacred area, in which adjacent families, clans tribes, could meet together safely and carry on whatever business was necessary including religious.

This approach is from a practical perspective. That does not mean what you say is not entirely correct or could not exist within this scheme. We will almost certainly never know. I will reference the Bords and see if there is any hints at all in folklore as I recall a chapter on earthworks

Dennis July 29, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Very briefly, John, I’ve been reading the Secret Country on and off for weeks now, and there’s some truly fascinating and almost certainly relevant stuff there.

Red Raven July 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Why was there so much proactive contact at Avebury as opposed to Stone henge? Well, referring back to my article, the original quote taken from the Georgics may help us here. ” St Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine tree which stood beside it.”
Let us consider what would be left today in that particular area. The ruins of some temple possibly with some other attendant buildings. I doubt there would be any mention by the Romans as to its original religious understanding as their deification was usually anthropomorphic and I doubt they would have recorded any name associated with this tree. Power, according to the Romans, lay in the human styled Gods and not usually in examples of other life forms.
Therefore, using what evidence we have, the general position today would be one that suggested the temple was used in worship of a localized deity. The truth, however, would actually lie in the environment at the time of the temple’s use. The tree. But there would now be no evidence of that tree because of the natural cycle of life (or possible later human destruction) So, using the position that early Brythonic frameworks placed otherworld interactions through the medium of the soil, we may assume that the environment held the key for the majority for Avebury’s proactive interactions.
This may lie in the nature present at those times at Avebury, maybe the presence of grouped sets of ancient groves for example, things that would have been obvious at the time of construction, but are now no longer present in that same environment.
The use of stone, for me, holds the key as to a theological shift that paved the way for later religious frameworks. Early stones present in these circles don’t usually show much evidence of working, apart from some images sometime carved into them. They were not generally dressed. However these stones, for me, represent the movement away from a collective ancestral understanding to one that starts to portray an individualistic anthropomorphic understanding. The bank present at Avebury suggests compliance with other examples, however, human politics being what it is, if a competitive advantage may have been gained for certain individuals through providing an individual housing for an individual ancestor in the form of an individual stone, then much as today, it’s perceived benefits would have drawn in other groups wanting to also benefit. The progression from this would, I would suggest, have led logically in the progression of the examples we see today in the environment.


Alex Down July 30, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I’m a bit behind the posts here, but I’ll comment on a point that RR made a couple of days back: he suggests that chalk represents the bleached bones of the ancestors. I’d like to raise an alternative suggestion about chalk …

I’ve always been impressed by the otherworldly aspect of the Wessex monuments on chalk. While it’s obvious that the Neolithic world was busy cultivating and hunting in sites around river valleys, the higher chalk uplands seem to have been reserved for less prosaic activities. My belief, fanciful though it is, is that the softly curving hills have a distinctly feminine aspect; while the milky-white chalk can been as just that: symbolically representing the breast-milk of the Earth Mother goddess. And thus chalk symbolically represents continuing life and sustenance.

This, being the main life-giving agent of the Earth Mother, would have given it huge significance. And while I think that RR’s suggestion about the ancestors is a possible explanation, it’s interesting that our two viewpoints are diametrically opposed in meaning. If I’m right, then it also gives the lie to the “death zone” which always seemed to me to be a marketing phrase dreamed up by the Time Team to boost their Stonehenge story. On the other hand, if RR is right, then it fits nicely with the promotional ideas!

So I think that the Earth goddess, while present in all landscapes, had a special sanctity in the chalk uplands. It makes the imported chalk, in the so-called priest’s dwelling, very interesting, because it seems to be a bridge to the two (perhaps senior?) monuments up on the chalk. In my top post, I wrote: “Both Avebury and Stonehenge sit in rich and extensive prehistoric chalk landscapes, while Marden, the Cinderella, sits between them, alone and separate on greensand. And there must be a message from the past, somewhere in that last sentence, but it’s proving too elusive – ” I wonder if the imported chalk was a symbolic gesture to bring to Marden the special qualities of the other two sites, to give it an equivalence in the link to the Goddess that it had with the sacred rivers that it shared with the others. (Avon for Marden and Stonehenge, Kennet/Thames for Avebury.)

But I still think there’s something odd about that solitary patch of chalk – it’s discovery is just too coincidental. I’d better any money you like that further investigations next year will bring more chalk to light. Any takers?

