To put the Round Mounds Project in context, Dr Jim Leary describes some previous work on Neolithic round mounds in Wiltshire and how those sites might give us some clues in the search for other similar mounds elsewhere…
One way of identifying mounds with potential for prehistoric origins is to look at the landscape settings of known prehistoric mounds and target sites in similar settings. Recent work on three huge mounds in Wiltshire has proved invaluable.
On the chalk massif in Wiltshire, near the famous Avebury henge, is a huge pudding bowl-shaped earthen mound called Silbury Hill. It dates to the later Neolithic period, and at 31m high is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Recently it was the focus of a multi-million pound archaeological and conservation project after a cavity opened up on the summit in 2000. Although many have suggested that it could have acted as an elevated arena, one of the most striking aspects of the mound is its setting – occupying a low-lying position surrounded by high terrain. This precludes the desire for height and visibility as the main reason for construction. It was not meant to be a prominent feature within the landscape; in fact it is relatively hidden when viewed from afar. Its associations are low down in the landscape – with water. Indeed, Silbury Hill occupies a springhead location and is situated at a confluence of springs and winterbournes of the River Kennet, effectively marking the river’s source.
A little further downriver, 8.3km to the east, is another mound, known as the Marlborough Mound. It is 18m high and located within the grounds of Marlborough College public school. Well established as a garden mount, and before that, the motte of medieval Marlborough Castle, we now know from radiocarbon dating that it has its origins in the later Neolithic and contemporary with Silbury Hill. The Marlborough Mound is in a similar location to Silbury Hill, situated on the valley floor, at a confluence and near springs. This again suggests a focus upon water and the river. The famous antiquarian William Stukeley noted that springs rise in the Marlborough Mound’s ditch, and springs rising near the mound once provided the domestic water supply for the nearby grand house. Writing in 1947, local resident G. K. Maurice observed springs alongside the Treacle Bolly – the riverside path just to the south of the mound – describing how “the water welled up from underground, always in turmoil, ceaselessly carrying grit and tiny bits of gravel to the surface and letting them sink again”. It appears that the whole area was interlaced by springs and the course of the Kennet at this point was probably influenced by them.
To these two mounds, we can add a third later Neolithic mound, this time just to the south. The Hatfield Barrow is located within Marden henge in the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire, and is said by antiquarians to have been as much as 15m high, although it is now demolished. Today remnants of the once massive ditch around the mound can just be traced on the surface. This mound is (or, at least, was) of similar monumental proportions to the Neolithic mounds at Silbury and Marlborough. It is also in a similar low-lying topographic position. Furthermore, an account by local naturalist James Norris in 1798 indicated that the moat-like ditch was constantly fed by springs, while the antiquarian Richard Hoare in 1812 also noted that the ditch retained water. Water may well, therefore, have been present around the Hatfield Barrow.
Marden henge, which encloses the Hatfield Barrow, has been the focus of a major research project recently. The earthworks of this henge incorporate a section of the River Avon near its source as an integral part of the enclosure circuit. Springs appear to be incorporated within and around the enclosure and even today the enclosure ditch holds water for part of the year. Clearly the low-lying nature of the topography and the brooks, streams and springs are key to understanding it.
The recent work discussed above has shown that all three of these great Wiltshire mounds date to the second half of the third millennium cal BC, and all three mounds could be contemporary. They are also all located next to a river: Silbury Hill and the Marlborough Mound are alongside the River Kennet, the Hatfield Barrow next to the River Avon. The low-lying location of these mounds and their juxtaposition with rivers and springs must be of significance. Perhaps they mark major routeways or emphasise rights and belonging to communities along the river valley, but they may also encompass metaphysical and religious concerns. There are countless examples from around the world of belief in river spirits and sprites and of the sacred, metaphysical or supernatural role of rivers – of which the River Ganges in India is perhaps the best known example. Water in particular is used in a wide range of cleansing and purification rituals, not least those of Christianity. Undoubtedly rivers played a significant role in the lives of people in prehistoric Britain and it may be that later Neolithic mounds and water were integrally linked.
For these reasons we have included proximity to water, such as rivers and springs, as one of the key criteria for selecting our sites. Time will tell whether this is simply a Wessex thing or part of a broader, national pattern.
Leary, J., Canti, M., Field, D., Fowler, P., Marshall, P. and Campbell, G. 2013. The Marlborough Mound, Wiltshire. A further Neolithic Monumental Mound by the River Kennet. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society vol. 79, pp.137-163.