Marlborough in the Neolithic

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Though the Marlborough Mound would have been an overgrown ruin when Roman engineers laid a road nearby, it was as recently as 2011 that scientific proof of its true age was revealed. Until then, it was commonly assumed to have been built in Norman times as a castle motte. Radiocarbon dating showed it to be more than twice as old: it was completed by 2200BC.

This put it into the world of Stonehenge. Silbury Hill, just up the road from Marlborough and the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, was completed by 2300BC – a larger version of the mound in Marlborough, itself the largest of its kind in the UK after Silbury. In the Vale of Pewsey to the south at Marden, there was once a third, smaller, Neolithic mound. And near Dorchester, Dorset, is a fourth mound of similar age, at Mount Pleasant.

Neolithic round mounds are rare. What does it mean to have one in Marlborough?

Archaeologists struggle to explain exactly why they were built. Limited excavation has found no evidence that people were buried under them, though the siting of the Wessex four beside the River Kennet and the River Avon have led to speculation that they might have been places where ashes were scattered into sacred waters.

However, it is notable that the mounds at Silbury, Marden and Mount Pleasant were not alone: they had company. Silbury is near Avebury’s stone circles and avenues, and in all three cases there was a large earthwork enclosure known as a henge. The mounds seem to have been a component in monumental religious and political landscapes – what in modern language we might loosely call tribal centres. There was also a large henge earthwork and other ritual structures near Stonehenge, though no mound.

The obvious question, is what might also have been in Marlborough when the mound was built?

While the other sites are in rural locations, Marlborough has long been a town, concealing what might – or might not – have been there before. Recent building, however, has thrown up some hints.

The first discovery was made in Duck’s Meadow, just south of the Kennet, by archaeologists excavating before the new St Mary’s Primary School was built. They found a few Neolithic pits, and a large collection of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery There were also flint tools and arrowheads, and two pieces of stone axe blade.

More Grooved Ware pottery – a style made across Britain at the time of these great centres – was found a little to the south, in excavations ahead of the new housing estate beside Salisbury Road.

Other finds less certainly of the same age include two shallow ditches containing flint-working debris found ahead of the construction of St John’s school – perhaps marking a trackway leading down to the Kennet – and a large ditch briefly revealed when Marlborough College built a new swimming pool.

At Pantawick, on high ground south of the river, is another possible prehistoric site. It was photographed from the air early in the last century, when it showed as an oval circuit 850m across outlined by hedges, soilmarks and slight banks. It could be Roman or medieval, but it has not been investigated: perhaps its origins lie in an Early Neolithic hilltop enclosure (4000–3000BC), a possible precursor to a large henge. Many prehistoric flint artefacts have been collected from the hill, notably by Grahame Clark, who became one of the UK’s most eminent 20th-century archaeologists – and was a pupil at Marlborough College.

Marlborough began as an Anglo-Saxon town. It would be no surprise if substantial prehistoric earthworks had been flattened over the centuries, now waiting to be discovered.