Medieval Motte or Prehistoric Mound? How we selected our study sites

Castle mottes are large earth and stone mounds, often coupled with a bailey, and are a characteristic component of the British landscape. Ask most people and they will have a favourite castle. It may be a local landmark which forms a familiar part of daily life or a more distant memory of a cherished past experience.

The motte and restored shell keep of Arundel Castle, West Sussex

The motte and restored shell keep of Arundel Castle, West Sussex

There are around 900 mottes or motte and bailey castles recorded from across England. So how did the Round Mounds Project team narrow this down to just 20 mottes for detailed study? Perhaps not surprisingly the first stage involved a review of existing information. The aim of this work was to identify castle sites with the potential for prehistoric origin.

The review employed a set of criteria developed using information from known late Neolithic mounds in England. Recent work at the iconic Silbury Hill, the Marlborough Mound and the Hatfield Barrow by Dr Jim Leary has helped characterise outward indicators of late Neolithic mounds. The initial assessment therefore focused on markers which included:

  • Monument scale: from the long list of castle mottes the project team identified 154 recorded as standing over 6m in height, and therefore having the potential to encapsulate large prehistoric round mounds.
  • Topographic setting: we looked at how many of these large mounds were located on low-lying areas near to main or secondary watercourse; using this criteria we identified 67 mounds which have a close association with a river or spring.
  • Relationship to known monuments: we also considered the proximity of these large mounds to known archaeological sites, both prehistoric and later. The aim was to assess the potential for longevity in the landscape – to consider if the mound formed part of a wider prehistoric complex or influenced later landscape patterns.
  • Other archaeological evidence: small finds and place-name evidence were considered, as well as non-intrusive survey (such as aerial photographic transcription and geophysical survey) and excavation evidence. This information was used to create a picture of prehistoric activity and later land-use associated with each large mound.
The project team undertaking reconnaissance work at Thetford

The project team undertaking reconnaissance work at Thetford

From the desk-based work a shortlist of 46 sites was put forward for field reconnaissance. This reconnaissance work involved travelling the length and breadth of England, looking at a range of castle mottes in stunning locations. Each shortlisted site was therefore assessed in its landscape context, a vital component of the selection process. Following the reconnaissance phase a list of 10 sites for detailed survey and investigation in 2015 was drawn up.

The 2015 Round Mounds Project List

The 2015 Round Mounds Project List

We have a preliminary shortlist of sites for 2016, but are keen to hear suggestions from you – so please do get in touch with any ideas for castle mottes with possible prehistoric potential!

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4 thoughts on “Medieval Motte or Prehistoric Mound? How we selected our study sites

  1. Pingback: Holy mounds, sacred springs. Prehistoric mounds and their landscapes. | The Round Mounds Project

  2. Pingback: Hiding in plain sight: Skipsea Castle, East Yorkshire | The Round Mounds Project

  3. Pingback: Fieldwork 2016 – the sites | The Round Mounds Project

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