Vale of Pewsey archaeology: six thousand year old decoration on chalk blocks from the Cat's Brain dig

Written by Tony Millett on .


These two blocks of chalk (photo above) were found buried in a very, very old posthole near Marden, in the Vale of Pewsey.  But wait - these are really amazing blocks of chalk.  They are decorated.   They give us a privileged - if somewhat tantalising - glimpse into the lives of our ancestors of long ago - six thousand years ago. 

They were discovered just as last summer's dig in a field at Cat's Brain, near Marden, was winding up.  Opinions on exactly what was unearthed at Cat's Brain are still developing.  If it was, as first thought, an Early Neolithic 'House of the Dead', it was strange that no human remains were found.


Instead of a traditional long barrow tomb, the students and volunteers from Reading University's Field School, led by archaeologist Jim Leary, found the remnants of a 6,000 year old timber hall.

As Jim Leary explains: "The timber hall at Cat’s Brain was surprisingly large, measuring almost 20 metres long and ten metres wide at the front. It was built using posts and beamslots, and some of these timbers were colossal with deep cut foundation trenches, so that it’s general appearance is of a robust building with space for considerable numbers of people" 

"The beamslots along the front of the building are substantially deeper than the others, suggesting that its frontage may have been impressively large, monumental in fact, and a break halfway along this line indicates the entrance way."

Dated at about 3,800BC, the Cat's Brain 'house' or 'hall' is an amazing find, but it is not unique.  What such 'buildings' were designed for and used for and how long they lasted - is very much up for debate.  Were they ceremonial buildings or dwellings for ancestral spirits or storehouses for heirlooms - or just 'community centres'? 

Badger marks on chalkBadger marks on chalkThe two chalk blocks are decorated with 'deliberately created depressions and incised lines'.   Similar blocks have been found at the Neolithic flint mines of Sussex. 

Lines on ancient chalk blocks are sometimes said to be nothing more than the scraping and scratching of badgers.  But the marks on these chalk blocks are quite different.  Will we ever know what they meant to our ancestors who crafted them so carefully?  Almost certainly not.

If anyone thinks they a badger marks - compare them to a piece of chalk thrown out last summer by a badger during the creation of a new entrance to a sett near Marlborough.

Dr Jim Leary at Marden (2017) Dr Jim Leary at Marden (2017) Jim Leary has carried out a great deal of ground breaking archaeological work on Neolithic sites in the Marlborough area.  He worked with English Heritage on the major and most recent investigation of Silbury Hill (2007-2008). 

He then proved that the Marlborough Mound (in the College grounds) was definitely not built by the Normans to sit their castle keep on, but was the same age as Silbury Hill - 'Silbury's Little Sister'. 

Last summer's dig at Marden and Cat's Brain was the final year of a three year programme in the Vale of Pewsey, which has produced other major finds - including work around the Marden house floor and the burial at nearby Wilsford Henge.

Jim Leary, now Director of the Archaeology Field School at the University of Reading, has been nominated by the journal Current Archaeology as one of three candidates to be their Archaeologist of 2018. 

The other nominees are Timothy Darvill, Professor of Archaeology at Bournemouth University, and Hella Eckardt, who teaches Roman Archaeology at Reading University.  You can find more about them here - and you can cast your vote for one of them - and in other categories as well.

Jim Leary is giving a lecture at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes: Cat's Brain: A Neolithic 'house of the dead' on Saturday, January 27 at 2.30pm.  Tickets at £7 should be booked soon at the Museum website, by 'phone (01380 727369), at the Museum shop or by email (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

This article is based in part on Jim Leary's article on 'the conversation' website.