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More secrets of Silbury Hill revealed in the book of the 2007-2008 excavations

The monograph telling the full story of the archaeological evidence discovered during multi-million pound Silbury Hill Conservation Project in 2007-8 is published by English Heritage today (December 28) - Silbury Hill: the largest prehistoric mound in Europe.

The book is the result of years of scientific and analytical work by 50 specialists from 20 organisations and universities.  The work was led by archaeologist Dr Jim Leary (then working for English Heritage, now a lecturer at Reading University) who has edited this monograph with David Field and Gill Campbell.

Opening the Hill for conservation, allowed archaeologists unprecedented access to its interior – and produced a great deal of new evidence.

“The post excavation analysis was vast.” says Dr Leary, “It was a major programme of scientific work and it took a lot of organising!”

Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, is a key part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site.  The huge earthen, grass-covered mound appears suddenly on your right as you drive from Marlborough westwards along the A4.


In May 2000 a ten metre deep hole appeared at the summit of the mound – as can be seen in the aerial photograph at left. This was caused by the collapse of tunnels dug into the mound in 1776 when Colonel Edward Drax became the first person to try to find out whether Silbury Hill was simply a giant burial mound.

It was then discovered that other, later exploratory tunnels driven into the mound by archaeologists were also collapsing – notably the one created during the excavations between 1968 and 1970 sponsored by the BBC and extensively televised. It was this tunnel that was then re-opened to give access for engineers to secure the collapsed tunnels and stabilise the mound - and for archaeologists to explore inside the mound.

Although there had been a great debate about what to do with the mound once it was found to be so unstable, if English Heritage had not stepped in and set a major conservation project in motion, Silbury Hill might well have suffered a catastrophic collapse.


Dr Jim LearyDr Jim LearyAs Dr Leary told Marlborough News Online, the major detailed findings in the new book using material discovered during the conservation work concern dating: “We now have a very good idea of its date, and of the length of time it might have taken to build.”

“The new dating evidence places the start of construction in the second half of the twenty-fifth century BC, with the final stages of Silbury finished in the late twenty-fourth or early twenty-third centuries BC – estimating that it took between 55 and 155 years to build.”

When Marlborough News Online asked Dr Leary whether there is likely to be further archaeological excavation on Silbury Hill after the 2007-2008 works, he explained: “They were not designed to answer pressing research questions about the nature of the mound. That must wait for the future.”

“That said, we know so much more about the mound and the landscape – things that just a decade ago we knew nothing of.”
The monograph has chapters on every aspect of the conservation and archaeological finds and analysis. Chapter 9 will be of special interest to the Marlborough area’s local history enthusiasts.  It tells how the project has revealed more about the later history of Silbury Hill.

A geophysical survey has revealed that a Roman settlement grew up around the mound.  And there is evidence that in the Middle Ages the mound was remodelled and a structure, possibly a defensive palisade, was built on the summit in the tenth or eleventh centuries AD – perhaps in response to Viking raids.

Another chapter gives details of the engineering work that was carried out to stabilise Silbury Hill and preserve it for generations to come.

With the results of the Silbury project safely between hardcovers, Dr Leary looks to the future: “We are surely about to enter a new phase, where dating of events allows us to build up local and regional histories and assign social context on the basis of greater certainty.  For Neolithic archaeology the prospects are really exciting.”

It is probably a good thing this book or monograph is being published after Christmas and so has missed family present lists – it is priced at £100.

The Marlborough Mound

The Marlborough MoundThe Marlborough MoundRecently, Dr Leary and a group of colleagues have also published analysis of the work he led in 2010 that finally dated the Marlborough Mound as being a contemporary of Silbury Hill.  

The mound in the grounds of Marlborough College became overnight not ‘Merlin’s Mound’ or ‘Castle Mound’ but ‘Silbury’s Little Sister’.  It is a little over half the height of Silbury.

It could certainly no longer be thought of as just the base for Marlborough’s Norman castle.  Rather, the castle builders used the Neolithic mound as a conveniently high foundation for part of the castle’s structure, rather as Silbury was probably used in the Middle Ages as the base for a defensive palisade.

Although the theory that the Mound was prehistoric goes back to 1821 and its date was the subject of controversy thereafter, it was generally thought to have been created in the Middle Ages.

