Forbury Mound – a final mystery solved

Our final site on the Round Mounds Project was right on our doorstep – the mound in Forbury Gardens, Reading.

As discussed in a previous post, Forbury Mound is something of an enigma. The fact was, no one really knew for sure what this strange broad-bean shaped low mound of earth was. Was it a monument to a slain Viking warrior, a castle motte hastily constructed during a period of civil war in the 12th century, or was it the mutilated remains of a 17th century gun emplacement?

The origins of Forbury Mound  remained mystery until this summer, when in June the Round Mounds team came to investigate.

As with the previous 19 sites, we aimed to date the construction of Forbury Mound by collecting core samples through the mound…

Dr Jim Leary with the equipment used to extract the core samples

Dr Jim Leary with the equipment used to extract the core samples

In this way, we sampled just over 3m worth of archaeological deposits which comprise the mound, drilling boreholes in two locations – one in the middle of the mound, the other a few metres to the north. In the laboratory, the cores were examined, and small samples of sediment were taken from the cores to look for material suitable for dating.

Whilst for most of our sites we have relied on AMS (Accelerator mass spectrometry) radiocarbon dating to reveal the date of construction, Forbury Mound was rather more forthcoming with its secrets…

The core samples from Forbury Mound were full of archaeological material – detritus from every day life in the past. In particular the core samples were full of what archaeologists call CBM – ceramic building material – otherwise known to non-archaeological folk as good old fashioned brick and tile.

Fragments of ceramic building material from Forbury Mound.

Fragments of ceramic building material (what archaeologists call “CBM”- brick and tile to everyone else…) and a fragment of oyster shell (top left) found in the core samples from Forbury Mound.

So why was the presence of brick/tile in the core samples from Forbury so revealing? Firstly, the presence of this type of tile means that the mound almost certainly cannot be any earlier than the 13th or 14th century – ruling out the possibility that the mound was a Norman castle motte, or indeed any other kind of earlier monument. Furthermore, the abundance of tile in the cores from Forbury suggests that the mound was at least partly made up of demolition rubble, probably following the demolition of a nearby building. And where could this rubble have come from? Just next door to Forbury Gardens, the ruins of Reading Abbey, disestablished in the 16th century, or one of its associated structures look to be the most likely source of this rubble.

Taken together, this evidence seems to support the one remaining hypothesis for the origin of Forbury Mound: that the earthwork is a remnant of Reading’s 17th century Civil War defenses. Indeed, this is what the mound seems to resemble in one of the earliest accurate maps of Reading produced in 1802. In this plan, shown below, the earthwork which is clearly labelled “Forbery Hill” has an angular form typical of civil war defenses, and part of the southern extension appears to overlie the site of Reading Abbey.

Detail from 1802 map of Reading by Tomkins, showing Forbury Mound

Detail from 1802 map of Reading by Tomkins, showing Forbury Mound (marked as “Forbery Hill”) which here looks much like the remains of a Civil War era defensive earthwork.

So there it is – it seems the mystery is solved. The last mound cored on the project has also turned out to be the latest.

As a final thought, it is worth noting that although the coring evidence points to a Civil War date for Forbury Mound, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a medieval motte on or near the site, just that if there was, the physical traces of any earlier activity have been erased by the later use of the site…

A newly discovered Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial? Montem Mound, Salt Hill, Slough

Over the years people haven’t always been kind to Slough, Berkshire. In spite of the fact that the town has the second most productive economy in the UK, is the setting for one of the most successful British comedy series of recent years, and is a major transport hub, all too-often people judge the book by the cover and underestimate Slough… Montem Mound, in the Salt Hill area of Slough, is a prime example of how a fascinating story can be hidden beneath an underwhelming exterior – recent work carried out by the Round Mounds Project has shown that Montem Mound is far older than most had imagined, and is in fact part of the story of the earliest development of the social and political structures still in place in England to this day.

“Perhaps to this list of … landmarks in the early development of the political structures of England, we can now add Montem Mound, in Slough…”

Montem Mound, Slough as it appears today.

