Prehistoric Marlborough: primary school pupils will be playing where once Neolithic men and women lived

Written by Katie Marsden of Cotswold Archaeology on .

In November 2016, Cotswold Archaeology undertook an archaeological excavation in Marlborough on behalf of Kier Construction. The work was completed in advance of new school buildings for Marlborough St. Mary’s Primary School. This year, work on analysing the results took place and a publication of those results is in preparation.

The work was on the area soon to be used as school playing fields and provided an exciting opportunity, as chances for excavation in the town of Marlborough are often limited. Cotswold Archaeology had also investigated parts of the site in 1997 during an earlier planning application for a new school.


So this year we were able to reassess our understanding of the area and add to the picture of Prehistoric Marlborough.


The site, located off Isbury Road, Marlborough, has been relatively well preserved, with a long land use by the school, and previously as allotments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the site was probably used as arable land.


What was revealed was evidence for activity in the Late Neolithic period, dating to 3000 to 2400 BC. This suggests that the site is probably contemporary with the building of the nearby Marlborough Mound. Also uncovered was possible evidence of Anglo-Saxon quarrying.


A Neolithic flint scraperA Neolithic flint scraper  Fragment of a Greenstone axehead from CornwallFragment of a Greenstone axehead from Cornwall


A number of pits were found at the site, filled with objects from the Late Neolithic period. This included 450 sherds of pottery, belonging to a ceramic tradition called Grooved Ware. Specialists identified a total of 19 probable vessels within this group, making it possibly the largest assemblage of its type found in the town.


One of the pits that held Neolithic flint arrowheadsOne of the pits that held Neolithic flint arrowheads  Fragment of a Neolithic pottery vessel with applied cordon decorationFragment of a Neolithic pottery vessel with applied cordon decoration


Most vessels appear to have been jars used for food storage. Cups or beakers and a bowl were also found, suggesting eating and drinking were also taking place. No cooking vessels were identified, but analysis of soil samples has shown charred hazelnuts and fuelwood charcoal, suggesting this activity probably took place nearby.


The pits contained a variety of flint tools, many still sharp after all this time. The surrounding areas also produced a lot of ‘debitage’ - the waste pieces that are made when knapping - or fashioning - flint tools. This suggests that people were making the tools at the site, possibly for hunting and preparing food.


A Neolithic flint saw from the excavations at St Mary's school playing fields A Neolithic flint saw from the excavations at St Mary's school playing fields


The tools included arrowheads for bringing down animals, saws for processing meat or wood and scrapers for removing fat from animal skins to make items like clothing or bedding.


The analysis of one pit in particular proved to be very exciting. It contained pottery fragments from multiple vessels, special flint items including the arrowheads and saws, and two stone axeheads.


These axeheads are made from stone sourced from West Cornwall and Devon, and are probably the most travelled objects on the site. What makes this pit special is that the axeheads appear to have been deliberately broken and placed in the pit on top of the pottery and flint.


The site of the playing fields - before the archaeologists got to workThe site of the playing fields - before the archaeologists got to work


This practise is well known in Wiltshire as a ritual activity and is usually associated with ceremonial monuments, perhaps Marlborough Mound in this case.


The Anglo-Saxon objects found at the site are also very interesting. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 AD as Merleburgh, but physical evidence of activity in the town from this time is scarce. Only one coin and two pieces of pottery had been found previously.

The 2016 excavation revealed a quarry pit, possibly dug to extract the natural flint or clay from the area. Within this pit were four sherds of pottery that date to between the 5th and 8th centuries AD. Two vessels are identifiable, both globular cooking pots with a burnished surface, created by polishing the clay until shiny before it is fired.

One of the pots has lugs so it could be suspended over a fire. Animal bone from this pit included cattle, sheep or goat and goose.

The pit also produced loomweights, named so because they weighted the yarn on a loom (which usually rested against a wall) allowing the weaver to produce woven textiles. The loomweights were probably made at some point between the early fifth to mid seventh century AD.

This small collection of artefacts is highly important, providing evidence of a settlement in the area. The St Mary’s site has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the inhabitants of the town before the medieval town was developed after the Norman Conquest.

You can read about work carried out at this site by Cotswold Archaeology in 1997 on our website. The report from the 2016 excavation will be published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Magazine and on our website in due course. is most grateful to Katie Marsden and Cotswold Archaeology.  The photographs are theirs and remain the copyright of their client - Kier Construction.