How Marlborough’s Mound turned out to be Silbury Hill’s little sister
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The huge and hidden mound that stands in the middle of Marlborough College was called by some of the more fanciful guidebooks “Merlin’s Mount” and has even been described as Merlin’s 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.
Then, in 2011, new scientific research confirmed that the mound was built long England had a king. Carbon dating of pieces of charcoal found deep within the mound proved it was built three thousand and more years before the first Normans rode into town.
Dated now to about 2400BC, Marlborough’s mound becomes the ‘little sister’ to the world famous Silbury Hill – which dominates the skyline just westwards along the A4 toward Bath. The definitive dating of the Mound has been called the most significant archaeological discovery in Britain so far this century.
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 discovery makes Marlborough’s mound the second largest man-made, prehistoric construction in Britain. And as Silbury is the largest such mound in all Europe, Marlborough’s mound should in turn become the second largest man-made mound in Europe.
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 famous as owners of the local Wolf Hall estate and for Henry VIII’s Queen Jane. 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 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. The Hertford’s home later became The Castle Inn and a meeting place for Tory politicians. It has since become part of the College buildings.
As befits a scheduled monument, it has long been strictly out of bounds to college students. Although there’s some hearsay evidence that those trees and Lady Hertford’s shell grotto have, in days gone by, provided cover for the occasional illicit smoker.
The groundbreaking exploratory work that led to the Mound’s dating – and the many years 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.
The Marlborough mound is at the moment covered with trees and voracious ground cover, mainly ivy. Eventually the trees – some near the summit are thirty-two feet tall - and the ivy will be removed. This must be done very slowly and carefully. Although the vegetation is degrading the mound, too sudden removal would destabilise the whole structure and might lead to collapses of parts of the mound.
The conservation and restoration process could take several decades. But completion of the work has been guaranteed by the Marlborough Mound Trust. Its benefactor, Eric Elstob was a student at Marlborough College from 1956 to 1960. He died of cancer in 2003 aged sixty. He was an enthusiastic conservationist, loved London’s many churches designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and was instrumental in the restoration of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, at Spitalfields.
Work to investigate, conserve and restore the mound began ten years ago. Already the twentieth century metal water tank has been removed from the mound’s summit where it had replaced first Lady Hertford’s water feature and had later been used as a reservoir for gardeners and local fire wardens.
The grotto and its shell decoration has already been renovated. This grotto was dug into the side of the mound for Lady Hertford who was a lady-of-the-bedchamber to George II’s wife Queen Caroline. It was once used by college boys as a bike shed.
In 2012, work began to re-establish a section of Lady Hertford’s unique spiral ramp. This will be a test to see whether it will eventually be possible restore the whole feature right around the cone of the mound – as the architect in charge of the conservation has put it, it will be putting “the jelly mould back on the jelly.” The idea is not to change the mound’s structure but to consolidate it.
However, the mound is on the college’s private property and access for the general public is not possible. So, unusually for a scheduled monument of such importance, it cannot automatically become a new tourist attraction for Marlborough.
The trustees of the Marlborough Mound Trust have a difficult job on their hands. Their main aims as a charity are to ‘restore, conserve, preserve and maintain the mound’. But they are also pledged to ‘educate the public about the archaeological and historic significance and merits of the mound.’
And at some point in the future, when the restoration is much further on, access for the public will surely have to become possible - even if only on specific ‘open days’ during college holidays. But it’s most unlikely people will ever be free to walk up the mound. Just as tourists must admire Silbury Hill from ground level, so it would be too risky to subject such an ancient structure as the Marlborough mound to the tramp of thousands of twenty-first century feet.