Montem Mound, Slough as it appears today. Nigel Cox [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Until now, the origins of the site, which is protected by law as a Scheduled Monument, were shrouded in mystery, obscured perhaps by an intriguing later tradition. Between the 16th and mid-19th centuries the mound, now surrounded on all sides by busy roads and the Slough Ice Arena, was the focus of a unique ceremony associated with the nearby Eton College. The ceremony consisted of a procession of Eton scholars in fancy dress or military uniform to the mound. The schoolboys then extracted money (known as “salt”, sometimes received in exchange for actual salt) from passers-by. Eventually the Eton Montem became extremely popular and attracted large crowds, including Royal patrons such as King George III and Queen Charlotte, to observe the procession and partake in the revelry.


King George III and Queen Charlotte at the “Montem”, 1778 (ink wash on paper), by  Samuel H. Grimm via the British Library online gallery

Montem Mound was examined by the Round Mounds Project during the 2016 field season. Two core samples were extracted from the mound in order to examine the makeup of the monument, and to extract material suitable for radiocarbon dating. The mound was found to consist of a 3.5m high artificial heap of sand and gravel. Charred plant remains extracted from near the buried former ground surface and from midway in the mound makeup indicate that the mound was constructed some time after the mid-5th century, probably in the 6th or 7th century AD. This places the origin of Montem mound firmly in the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period

Although its discovery is a surprise, the newly-discovered Anglo-Saxon monument at Montem Mound, Salt Hill, is not entirely without parallels – in the old churchyard at Taplow, just 3½ miles (5.7km) northwest from Montem is another very similar monument, also known to date to the early Anglo-Saxon period. Given their similarity in form, date and landscape situation, it is likely that, like Taplow, Montem Mound started out as the burial mound of an important local figure.

Taeppa's Mound in the old churchyard, Taplow cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Stefan Czapski -

Taeppa’s Mound in the old churchyard, Taplow cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Stefan Czapski –

Taeppa’s Mound (which, incidentally, gives Taplow it’s name), was excavated in 1883 by a local collector of antiquities, James Rutland. The contents of the barrow, now kept at the British Museum and shown in the sketch below, were for a long time the richest collection of Anglo-Saxon grave goods found anywhere in the country. Up until the incredible discoveries at Sutton Hoo in 1939, the Taplow burial was the only real-life example of the fabulous wealth described in Beowulf (see below). Now, almost a century later, we know of a few more of these so-called “Princely Burials”. These burial mounds, the resting places of high-status individuals and local leaders dating to the 6th and 7th centuries AD, give us a fascinating glimpse into the traditions of a society in the midst of major political and cultural change: after the decline of Roman Britain, on the cusp of the re-adoption of Christianity and the development of new political structures which would, in time, lead to the formation of powerful kingdoms, and, ultimately, the emergence of a unified England. Perhaps to this list of important monuments, landmarks in the early development of the political structures of England, we can now add Montem Mound, in Slough…

Reproduction of sketch of the 1883 Taplow burial.

Reproduction of sketch of the 1883 Taplow burial.

geworhton ðá  Wedra léode

hlaéo on hóe sé wæs héah ond brád

waéglíðendum wíde gesýne

ond betimbredon on týn dagum

beadurófes bécn· bronda láfe

wealle beworhton swá hyt weorðlícost

foresnotre men findan mihton·

hí on beorg dydon bég ond siglu

eall swylce hyrsta swylce on horde aér

níðhédige men genumen hæfdon·

forléton eorla gestréon eorðan healdan

then wrought the Wederas’ people

a barrow on the hill, it was high and broad,

for wave-farers widely visible,

and they constructed in ten days

the war-chief’s beacon, the leavings of the fire,

with a wall they encircled, as it most worthily

the very wisest men could devise;

they placed in the barrow rings and brooches,

all such trappings, as before from the hoard

hostile men had taken away;

the treasure of heroes they let the earth hold

[Beowulf – lines 3156-3166, translation by Benjamin Slade]

Forbury Mound, Reading – one final mystery mound…

After two years of work, hundreds of miles travelling up and down the country, almost 200 metres of core samples, and 19 monumental mounds, we at long last near the end of the road: the final bit of fieldwork, the very last of our mounds. Having investigated mounds everywhere from the Sussex coast to the foothills of the Malverns, from the Wylye Valley to the Peaks, and from the Chilterns to the outskirts of Darlington, we end our journey at a small mound right on our very doorstep, in Forbury Gardens, Reading.

