Marden Henge (also known as the Hatfield Enclosure) is one of the five Late Neolithic (circa 2500 BC) Wessex ‘super henges’. It is also the most unusually shaped of the group, being more ovate than round, and incorporates the river Avon to complete the enclosure instead of the more usual bank and ditch (though there may be a case for Waulad’s Bank). It encloses an area of 37 acres (15h), and also contains a number of interesting features – Hatfield Barrow in the north-east quarter, a large burial mound in the south-west quarter, and a circular timber structure just inside the northern entrance. Of these, it is Hatfield Barrow which has drawn most attention.
Though it is often compared with Silbury Hill, it was nowhere near the same scale, nor entirely similar in shape. Robert Speakman’s illustration from 1724 has the barrow culminating in a high dome, rather than the flat-top of Silbury. Indeed, it is not dissimilar to the type of ‘bumpkin’ hat often depicted in the pages of Punch magazine in the 19th century. Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington, the antiquarians who excavated the site in 1807, have the height at 22.5 ft, which is still impressively large, though a veritable pimple when set against Silbury’s towering 120 ft. Many give an alternative height of nearer 50ft, a measurement gleaned from Gough’s 1806 edition of Camden’s Britannia (more commonly known a Gough’s Camden). Though this work had originally appeared in 1586, it would seem that even in the roughest of winds, losing 30ft of mound in 221 years is somewhat unlikely. Once Colt Hoare and Cunnington had finished with the barrow, it was no more than an untidy heap, having collapsed after a disasterous hunt for an individual internment. Shortly after this a farmer cleared what remained (presumably filling the ditch) to provide himself and his family with a little more usable land. Still, the excavation wasn’t entirely fruitless – Colt Hoare and Cunnington report that
“the men frequently met with charred wood, animal bones of red deer, swine, and those of a large bird, as well as two small parcels of burned human bones. Upon the floor of the barrow, we found charred wood scattered over the part that we cleared, and in one place, where there were large quantities of charred wood, we picked up some small pieces of human burned bones. . .”
Which may not set the world alight in the same manner as a mass of context free Anglo-Saxon gold, but to the those interested in the Neolithic, the odd bit of carbon and bone along with some mouldering bird parts is always something of a treat.
Regardless of disagreements about height, the ditch surrounding the barrow is one of undeniably impressive proportions. In his 1810 publication Ancient Wiltshire, Colt Hoare describes it as a ‘deep and wide ditch. . . which in winter is nearly full of water, although the soil consists of a greenish sand.’ Soil of a sandy composition should allow decent drainage – the fact that the ditch (though it’s tempting to use the word moat) remained full of water throughout the winter months is a probable indication of the water table being swollen by winter rain rather than being filled by it from above. The English Heritage geophysical survey shows the ditch in great clarity – their estimate of its size is 25 m across, and 105 m in diameter, with the remains of the barrow showing as a comparatively small island in the centre.
Slightly larger than this, at an estimated 30m across, is the anomalous feature in the south-west quarter. Described by the English Heritage site boards as a feature “perhaps unique in Neolithic Britain; it is a large circular depression 40m wide and a half a metre deep, containing a small, off centre platform. The depression is surrounded by a bank almost 90m in diameter and nearly 1m high.” It also mentions Colt Hoare and Cunnington’s investigation, which yielded “a few bits of pottery and a little charred wood, but no marks of internment.” Fortunately for us, Jim Leary’s team are excavating this feature again, paying close attention to two intriguing parallel lines which extend away from the bank.
Literature round-up for Marden Henge.
“Earthworks like those at Waulud’s Bank, Durrington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant, all in southern England, seem to have been put up on the sites of earlier unenclosed settlements of the middle Neolithic once occupied by the users of Windmill Hill pottery. Forest clearance and crop growing had been followed by a long cessation of cultivation before the earthworks were thrown up as many as five centuries later. In every one of these enclosures Grooved Ware has been found.”
“At the earthwork of Marden, the Grooved Ware settlement only a few miles south of Avebury in the marshy vale of Pewsey, the body of a young woman who seemed to have suffered from malnutrition in her childhood was put in the ditch alongside the north entrance. Again, this could have been an ordinary burial but, if so, it is remarkable that the body of yet another young woman should have been found at Avebury’s south entrance, buried there like the skeleton at Marden some time after the ditch was dug.”
“Excavations at a number of the henge monuments located across the chalklands of Wiltshire and Dorset have produced large quantities of Grooved Ware pottery, and this has lead some to consider both monument and pottery as closely linked phenomena, even as components of a single socio-religious complex of artefacts, practices and beliefs.”
“At a number of excavated sites, the ditch is certainly wider and deeper on either side of the causeway: at the ‘henge enclosure’ of Marden, in Wiltshire, it expanded to 59ft (18m) wide and about 10ft (3m) deep instead of the more normal 52.5 (16m) and 6.5 (2m) respectively (Wainright 1972, 185-7), whilst two of the three excavated terminals at the double entrance site of Arbor Low were deeper than elsewhere around its circuit (Gray 1903).”
“Other large mounds of similar date are known closer to Avebury, including those at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey (Wainright 1971) and Mount Pleasant, Dorset (1979). Both are associated with henge enclosures. These are not on the same scale as the final phase of Silbury, though close in size to Silbury I and II (Thomas 1999, 216). The massive mound in the grounds of Marlborough College might be another, while the curiously large mound and wide ditches that form the Beckhampton long barrow (adjacent to the ditched enclosure) provide a tantalising possibility that this monument was enlarged and elaborated during the late Neolithic.”