The age of the Marlborough Mound was fixed using carbon dating of fragments of charcoal and other organic material found in the soil cores that were taken by Dr Leary’s team through the full height of the mound.

Published in The Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (the December 2013 issue), the analysis of the findings leads the authors to believe it is likely the mound was part of a bigger Neolithic site – just as Silbury was part of Avebury and the Marden Henge had its mound (which has now disappeared.)

Dr Leary told MNO: “There is very likely to have been a Neolithic enclosure of one sort or another nearby.”  This was probably to the south of the Marlborough mound. However, as that area was turned into a network of water meadows in the seventeenth century, traces from Neolithic times have been lost.

The authors also think that evidence found in the cores taken from the mound, may show that the site suffered two major floods in the distant past.  Floods which may put the River Kennet’s more recent flooding into perspective.

In the journal paper there are intriguing photos of some of the cores showing the various strata of materials within the mound. 

These cores show the mound was, like Silbury, constructed over a number of phases showing that for the builders the significance of the mounds was in the process of building rather than in the finished form.

Silbury Hill: the largest Prehistoric Mound in Europe edited by Jim Leary, David Field and Gill Campbell.  Published by English Heritage. RRP £100.

The Marlborough Mound, Wiltshire. A further Neolithic Monumental Mound by the River Kennet – by Jim Leary, Matthew Canti, David Field, Peter Fowler, Peter Marshall and Gill Campbell.  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79, 2013, pp 137-163.  
[This paper can be bought to download from the Cambridge University Press website for £20.]

[May 2000 aerial photo of Silbury Hill courtesy English Heritage.]

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Avebury dig in the West Kennet Avenue uncovers evidence of very early occupation

It's not just about tiny trowelsIt's not just about tiny trowelsOn the last day (August 7) of a three week archaeological dig in Avebury’s West Kennet Avenue more than fifty people from the surrounding parishes visited the site, were given a tour and heard descriptions of what was going on from archaeologists leading the excavations.

For the first time in seventy-nine years, they have reopened part of the trench dug by Alexander Keiller, the marmalade heir from Dundee who bought part of the Avebury site so it could be preserved and pioneered new archaeological techniques at the stone circles and avenues.  (Keiller's trench can be seen in the foreground of the photo below of Dr Mark Gillings.)

In 1934, part way along the West Kennet Avenue, Keiller and his colleagues discovered a Neolithic midden or rubbish dump that contained more than a thousand worked flint tools and much else besides.  This was a sure sign that the area had been occupied.

Today’s archaeologists wanted to find out more and opened two large trenches – helped by a team of undergraduates mainly from Southampton University.

It has not been an easy dig. The days when they were lifting off the turf were about the hottest of the year.  Then came heavy rain and lightning – and work had to stop to let the rainwater drain away.

A third trench – slightly further towards the village – will have to wait for another year. Before that there will be months and months of careful analysis of the finds and seeing what evidence comes from the soil samples.

Dr Nick Snashall introduces the digDr Nick Snashall introduces the digThis summer’s dig is part of a long-term project called Between the Monuments which is designed to discover where and how the people who built the monuments lived. And to find out what they did when they were not building monuments.

It is a collaborative research project between the University of Southampton (Dr Josh Pollard), University of Leicester (Dr Mark Gillings), Allen Environmental Archaeology (Dr Mike Allen) and the National Trust (Dr Ros Cleal & Dr Nick Snashall.)

Nick Snashall, who is the National Trust’s archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, introduced the dig to the visitors. And Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard explained what was happening in each of the trenches.

Dr Mark Gillings explains the trenchesDr Mark Gillings explains the trenchesMark Gillings said they were working in unique circumstances as they had found soil undisturbed by deep ploughing: “It’s a unique pocket of dirt” which was giving up “intact pieces of pottery and beautiful flint work.”

Some finds had pre-dated the creation of the Avenue by as much as seven centuries: “People were living here before they decided to set up the Avenue.”

Other finds were from the time the Avenue was being built – and some were from the early mediaeval era. And they had found a Roman coin in Keiller’s 1934 trench: “He’d probably thrown it back in as he was only interested in Neolithic finds.”

