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.