Marlborough Mound is one of the least visible of the great monuments of England, and almost unknown except to local historians and specialists. It stands in the middle of Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and sixty years ago, when I was at the school, it was no more than a mysterious but familiar presence, largely concealed by trees, and with nothing to explain what it is or why it is there. Until twenty years ago, guarded (or so it seemed) by the locked iron gates of the Grotto, and with a crude concrete stairway to the summit, the Mound looked abandoned. This air of neglect made it a favoured spot for illicit smokers and drinkers, while the more law-abiding pupils simply passed it by. It stood in an area known as the wilderness, a conglomeration of wartime Nissen huts used by the maintenance department and as general storage. All of this was strictly out of bounds. To add insult to injury, a huge cast iron water tank was installed on the summit of the Mound as the water supply for the College, and a veritable jungle grew up around it.
If the Mound was seriously discussed at all, it was treated as the motte of the medieval castle at Marlborough, of which there were no other physical remains. I was interested in it in a general way, but was studying modern languages rather than history or archaeology. Likewise, it caught the imagination of a close friend of mine, Eric Elstob, who was also a modern linguist, but made a much deeper impression on him. After a successful career in the City, during which he pursued many outside interests including the restoration of Christ Church, Spitalfields, he set up three trusts under the terms of his will, one of which was the Marlborough Mound Trust. He asked me to be one of the trustees, and the outlines of a restoration and conservation scheme were planned when the trustees first met in 2000. None of us expected it to come into effect in the near future.
However, Eric died in 2003, and a very substantial sum became available to the trust. Work on both archaeological investigations and the most urgent felling of dangerous trees was stepped up. There had been possible finds of prehistoric antlers and charcoal on the Mound, which were subsequently lost, and further investigation of the early history was a major priority. The answer came about in a dramatic way. There had been a partial collapse at the larger mound at Silbury Hill, ten kilometres down the Kennet valley, in 2000, and work there had concentrated on the question of the structure of that mound. In the autumn of 2010, English Heritage offered the loan of a coring machine capable of extracting material down to the base of the mound provided that the Marlborough Mound Trust would pay for the actual work. Getting the drill rig to the top of the Mound proved problematic, as the largest crane available could not be positioned close enough to the site, and the height to which the rig needed to be lifted to clear the trees at the top was at the absolute limit of the next largest crane. However, despite a few anxious minutes, it was safely placed. The results of the analysis of the cores and the radiocarbon dating were announced in 2011, and showed that the Mound is the second largest Neolithic mound in England, and possibly in the whole of Europe, broadly contemporary with Silbury Hill, and thus part of the much-vaunted ‘Stonehenge landscape’.
This is the first of three blogs about The Marlborough Mound, edited by Richard Barber, who has had a huge influence on the study of medieval history and literature, as both a writer and a publisher.