“The postholes of large timber circles, originally comprising multiple concentric rings of posts of telegraph-pole size, were discovered within the interiors of Durrington Walls and Mount Pleasant; another may exist within Avebury; and a smaller example was discovered just inside the northern entrance at Marden.”
“Due east of the centre circle, covered in trees, is the great mound still surviving to a height of 6.5m. Two concentric ditches surround it, one within 5m of the mound and the outer, segmented ditch, set some 30m distant from it. It is possible that this outer ditch, over 10m in diameter, is in fact a fifth henge which enclosed the likely earlier mound. Supporting this hypothesis are some aerial photographs that clearly reveal traces of an external bank. A rescue excavation in 1958 (Field 1962), following a pipe trench which cut the ditch, uncovered a profile apparently less than 2m deep which is admittedly rather un-henge like.
However, bearing in mind the causewayed nature of the ditch, the profile could vary significantly around its circuit. Nothing is known of this mound but similar combinations of henges and large mounds are known in other parts of the country — notably at Arbor Low in Derbyshire, Marden in Wiltshire and the most extreme example of all Silbury Hill and the Avebury complex. The large Neolithic round mound Duggleby Howe on the Yorkshire Wolds is now known to lie at the centre of a surrounding causewayed enclosure (Selkirk 1980). Silbury Hill is known to date from 3000 BC and it is likely that the other mounds are of broadly similar date.”
“A more common ceramic association with timber circles is Grooved Ware. This sometimes plain but often highly decorated flat-based ceramic occurs at 16 (timber circle) sites and most notably at large, elaborate, complex circles. These are the large Wessex sites of Durrington Walls, Mount Pleasant, and Marden.”
“Beaker [pottery] was unusually found at Durrington Walls North Circle (Phase II) and South Circle (Phase II) and at the Sanctuary (though largely from the later stone holes). The Durrington contexts suggest that the Beaker represents a secondary activity at the site and that the sherds were recovered from the upper fills of pits or settling cones in the tops of the dismantled post rings. Like the other sites, therefore, the Beaker at Durrington represents a terminus ante quem for the circles. At Mount Pleasant and Marden the Beaker sherds were likewise not in primary contexts.”
“Most notably at the large Wessex henges, where chalky soil is conducive to the survival of faunal remains, there appears to be evidence for feasting. This would appear to have taken place at Durrington Walls, Mount Pleasant, Marden and Woodhenge, and is represented by the large quantities of bones of immature or young adult pig and other domesticated animals recovered from the excavations at these sites.”
MIKE PARKER PEARSON
“The huge grey sarsen uprights that can be seen today at Stonehenge were put up around 2400 BC (Phase 3ii). No one knows precisely where they came from but their most likely source is thought to be the Marlborough Downs about 20km (12 miles) to the north. However, reports of large buried sarsens near the henge enclosure at Marden, 15 km (9 miles) to the north, hint at a less distant origin.”
“When completed, Silbury would have had an imposing appearance, with stepped concentric revetment walls of chalk blocks, infilled with rubble (Whittle 1997a, 25). The connotations of this architecture are arguable. It may be that the various remodellings were attempts to draw upon quite different traditions derived from different places. In this way the earlier mounds find parallels in the Hatfield Barrow inside the Marden henge, the nearby Marlborough Mound (if indeed it is Neolithic in date: Whittle 1997a, 169–70), the Conquer Barrow in southern Dorset, and the large round mounds of Yorkshire. The final phase, by contrast, may be modelled on the passage tombs of the Boyne Valley and Brittany, traditions whose use had long lapsed by the time that Silbury was completed. Whittle (1997a, 147–9) suggests even more far-flung prototypes for the great mound.”
“Like causewayed camps before them, henges in southern England may have performed a variety of functions and most probably changed their role over the course of time. The majority were probably somehow utilized as ritual monuments, but three large sites in Wessex—Mount Pleasant, Dorset, Marden, Wiltshire and Durrington Walls, Wiltshire—stand apart from the others in having abundant evidence for occupation within them, including timber buildings, middens and large amounts of occupation debris. Indeed, Mount Pleasant contains within its bounds a conventional henge, and Durrington Walls has a similar structure just outside its perimeter at Woodhenge. The site at Waulud’s Bank, Luton, Bedfordshire, may also belong to this group of henge enclosures.”
“At Avebury there is also a dramatic link-up between the Avebury circle, the Avenue and Sanctuary, and the great stepped white mound of Silbury. From the Sanctuary the ‘hill’ takes up the low ground, and picks up the sky-line between two long hill ranges (Jarman, pers. comm.). Moving either down or up the Avenue the hill comes in and out of sight, and it can again be seen from the great encircling bank (perhaps a viewing platform) at Avebury. There are, or were, other artificial white hills, one to the east of Avebury in the grounds of what is now Marlborough College, another southward at Marden on the route between Avebury and Stonehenge, and perhaps yet another at Silk Hill, 5 km northeast of Stonehenge.”
Bender, B (1992). Theorising Landscapes, and the Prehistoric Landscapes of Stonehenge. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. P 784.
“At Durrington Walls, the size and positioning of his trenches were determined by the roadworks. At Marden, Wainright could choose where he wanted to dig. Tony Clarke’s geophysical survey was no help, as the wet sandy subsoil yielded no clues, So Wainright decided to dig at the one entrance that was accessible, that to the north. At the Walls, the large southern circles were close to the southern entrance, and the end of the ditch there had been particularly rich in pottery and other finds. And, lo and behold, in their relatively small trench just inside the entrance they found the post holes of a simple, circular structure, and in the ditch a human skeleton, red deer antlers and quantities of Grooved Ware exactly like that found at Durrington Walls.”