Marlborough’s Mound is now proved even older and more mysterious than Merlin himself

Written by Tony Millett on .

The huge mound that stands in the middle of Marlborough College is called by racier guidebooks Merlin’s Mount and is said to be his burial mound

.More reliable sources thought the sixty-two foot (nineteen metre) high mound was constructed by those domineering incomers from Normandy so they could build Marlborough’s castle on top of it and so lord it over the townsfolk down below.

Now new scientific research has confirmed that the mound was built way before any recorded sighting of that elusive fellow Merlin.  Carbon dating of pieces of charcoal found deep within the mound prove it was built three thousand and more years before the Normans rode into town.

Dated now to about 2400BC, Marlborough’s mound becomes the ‘little sister’ of the world famous Silbury Hill – which dominates the skyline just westwards along the A4.

Peter Carey of the Bath architects Donald Insall Associates who are overseeing the mound’s extensive conservation, points out that this discovery makes Marlborough’s mound the second largest man-made, prehistoric construction in Britain.  And as Silbury is the largest such mound in all of Europe, Marlborough’s mound may turn out to be the second largest in Europe.

Carey, who was at Marlborough College in the 1960’s, admits to being “carried away” by the news about the dating of the mound.  He thinks it is the most significant archaeological discovery in Britain so far this century.

How could the experts have been so wrong? A.R. Stedman in his scholarly book Marlborough and the Upper Kennet Country (published in 1960 in Marlborough) comes down, with some rather strange logic, on the side of the Norman theory:

“This sixty-foot mound is certainly artificial, but whether it was raised, as tradition asserts, in prehistoric times as a barrow…or whether, more probably, it was raised in Norman times so that the castle could dominate the town…is unknown. That the Mound was built for the castle is confirmed by the fact that the Norman rarely put his castle on a spot with religious associations”

So scholars can’t be right all the time – especially when the science of carbon dating comes along to confound their theories.

Jim Leary, who led the recent English Heritage archaeological investigations on Silbury Hill, and took part in the investigations into the mound, says “This is an astonishing discovery.  The Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape.”

“For centuries people have wondered whether it is Silbury’s little sister; and now we have the answer.”

The mound has had three distinct ‘lives’: it was the base structure for a very important royal castle built by the Normans, used at times by Norman and Plantagenet kings and the scene for some historic events such as the general oath of allegiance to King John in 1209.

The castle then passed from the Kings of England to their queens and eventually fell into disuse, before coming into the hands of the Seymour family of Wolf Hall fame.

Another ‘life’ started in the eighteenth century, when a house on the site was home to the Marquis of Hertford and his family, and Lady Hertford created what Peter Carey describes as “a wonderful and extravagant garden” - with the mound as its centre piece. 

Lady Hertford gave the mound an extraordinary spiral ramp right round the outside, shielded from the common gaze by a hawthorn hedge.  And she adorned it with several notable features including a shell grotto, a belvedere or viewing point and a water feature at the summit.

That the Hertford’s home was later the Castle Inn and a meeting place for Tory politicians need not detain us.  It has since become part of the College buildings.

Now we know the mound had a third, much earlier ‘life’ – a prehistoric ‘life’.  And the reason it was built around 2400 BC will almost certainly remain as lost in time, as mysterious and as subject to speculation, as Silbury Hill itself.

In an expensive and delicate operation, probes were drilled into the middle of the mound and surrounding ditch areas, and the carbon dating of the samples was carried out with the help of English Heritage.  Six cores were drilled and four samples taken from different levels within the mound itself provided shards of charcoal that could be carbon dated.

This work – and plenty of careful conservation still to come – was made possible by initial gifts and a £1,200,000 legacy from former college student, Eric Elstob.  On his initiative, the Marlborough Mound Trust was set up in 2000 and the first investigative work begun.

For more about Eric Elstob and the work to conserve and renovate the mound, see our companion story: “Marlborough Mound’s past is suddenly longer – will its future be longer too?”

And what about the Merlin connection? If Merlin was ever more than a brilliant invention of ancient story-tellers, he belongs in the so-called ‘dark ages’ rather than prehistoric times. Perhaps the slight similarity between the words Marlborough and Merlin was too much of a temptation for tourist guides of yore.

It is important to emphasise that as part of the College grounds, the Marlborough Mound is on private property and not open to the public.  In fact at present there’s not a lot to see anyway – just a mound of trees.