Red Raven August 1, 2010 at 9:49 am

Referring to Mike Pitts “Hengeworld” book, looking at chapter 27, pages 270 to 274, there are some interesting and relevant points. This section deals with a proposed two stage transformation, from living to dead and from dead to ancestor. He makes a very interesting proposition here that may help clear up the cross purposes experienced earlier on this thread, namely “Unlike the living, and, apparently, the physical remains of the dead, the ancestors assembled in one place, and stayed there” So it occurs to me that this would be consistent with my propositions, although this transformation from dead to ancestor adds a further level of complexity, it is in keeping broadly with this early Brythonic ancestor framework.
He further speculates that it is possible that this transformation may have been possible through the dry bones of any individual, although he does also propose it’s possible that the body may have been complete, however, I would suggest it would be more likely to be the former rather than the latter as for a complete body to have been present, the death of the individual would have to be, at best, co-incidental and at worst, planned. Although this is not to rule out the latter, I strongly suggest the latter would have been for exceptional circumstances and not the norm.
This in particular, caught my attention “It hardly rises into the mist, but locally Woodhenge is a high point in the gently rolling landscape. From inside the chalk bank, seeming taller than it really is because of the deep intervening ditch, (as per my speculation as to attendees ritually descending before the ancestors before ascending into their company) 4200 years ago the view is nothing but sky. From the South Circles below, even the tall Woodhenge poles rising above the bank are invisible, hidden by the steeply climbing ground and the truly massive superhenge bank. This chalk work hides also the river to the east.”
He also states in regards to Durrington and the procession of the passage of the dead to ancestor …” Once inside the Walls, a huge ditch and surrounding bank, gleaming white when new, keeps them in the arena of noisy, sweaty ceremony.”
Now, if it may have been a prerequisite that the bones were the medium for transformation from dead to ancestor, then would it not be the case that the area set aside for this transformation may have also have had to have been a physical representation of bones? Whilst I stress here that I am not dismissing Alex’s well thought out alternative and don’t intend this as an insult to him, I would suggest that if the medium of the bones was key as to this second stage transformation, then an understanding that made chalk a further physical representation of bones, either as ancestral or of the Earth, would meet the conditions for this transformation better.


Angie Lake August 3, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Here’s a good report with some film from the excavations…
“Dave Fellows, an archaeologist working on the site, gave BBC correspondent Robert Hall a guided tour”:

Dennis August 3, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Brilliant – thank you very much indeed for this, Angie!

JohnWitts August 5, 2010 at 5:26 am

It was very good and only goes to show what can be done to inform non specialists like me when the will is there. It is a shame that, as per Time Team, they are not able to put in an “investigation” trench elsewhere to prove other buildings did exist.

Marden just has to fit in the scheme with Avebury and Stonehenge – is it located at say about a day’s walk from them?

Aynslie August 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

There are 164 photos of the Marden Henge dig and finds that can be viewed as a slideshow here:

Angie Lake August 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Here’s another link to a report in the Wiltshire press. Sorry it’s a bit old! :
(I see Phil Harding’s looking happy in the foreground!)

Robin Melrose March 29, 2013 at 6:55 am

I’ve just been reading a report by Jim Leary and David Field on their excavation of Marden Henge. The dwelling they discovered – a rectangular chalk building surface – had a sunken hearth where the chalk had been turned pinky-orange by intense heat, and also another hearth outside filled with a thick layer of charcoal. They believe that the dwelling was a sweat-lodge. They think that stones were heated on the outside hearth, and taken inside the dwelling, where water from the Avon was poured over them to produce steam, ‘likely as part of a purification ritual’. I was struck by this because Geoffrey of Monmouth said the stones of the Giants Dance were washed in water which could then cure the sick. I wonder if there is any connection between what Geoffrey says and and a sweat-lodge like the one at Marden. I don’t think any sweat-lodges have been found at Durrington Walls, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was one.

John Witts March 29, 2013 at 5:30 pm

On this theme “boiling troughs” were in used from around 2400 BC for example a mound, one of a pair, at Rhos Carne Coch Pembrokeshire is dated as being in use between 2500 and 1500BC.

Use as a sauna seems a strong possibility as it appears that water was poured over the stones and would therefore generate steam.

Ken West March 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I realise that I am late into this discussion, but it is fascinating. My interest, after working in cemeteries and crematoria for 45 years and being involved with 100,000 funerals, is in death rituals. In considering the conflict between dead and live zones, it is necessary to put aside the Christian overlay on our society. In 1990 I devised the concept of natural burial and there are now 270 sites operating in the UK. What is interesting is how people now see the body as ‘gifted’ to the NB site, where it creates new life through trees and increased diversity. Even science proves that our atoms are found only a matter of decades later in the trees and other growth on the site. People who visit the site see the dead as integrated with nature, an entirely new approach to the experience of loss and waste typical in churchyards and cemeteries. People walk dogs and picnic in natural burial sites, and are more relaxed than is evident in churchyards and cemeteries. There are Christian natural burial sites and the concept is not pagan as such, although with 63% of UK funeral services now secular, society has changed. I think natural burial points to how people in pre-Christian periods did not need demarcations between life and death, and I find such comparisons between Durrington Walls and Stonehenge invalid.

Dennis March 13, 2014 at 10:37 pm


This highest accolade I can ask or hope for is for someone to describe a post or conversation on this site as ‘fascinating’, as you have done, so thank you for this. Looking back at the post and conversation in question, I can see that I personally contributed very little to it, but I’m sure everyone else involved will be very pleased by what you’ve said, although our friend Alex Down is sadly no longer with us, as he died not long after this post was published.

