Traces of another Neolithic building found at Marden - older than the Henge

Written by Tony Millett on .

What story will these post-holes tell?What story will these post-holes tell?They are filling in (July 25) the five 'trenches' archaeologists have been investigating around the Marden Henge since June 27.  At the site there's been great excitement at the discovery of clear traces that a Neolithic building or structure existed there before the Henge was built.

In an excavation opened in what may well have been the entrance (perhaps even a ceremonial entrance) to the Henge, they have discovered a row of post-holes and a gully which look very like a Neolithic D-shaped structure - similar to those found at nearby Durrington Walls.  

The row of post-holes lies beneath the mound that is now all that remains of the Henge - so the building must pre-date the building of the Henge itself.  

Dr Jim Leary, who leads this project, says of this four-week long dig: "I think we have had a solid year."

In a trench right in the middle of the site's mini-Henge they have discovered three very large pits.  When we visited the site on Saturday (July 23), careful work with the way earth has been compacted showed that two of these giant pits had ramps going down into them - perhaps for sliding the foot of a standing stone down into the pit?

Finds of organic material that can be dated may help unravel the mystery of what these pits were for.  Without that evidence Dr Leary is wary about being too certain: "They must have contained something - it could be big wooden posts or stones."

Working on two of the big pitsWorking on two of the big pits Some of the finds - inlcuding black flintSome of the finds - inlcuding black flint A trench, its spoil heap, the remains of the Henge - and beyond the Wiltshire landscapeA trench, its spoil heap, the remains of the Henge - and beyond the Wiltshire landscape

Work in this area was very difficult has it was first explored in 1807 by the antiquary William Cunnington and a team of navvies, who completely destroyed the upper layers.  But getting below those layers has revealed these very extraordinary and historically valuable finds - as well as fragments of late Neolithic grooved ware pottery and early Bronze Age Beaker ware.

In another of the 'trenches' - they are nothing like what we normally mean by trenches, but much more like tennis-court sized openings - they have found a smaller pit with deposits of charcoal and knuckle-sized pieces of Sarsen stone.

Bits of Sarsen stone Bits of Sarsen stone Ancient hoof prints?Ancient hoof prints? A fragment of grooved wareA fragment of grooved ware A post-hole on the outer edge of the HengeA post-hole on the outer edge of the Henge

A trench cut to investigate how the environment around the Henge and close to the River Avon has changed, revealed a set of footprints that may well have been made by cows many centuries ago.

Amongst other finds are pieces of worked black flint - a kind of black flint that is only found in Norfolk.

This was the third year of a four-year programme of digs designed to lift the curtain on the prehistory of the Vale of Pewsey and its inhabitants.  It is an area that has been rather ignored by archaeologists who have concentrated on the more obvious sites around Stonehenge and Avebury.   This programme is proving that Neolithic people were very active around Marden.

Before the soil goes back each trench is measured...Before the soil goes back each trench is measured... ...and checked......and checked... ...and recorded...and recorded

In their first year (2010), Dr Jim Leary's teams discovered the base of a building and a hearth within the Henge.  Last year they unearthed the remains of a Bronze Age teenager buried at nearby Wilsford Henge.

This ambitious programme of excavations is led by the University of Reading, in collaboration with Historic England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Wiltshire Museum.   The Museum in Devizes has an exhibition running until September of previous finds from the project.

This year's dig was a large-scale operation - at one time there were 150 students and volunteers working on the site.  Most of the students are from the Archaeology Field School at Reading University’s Department of Archaeology - Dr Leary is the School's Director.

Earlier in the month they held an open day which attracted more than 450 visitors.  Dr Leary is pleased that so many people - especially local people - are interested in the site: "It was very, very popular.  Lots of people turned up with picnics - it was clearly a good day out."

Jim Leary will be back next year - the final year of this Vale of Pewsey programme: "We'll still be focused on Marden, but in different locations to this year."  He is still fascinated by apparent influences of the geology of the area on the man-made mounds and ditches - and they may look for other springs, which must have made Neolithic life possible.

Towards the end of the year we will report on the first assessment of this year's finds.  [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Separating out organic matter that can be dated...and keep diggingSeparating out organic matter that can be dated...and keep digging