Silbury Hill

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roundmoundsDr Jim Leary has recently been awarded a grant from The Leverhulme Trust to fund a project entitled ‘Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds’, which will run until the end of 2017.

The Round Mounds project seeks to unlock the history of monumental mounds in the English landscape. Neolithic round mounds, such as Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, are among the rarest and least well understood monuments in Britain. Recent work by Jim Leary at the medieval Marlborough Castle motte, Wiltshire, has shown it to be a Neolithic round mound which was reused in the medieval period, and raises the possibility that other castle mottes may have prehistoric origins. This research project therefore seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write our understanding of both the later Neolithic and Norman periods.

The Leverhulme grant will fund a programme of archaeological investigation, the team (Jim Leary, Nick Branch, Elaine Jamieson, Phil Stastney and Quest) adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understanding large mounds. The work will involving a programme of coring, analytical earthwork survey, scientific dating and detailed environmental analysis, and will determine the date of construction, sequence of development and environmental context of 20 mounds from across England.

 

Click to read more about Jim Leary, Nick Branch, and QUEST.

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The University of Reading Archaeology Field School has a new location from summer 2015 – the Vale of Pewsey! Dr Jim Leary will be directing the project over the next few years and below, he explains a little of his background and experience in this fantastic landscape…

Dr Jim Leary

Dr Jim Leary

“As a prehistorian I have always been drawn to Wiltshire. I excavated there as an undergraduate, looking at the Mesolithic site of Golden Ball Hill, and have been digging there on and off ever since. I once even found and excavated a very ancient site there indeed. It was fantastically well-preserved considering it was 250,000 years old, and packed full of the flint tools and hunting residue of one of one of our early hominin ancestors. But it is the ancient Neolithic monuments that are the main source of fascination for me – and a challenge too: there is so much more to discover.

In 2007 I took charge of the Silbury Hill project, working inside the enormous Neolithic mound with a team of miners and archaeologists. It was an amazing experience, to be able to spend so much time actually inside Silbury. There was real concern that a big portion of the mound might collapse as a result of various shafts and tunnels created by past archaeologists and antiquarians. We had to stabilise the structure and make it safe for the future, but this was also an opportunity to gather archaeological information.

In the summer of 2010 I directed an excavation at the huge Neolithic henge at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey. It is the one no-one has heard of, and yet it is the biggest henge of all – bigger than Avebury and about 10 times the size of Stonehenge. One objective was to find the position of the ‘Hatfield Barrow’ – another conical mound, half the size of Silbury. The mound was dug into in 1807 but it collapsed and the remains of it were later removed by the farmer. We assumed it had completely gone but below the soil we found that some of the mound still remained – it was just 15 centimetres high! That is quite a reduction from the original 15 metres, but it did contain dateable material, which showed it to be the same date as Silbury.

Marden Henge

Marden Henge

Also inside Marden henge, we found the best-preserved Neolithic building in England. It wasn’t a house that was lived in, but probably had some other function – perhaps a sweat lodge. The people that used this building will have seen Stonehenge in use – perhaps even worshipped there. There may be more buildings at Marden, and this is one of the questions we need to answer when we go back. The Marden excavations produced other unique finds, including some of the most finely worked flint arrowheads I’ve ever seen. The pottery too, was highly unusual: one clay pot had been coated in bone ash – my guess is that it is human bone, but we’ll never know for sure.

Continuing with the mounds theme I’ve also made the news through my work at Marlborough Castle Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Mound’ as it is known locally. Now in the grounds of Marlborough College, this 19m high mound was once the motte on which Marlborough Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century it became part of an elaborate garden; a spiral path was cut into it and shrubs planted. With the help of colleagues I drilled boreholes deep into the mound from the top. We were able to date some charcoal from the cores which told us that its origins go back to the same time as Silbury Hill; it was a Neolithic mound that had been re-used later on. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments that are so rare in archaeology.

I am now gearing up to go back to Wiltshire. We will be undertaking further excavations in the amazing Marden henge. But more than this – we’ll be looking at a whole plethora or weird and wonderful sites all around it. I can’t wait!”

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