I’ve looked at your site and I was instantly impressed by the title of your book, while I was very interested indeed by everything else that you wrote. As such, if you would care to contribute in any way – at whatever length and in whatever detail – to any other posts on this site, I can assure you your views will be welcomed, so thank you again.

Austin March 13, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Ken , I have just been reading through the Stonehenge and Sky burial paper you have written attached to your website . Your ‘flight of fancy ‘ sky towers on the banks of the Avon are co incidentally completely in accordance with my own current thinking after several months contemplating the incised chalk plaques that have been discussed on two threads here recently on Eternal Idol . Annual significant bird migratory routes from mainland Europe via Christchurch Harbour and North into Britain along the Avon valley , could have supplemented the ‘spiritual’ connection with the birds .
Absolutely fascinating and I hope you have the time to discuss this further .

Ken West March 25, 2014 at 9:58 am


Many thanks for your welcome. I am new to the Christchurch area so I am slowly becoming aware of the rich history, not least of the Avon valley as a tribal area extending to the headwaters. I previously lived in Cumbria and visited all the henges and circles in that area, so it is an interesting comparison. I rather wish I had looked in greater depth, but it was just a response to a book I read at that time, which was the 1980′s.

Ken West March 25, 2014 at 10:30 am


Sorry to be so slow in response but I have been away. Your point on the migratory bird route is similar to views on sea navigation if you were approaching from the French West coast, as the IOW and the Needles acts as an ideal visual pointer into Christchurch Bay.

I walked on St. Catherines Hill, the high ground above Christchurch, last year, at sundown, to see the Neolithic view across the Avon meadows to the IOW and the Needles. The valley must have been a paradise in those times and has been extensively flooded in both of the last winters. The evidence coming out of Star Carr shows that these people were very skilled at exploiting marshes, and the Avon Valley is an extensive marsh. The reason for the walk was so that my wife and I could wait until 20 minutes after sundown and, sure enough, the Nightjars started churring. It still puzzles me as to whether the Neolithic knew of Nightjars and what it was that created this strange noise just after sundown in April and May.

My current interest is whether Christchurch Priory was built to Christianise what was a pagan site, perhaps a henge? It stands on high ground, a peninsular between two rivers, the Avon and Stour, and controlled the harbour approaches. With so little land to till or build houses upon, it is isolated outside the town and is not embraced by the community in the way of other old churches in the area. I met an expert in Cumbria who put forward very interesting theories as to the number of churches in that county sitting upon pagan sites, and this is evident here.

Dennis March 25, 2014 at 7:14 pm


The question of our ancestors’ perception of sound has fascinated me for a long time, but from memory, very little has appeared on this site other than the regular mentions in the media of Stonehenge being a prehistoric glockenspiel. Dan Johnston wrote a guest piece about this, as I remember, and it’s certainly something I feel is worth exploring at greater length.

I have a book here somewhere called “Heaven’s Breath”, which is a truly fascinating study of the winds. I think this book contained the mention of different varieties of trees producing different ‘notes’ or ‘voices’ in a strong wind, something our ancestors were doubtless aware of. Coincidentally, I was browsing earlier through the Penguin Book of English Verse when I came upon Coleridge’s ode on Dejection, with its wonderful lines:

“Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of the Aeolian lute…”

This naturally made me wonder if our ancestors discerned different voices to different winds and imbued them with personalities in accordance with this? I don’t know, but it puts me in mind of Browne’s famous lines “What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.”

Finally, for now, your mention of Nightjars reminded me of something I’d forgotten about for a long time, although I don’t suppose it’s relevant to Stonehenge. In 1987, I had a recurring series of lucid nightmares in which I saw a nightjar, even though I knew next to nothing about the creature other than its name and the fact of its existence. My gaze was fixed on this bird, for some reason, and while I watched it, I heard a lengthy poem recited “off screen” that centred on this bird and which had an ominous tone to it. I still have it here somewhere, as I wrote it down at the time, so thank you for inadvertently reminding me about it.

Austin March 26, 2014 at 2:28 am

Ken ,

I read recently that there was originally an unlicensed chapel on St Catherines Hill itself and the prior and sub prior of Christchurch priory in 1302 and 1306 respectively were reprimanded by the Bishop of Winchester for celebrating mass there . The chapel was subsequently licensed by the Church on 1 February 1332 and destroyed in 1539 .

It has been said that the Avon and the Avon Valley that can be viewed from St Catherines Hill may have been the area of the battle line initially drawn when the Saxons invaded England and were initially held off from the West of England . Standing on top of St Catherines Hill myself several weeks ago this seemed quite feasible .

The Christchurch local historian Herbert Druitt in a lecture on 6 July 1921 in the language of the day suggested “Among others the builders of Stonehenge must have used the River Avon for intercourse with other people ‘.

Surely the Stonehenge people would have maintained a strong connection with the marshy paradise that existed to its South .

I live in Southbourne by the way .

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