Local author Mavis Cheek wants the Marlborough Mound left as unspoilt as Silbury Hill
Coincidences seem to crop up more often in fiction than in everyday life. But what a strange coincidence it is that local author Mavis Cheek’s latest novel, published last month, is all about archaeology and a prehistoric symbol. And just a month later archaeological science proves the Marlborough Mound to be a prehistoric rather than Norman structure.
What the future holds for Marlborough’s Mound is a very live question. In an article written especially for Marlborough News Online, Mavis Cheek is clear she wants the Mound stripped of its eighteenth century extravagances and left in as pristine a state as its big sister, Silbury Hill - Lessons from the Past:
"One of the pleasures I get from writing novels is in the research that goes with the job. The danger is that you get so immersed in it that you never get around to writing the book.
Most authors will tell you that they would far rather be researching a book than writing it – and I can vouch for the fact that displacement activity – such as hoovering the curtains or suddenly taking an immense interest in weeding – is par for the course for the writer. When I am hard at work on a book is about the only time you will find my house has clean windows – inside and out.
And so it was with my latest novel, The Lovers of Pound Hill – which is set in a wholly invented village – possibly in Wiltshire – certainly in the South West – which has an immense fertility figure (known locally as the Gnome) carved into the Hill that looks down upon the villagers. Like the Marlborough Mound in the College, no-one knows its true meaning.
The delight I felt in my research, reading all about the region, its ancient treasures, its ancient peoples, its artefacts, was my reward for having to actually sit down, concentrate, and – in the end - write my wretched novel.
The thrust of my story is that no-one knows the origins of the fertility figure for sure until a young female archaeologist arrives with a determination to discover the Gnome’s ancient secrets. And, eventually, after many twists and turns, she does.
It seemed to me when I set out to write the book that in times of uncertainty and duress, we look to the past to help us through the future. And I doubt that there has ever been a time like ours when the ancient past has been so alive.
My research pot was huge. The joy of watching those programmes on archaeology and prehistory – Neil Oliver, Bettany Hughes, Time Team – which were all called Work:
The reading of book after book about digs here and abroad: The derring-do of contacting real archaeologists and palaeontologists and asking if I could visit them, visit their sites with them, pick their brains over a good lunch, was one of the nicest ways to write a book I know.
Salisbury Museum has re-jigged its entire archaeology collection and Wiltshire’s impressive lumps and bumps of ancient origin featured often in the research.
And what I learned was very humbling. The notion of ancient man and woman that I had – and perhaps some of you have, too – was largely made up of ideas taken from the Flintstone family, or old jokes about men hitting women over the head with clubs and dragging them off to the cave – and of my ancient forefathers and foremothers living very basic, rather brutal and very randomly organised lives.
Gradually this myth was exploded and I came to see that their ways of living were very well organised, full if spiritual connection with Nature and generally made up of harmonious groups. Something we could learn from today – and perhaps we already are.
Only later, with the fencing off of land for farming – which seems to have begun in Britain at around 4000 BC – did the hunter-gatherers settle down and begin to be a bit more possessive and aggressive about the land they farmed. This was the very beginnings of property ownership meaning power. And, as we well know nowadays, there is evidence that they overused the land to their inevitable detriment. Sound familiar?
But even as the agricultural peoples became less harmonious neighbours with their fencing and protection of their land, they became – it would seem – even more organised and sophisticated spiritually. And these were the years in which the great henges were formed, then the immense barrows, which were places of some kind of worship – certainly ancient sites for extreme respect and continuing ritual.
Notions of the life hereafter and proper burial rites are found all over the South West region – and Wiltshire is justifiably known as the land of the living dead. I grew to love learning about the way of life of that period.
I’m thrilled that the Marlborough Mound has now been given back the dignity it deserves and dated properly to about 2400 BC – right in the middle of the agricultural cohesion and the building of grander edifices to show respect to the – we assume – forces of Nature.
Gone, I hope, will be the shell grotto, the water feature, the silly trumperies of Lady Hertford’s eighteenth century excess – and returned to us will be the awesome site that we can stand and admire and know was one of the long-ago forerunners of our own innate spirituality.
My characters in the novel are made happy and become calmed and more caring of each other in the wake of my young female archaeologist’s discovery of the truth about the Gnome. I hope the same can be said of the magnificent Marlborough Mound and its effect on us - the people who live surrounding it."
The Lovers of Pound Hill by Mavis Cheek is published by Hutchinson. Price: £12.99.
For more on the book and more about Mavis Cheek see Gerald Isaaman’s Marlborough News Online story of 14 May 2011: “Mavis Cheek brings Marlborough’s land of the living dead into loving life.”