Examples of the finds can be seen on the dig’s blog – including a wonderfully complete flint arrowhead.

Tiny white markers near the edge of one of the trenches show where ancient stake holes have been found – given away by different colouring in the soil caused by decayed wooden posts.  Stake holes like these usually belong to some kind of home or living quarters.Dr Josh Pollard and studentsDr Josh Pollard and students

Digging the third trench and pursuing these post holes beyond the present trenches  – always hoping to find a hearth – will almost certainly bring the team back next year.

The interim results from the dig will be posted on the blog.

Click on photos to enlarge - then > & <.

When the dig ends all the carefully sifted soil goes back into the trenchesWhen the dig ends all the carefully sifted soil goes back into the trenches

The white lines are periglacial deposits from the last ice ageThe white lines are periglacial deposits from the last ice age


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Steam buffs and petrolheads make tracks for rally

A display of tractorsA display of tractorsSteam buffs and petrolheads made tracks in their hundreds for the Wiltshire Steam and Vintage Rally at the weekend.

Held at Rainscombe Park near Oare, the two-day event took place in glorious sunshine – a welcome contrast to last year, where heavy rain led to the cancelation of the event.

Attractions included falconry displays – which saw Hope the harris hawk perch on the heads of several spectators – steam traction engines, dog agility demonstrations and parades of vintage cars, commercial vehicles, motorbikes and military vehicles.

The cars dated from the dawn of motoring to the 1980s, and included a pair of Fiat Grand Prix cars from the early 1900s, which were fitted with 16-litre airship engines and were capable of one mile to the gallon, and a DeLorean sports car, etched onto the memory of every 40-something as Doc Brown's time machine in the Back to the Future movie trilogy. 

The militaria collectors also demonstrated the power of to field guns – one from each of the world wars – and screened Pathe News of a World War Two military exercise, involving British and American Troops, during which Pewsey Bridge was blown up to hinder a German invasion during a fighting retreat.

Meanwhile, tractors from days gone by competed in a ploughing match while steam engines – some over 100 years old – demonstrated the way the industrial revolution reduced farming's reliance on manual labour.

The annual event is organised by the Wiltshire Agricultural Preservation Group, whose next public event is the Vintage Ploughing Match on October 6, at a venue to be confirmed. For details, log on to

* Click pictures to enlarge

An enthusiast polishes his engineAn enthusiast polishes his engineA dog is put through its paces on the agility courseA dog is put through its paces on the agility courseFrom old to relatively recent - the parade of carsFrom old to relatively recent - the parade of carsHope the Harris Hawk finds somewhere to landHope the Harris Hawk finds somewhere to landMilitaria collectors with their WWII field gunMilitaria collectors with their WWII field gunThe vintage ploughing matchThe vintage ploughing matchThis young lad has the best view in the houseThis young lad has the best view in the houseYoung visitors come face to face with Hope the Harris HawkYoung visitors come face to face with Hope the Harris Hawk

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“Bluebeard” Henry VIII who hunted in Savernake Forest comes under the Hilary Mantel lash

Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, who met whilst hunting in Savernake ForestHenry VIII and Jane Seymour, who met whilst hunting in Savernake ForestThe Duchess of Cambridge, whom she describes as the princess with “a perfect plastic smile” who learned her hockey skills while a student at Marlborough College, is not the only royal who has come under fire from Hilary Mantel.

The British Museum lecture by the double Booker Prize-winning historical novelist, which runs to 5,600 words, includes cutting criticism too of the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince Harry plus Henry VIII, who met Jane Seymour, the third of his six wives, while hunting in Savernake Forest.

A considerable section of the lecture dealt with the Tudors. Referring to Anne Boleyn, Hilary Mantel told her audience: “It was said she had won Henry by promising him a son.  Anne was a power player, a clever and determined woman.”

“But in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul.  It was her womb that was central to her story.”

“The question is whether she could ever win the battle for an heir.  Or was biology against her?  At his trial Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, entertained the court by telling them that Henry was no good in bed.”

“Conception was thought to be tied to female orgasm, so the implication was that what George called Henry’s lack of ‘skill’ was the problem.”

“Yet clearly he was able to make his wives pregnant.  Was something else wrong?  The old notion that Henry had syphilis has been discarded.  There never was any contemporary evidence for it.”