Forbury Gardens, Reading

Forbury Gardens, Reading. Forbury Mound is the area of raised ground to the left of the image. Andrew Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being one of the smaller mounds we’ve looked at as part of our project, which aims to explore the date, form and environmental setting of monumental mounds in England, the mound at Forbury is one of the most puzzling… Continue reading

The Round Mounds Project on tour: talks and conference presentations

It’s certainly been a while since we last posted on the Round Mounds Project blog but the last few months have been really rather busy, so we hope you’ll excuse us…

Since we last posted on this blog we’ve all but completed the field and laboratory work for our second (and final!) batch of sites, with only one more site left to go – the “enigmatic” Forbury Mound on our own doorstep in Reading – very soon we’ll be posting updates on the results of this fieldwork…

But we haven’t just been surveying mounds, drilling boreholes and staring down microscopes these last few months (not all the time, anyway), we’ve also been busy with another essential part of any academic’s job: getting out there and talking about our work.

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Radiocarbon dates from 10 castle mounds – results of year 1

After all the trials and tribulations of fieldwork over the autumn and winter of 2015/2016 followed by months of lab work, logging the core samples and extracting datable material, at last we have the results of the radiocarbon dates from the first ten study sites!

multiple samples of organic material from all ten study sites were sent for AMS radiocarbon dating, allowing us to provide objective dates for all of these mounds for the very first time

In total we were able to extract almost 50 sub-samples of material from the 155m of core samples we collected last year; these were then sent to our colleagues at SUERC, in East Kilbride, for AMS* radiocarbon dating. Thankfully, we managed to extract multiple samples of datable material from each of the ten study sites, allowing us to produce objective “absolute” dates from these mounds for the first time.

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The Mount, Lewes: ancient monument, medieval fortification… or garden feature?

The full title of our research project is Extending Histories: from medieval mottes to prehistoric round mounds, and that is exactly what our work is doing: we are extending our knowledge of these enigmatic mounds, challenging assumptions, and finding that the histories of these monuments aren’t always as straightforward as we think they are.

Our investigations in East Sussex, down on the south coast, have produced some intriguing results…

As we will discuss in a forthcoming post, the radiocarbon dates from the first set of study sites are in. As well as finding a prehistoric mound, of an unprecedented scale for its date, in East Yorkshire, our investigations down on the South Coast have also produced some intriguing results.

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Fieldwork 2016 – the sites

The second fieldwork season of the Round Mounds Project is already in full swing! Below is a list of sites that will be investigated this year.

One or two more sites may yet be added to this list… See here to read about the criteria we used to select our study sites. We’re looking for mounds situated in landscapes with known prehistoric activity (especially Neolithic monuments!), mounds that are in low-lying and ‘watery’ topographic settings, and mounds that are relatively large (i.e. larger than your average barrow).

The sites

  • “Castle 2”, Hamstead Marshall, W. Berkshire
  • Sherrington, Wiltshire
  • Castle Tump, Worcestershire
  • Clare, Suffolk
  • Tonbridge, Kent
  • Catterick, N. Yorkshire
  • Pilsbury, Derbyshire
  • Tickhill, S. Yorkshire
  • “Montem Mound”, Slough, Berkshire

See here for the list of sites we investigated in our first field season.

Hiding in plain sight: Skipsea Castle, East Yorkshire

On the low-lying plain of Holderness in East Yorkshire lie the impressive remains of Skipsea Castle. The site was investigated by the Round Mounds Project team during our first season of fieldwork with quite extraordinary results…

Holderness is a rural, gently undulating landscape bounded by the dip slope of the Yorkshire Wolds to the north and west, and the large expanse of the Humber Estuary to the south. To the east lies the soft boulder clay cliffs of a coastline being rapidly eroded by the power of the North Sea. Skipsea Castle is situated 12km south of Bridlington, in an area formed primarily from glacial deposits of clay, sand and gravel which carpet the underlying Cretaceous Chalk strata.

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