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It does when it comes to henges, apparently.  At another of the museum’s excellent talks last week, Dr Jim Leary spoke about his work over the last few years at Marden, in the Vale of Pewsey, and about the amazing discoveries there, with Reading University and Historic England (formerly English Heritage). Marden is described as Europe’s largest Neolithic henge, enclosing over 15.7 hectares, and an even larger one is probably waiting to be excavated at nearby Cat’s Brain (yes, really!), both beating Avebury for size.

MardenMarden Henge, Vale of Pewsey

The Vale of Pewsey lies between Stonehenge and Avebury but is not part of the World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, it is as full of archaeological ‘goodies’ as anywhere else in Wiltshire.  Perhaps even more so.  Dr Leary explained that the relative lack of interest in the area is because, unlike the higher ground where Stonehenge and Avebury stand, the Vale has been ploughed continuously for thousands of years and any remains are less obvious.

As with Avebury , the ditch around the henge at Marden is on the inside, with a bank outside of that.  The assumption is that this was to protect the people/audience/congregation from what was inside.  Whatever that was! Like Avebury, and, indeed, Durrington, there is evidence of Neolithic buildings on the site before the banks and ditches were built.  In this case, there is a rectangular building with a chalk floor where the archaeologists are even investigating the layer of dirt and dust which had accumulated on the floor when it was in everyday use. A PhD student is doing a thesis on what this dirt can tell us!  There is evidence of burning in the area, the same signs of  ceremonial feasting as at Durrington, and a midden.

The artifactual finds are of astonishing beauty (exquisite arrowheads) and possibly unique (pottery with a white ‘slip’ made from crushed bone, possibly human).

marden2

Thanks to Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and English Heritage for this photo. Wilts Museum has an on-going display of information and artifacts from this excavation

Inside the henge was a large conical mound known as the Hatfield Barrow (now levelled) and an inner henge. Hatfield barrow stood tall in the eighteenth century when it was mapped but was later ploughed out.  It was likely to have been similar to Silbury.  This had Dr Leary on a mission.  How many other mounds in the area, in the country even, might have been built in Neolithic times?  More on this next week.

The smaller henge has been excavated and shows evidence of huge holes which must have held timber, or possibly stone, at some early time, now completely gone.  There is evidence of similar such holes at Stonehenge, marked in the carpark there.

What a time to be in archaeology. Scientific advances will allow that PhD student to do her research on a layer of dirt just a few millimetres thick. DNA and isotope analysis allow us to pinpoint dates and origins to a very exact degree. Dr Leary said that things were changing so fast he was never able to recycle his lectures to students anymore!

The excavations continue this year, having begun in 2015.  After that will come the analysis of what has been found and the publications.  If we want to visit the Marden site we are more than welcome.  The team are there every day this summer except Fridays and the students of Reading University conduct guided tour for visitors. Go in the coming weeks or miss the chance! Click here for further details.

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