“The theory was constructed in the 19th century, as part of a narrative that showed Henry as a sexual beast justly punished for his promiscuity.  In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites.”

“He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time.  I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way.  In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic.”

“Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love.  It was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries.”

Hilary Mantel pointed out: “Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts.  You have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.”

“But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend.  Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story.  The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love.”

“And readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying.”

New research, she reported, suggested that Henry had a blood type called Kells positive, which meant that he carried an extra antibody on the surface of his red blood cells.  The blood type is rare, so if it was assumed Henry’s wives were Kells negative, then their lack of compatibility was the reason for their multiple reproductive failures.

“His first child with Anne Boleyn was a healthy girl, and his first child with Jane Seymour a healthy boy,” she added.  “Jane died soon after Edward’s birth, so we don’t know what would have happened thereafter.”

“The world’s focus on body parts was most acute and searching in the case of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife.  No one understood what Henry saw in Jane, who was not pretty and not young.”

“The imperial ambassador sneered that ‘no doubt she has a very fine enigme’: which is to say, secret part.”

And Hilary then declared: “We have arrived at the crux of the matter -- a royal lady is a royal vagina.  Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property.”

“We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.  Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know.”

Ending her lecture, Hilary Mantel widened her controversial comments that have gone round the world by insisting: “It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam.”

“Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty.  It can easily become fatal.  We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago.”

“History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough.  But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control.”

“I’m not asking for censorship.  I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence.  I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.  Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks.”

“We are all Barbara Cartland now.  The pen is in our hands.  A happy ending is ours to write.”

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A model of Marlborough’s past saved for the future

A friend discovered it in a garage in Devizes packed with historical antiques for sale.

And when Val Compton saw it she fell in love with an architectural model of a slice of Marlborough’s past and bought it.

Now the model has taken over the dining room table of her home in Kennet Place, but local activist Val is delighted to show off the vision of Hughenden Yard, off the High Street, she now owns.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” she told Marlborough News Online. “It’s all to scale, the cars, the trees, the buildings, everything about it is perfect and virtually as it is today.

“I knew I had to rescue it because it was really something that belonged in Marlborough.”

The model is of the phase two development by Chartwell Heritage plc, carried out in 1987 to a design created by architects Corstophine and Wright, based in London and Warwick, and shows one or two elements that were not completed.

Val hates the idea of the model being lost again and leaving Marlborough again. So has persuaded Marlborough town council to buy it for £35 – the price she paid – so that it can be put on display at some time in the future.

 “There is the possibility of having a museum here one day, which is so, so needed,” she said. “If the town hall improvement project goes ahead, then this model would be ideal to have on display.”

And former mayor Councillor Andrew Ross, who chairs the finance committee, agrees and is asking the council to endorse buying the iconic model.

“It’s stunning, a piece of Marlborough’s history,” he said. “We must have it.”


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Mayor to lay wreath on blue plaque to commemorate Civil War siege of Marlborough

Lord DigbyLord DigbyThree hundred and seventy years after the last musket shot was fired, the siege of Marlborough during the Civil War will be commemorated ina wreath laying ceremony. 

On December 5 at 10am mayor Edwina Fogg will lay a wreath at the plaque on the wall of the Castle & Ball hotel.

She will be accompanied by the Officers of the Dignity, and beadle John Yates will read an account of the siege.

The outbreak of civil war in 1642 saw the majority of the town on Parliament's side, although the Seymours held the castle for the King.

Because of its radical reputation, its strategic significance on the road West, and its proximity to Oxford, which King Charles had made his base, Marlborough was one of the first towns to be attacked. 

On November 24, Lord Digby led four hundred cavalry troops to the town, where he demanded surrender. He was rebuffed, and returned on December 5 with an army of 4,000 men.

His attack was resisted by a small force of professional soldiers and a much larger number of local people, Colonel James Ramsey and John Francklyn, one of the town's two MPs – Sir Francis Seymour was the other.

After a three-day siege the Royalists overran earthworks on the Common and then stormed the town through the alleyways leading to High Street, shouting, “A town, a town for King Charles!”

Even as the Royalist troops entered High Street the townsfolk continued to put up a fight, firing muskets from windows.

