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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, 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 - geograph.org.uk/p/3814805

Taeppa’s Mound in the old churchyard, Taplow cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Stefan Czapski – geograph.org.uk/p/3814805

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, 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 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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The Lie of the Land: analytical survey of earthworks and landscapes

In his pioneering book The Making of the English Landscape published in 1955, W.G. Hoskins noted ‘everything in the landscape is older than we think’. The evidence for this is all around us. And once you know what to look for, you can’t help but see it.

Not much of England has escaped being altered by humans. Even in the seemingly wild places – such as the bleak uplands of Dartmoor or the rugged peaks of the Lakes – you can find evidence for past human activity. These previous interventions play an integral part in defining the character of the countryside we see and value today. The earthwork banks of prehistoric enclosures, the network of roads and field boundaries that connect and divide the countryside, and the fabric of village houses are all imprints of past inhabitants. The English landscape therefore incorporates the actions, behaviour and beliefs of people, and represents a living record of the past.

The English landscape represents a living record of the past

The English landscape represents a living record of the past

Analytical survey is a powerful tool that can help unravel the stories embedded in the landscape record. Through keen observation, careful recording and thoughtful analysis of visible archaeological and historical remains, insightful interpretations of a site or landscape can emerge. It is especially powerful when combined with desk-based research – incorporating information from current and historic maps, aerial photographs, historical documents and the findings of previous research. It can also help target further research using other specialist techniques (such as geophysical survey, archaeological excavation or environmental assessment) and can provide a wider context for their results. Continue reading

Holy Mounds, Sacred Springs. Prehistoric mounds and their landscapes.

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.

Silbury Hill: The largest prehistoric mound in Europe

Jim Leary, David Field and Gill Campbell. 2014. Silbury Hill: The largest prehistoric mound in Europe.

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. Continue reading

Drilling to the Core of the Mound: a minimally intrusive archaeological technique

A key element of the Round Mounds Project is the use of minimally-intrusive techniques of archaeological investigation to uncover new information about large mounds in the English landscape. By using small-diameter boreholes we are able to obtain the information we need without having to resort to destructive and time-consuming excavation.

Drilling at Bramber Castle, W Sussec

The power auger in action at Bramber Castle.

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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. Continue reading

Introducing: The Round Mounds Project

Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds (‘The Round Mounds Project’ for short) is a three-year research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Reading and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC).

The Project, led by Dr Jim Leary, seeks to unlock the history of monumental mounds in the English landscape. Neolithic round mounds, such as Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, are among the rarest and lest well understood monuments in Britain. Recent work by Jim Leary at the medieval Marlborough Castle motte, Wiltshire, has shown it to be a Neolithic round mound which was reused in the medieval period, and raises the possibility that other castle mottes may have prehistoric origins. This research project therefore seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write our understanding of both the Neolithic and Norman periods.

Castle Hill, Thetford.

Castle Hill, Thetford.

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