Looting and pillaging followed, with 53 houses and seven barns put to the torch. Royalist troops rounded up 120 prisoners - including the MP and the mayor - who were marched to Oxford prison, where the MP John Franklyn later died.

Although the town was lost, Oliver Cromwell never forgot the loyalty of the people of Marlborough.

When much of the town was destroyed by a Great Fire in 1653, Cromwell levied a national subscription – to which every parish in the land contributed – to rebuild the town.  

The blue plaque that commemorates the seige of Marlborough was erected in 1995. 

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Marlborough’s own Dad’s Army is brought back to memorable life

They called them the Local Defence Volunteers at the start, the brave band of men who took up arms after the flight from Dunkirk to protect our shores – and sky – from the expected hordes of Hitler’s troops.

Tommy Trinder, the cheeky stand-up comedian of radio fame labelled them Look, Duck and Vanish.  And so it was later left to Winston Churchill to rename the biggest unpaid army ever raised in Britain the Home Guard.

And, of course, it has stuck to this day and embellished by the comic antics of the BBC’s long-running and loved TV show Dad’s Army.

“If it hadn’t been for Dad’s Army, the Home guard would have been largely forgotten,” admits local historian Roger Day (pictured). “But the record needs to be put straight by emphasising how close this nation came to a Nazi invasion in 1940.”

And so he sincerely hopes his new book, Look, Duck and Vanish, a fascinating and highly readable  history of the 6th (Marlborough) Battalion of the Wiltshire Home Guard from 1940 to 1944 will go a considerable way to addressing the issue.

Indeed, it is a valuable exercise in social history, packed with pictures and illustrations, the more so since he thought he had left it too late to research such a history when he was contacted by Sir Sydney Giffard in 2008.  He asked if Roger was interested in the Marlborough Home Guard and piles of documents relating to World War II that he held.

They had belonged to his father, Walter Giffard, the battalion’s commander, and Marlborough-born Roger discovered that the range of information was “beyond my wildest dreams.”

But were there still members of Marlborough’s Dad’s Army around to interview – was he too late?

The surprise there was that he discovered more than 20 who could recognise themselves among the photographs now in his possession and had a mindful of memories before some, alas, have now passed on.

Their mission at first was to watch the skies for it was believed the Germans would infiltrate by launching an airborne invasion of spies and fifth columnists, so the volunteers were nicknamed parashooters.

Life on night patrol could be full of scares and possibly trigger happy volunteers, some of whom were equipped with American gangster-style Thompson sub-machine guns.

And there were plenty of them. Within five days of an appeal by Sir Anthony Eden more than 250,000 men had volunteered and in Marlborough’s seven sections there were no fewer than 520 in the volunteer ranks.

Not that anything stupendous happened. “Fortunately, the war by-passed Marlborough to a large extent, so it’s difficult to say exactly what the Marlborough Battalion’s most significant event was,” admits Roger, who now lives in Hungerford.

“However, the day a German aircraft dropped its bombs while the battalion was watching a demonstration on Manton Down must be near the top of the list.  If the aim had been better the consequences could have been disastrous.”

Roger’s own passion for history started as a child when his parents and grandparents recounted their stories of life on the Home Front.  And it is after a career as an engineer, insurance agent and postman that, now retired, he has appropriately brought it back to life in book form.

I loved the story of the night-time challenge issued when a wayward sound was heard, only for the perpetrator to turn out to be a “barking” hedgehog.

Roger recalls: “I thought Dickie Brown’s account of being on guard at the Durley roadblock when a young soldier refused to hand his paybook to toy soldiers is one of the best stories.  I still wonder if Lionel Wootton would really have shot him.”

Luckily he didn’t.

As Tommy Trinder used to cry “You lucky people!” when he performed, so we are fortunate too that Roger Day has worked so hard and researched so diligently to bring back to beautiful life the 6th Battalion of the Marlborough Home Guard.

There may yet be more to follow.

“My interest in the 6th Marlborough Battalion does not end with the publication of this book, as I am fairly certain there’s a lot of material still waiting to be rediscovered,” Roger points out.

“I therefore invite ay reader with further information to please make contact, so that it might be included in future editions.”

Roger email contact address is: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Look, Duck and Vanish, price £12.95, is available at Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.


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