26 July 2010

Neolithic Building Discovered at Marden Henge

English Heritage archaeologists have uncovered a ceremonial building, thought to be 4,500 years old during a 6-week archaeological excavation at one of Britain’s most important but least understood prehistoric monuments, Marden Henge in Wiltshire.

Building discovered at Marden Henge

The structure has been discovered on the site of a previously unknown mini-henge within the banks of the much larger Marden Henge.

English Heritage prehistorian Jim Leary said: "This discovery has exceeded our expectations and is very exciting. It looks to be a Neolithic building which is equivalent to a priest’s quarters. Just outside the front door is a long spread of charcoal and general rubbish material from which we have some wonderful finds including pieces of pottery, an arrow head, very fresh looking flint flakes and pig bones – things that don’t normally survive on archaeological sites. These fragments should help us better understand what went on here."

Henge monuments are enigmatic features of late Neolithic Britain (between 2400 BC and 2000 BC). They are enclosures formed of banks and ditches and most experts now believe that significant ceremonial or ritual activity occurred within them.  Few, such as Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire and Castlerigg in Cumbria, have impressive upright stone settings still standing.

Unlike Stonehenge and Avebury, Marden Henge no longer has any surviving stone settings, although it may once have had, but its sheer size is astounding. Comprising a substantial and well-preserved bank with an internal ditch that defines and encloses an area of some 10.5 hectares (approximately equivalent to 10 football pitches), it is one the largest Neolithic henges in Britain but has now been almost completely destroyed due to ploughing and erosion.

Aerial view of Marden Henge

Aerial view of Marden Henge

All that has remained is the evidence of a huge mound similar to a smaller version of Silbury Hill at the centre of the henge, which collapsed in 1806 and was completely levelled by 1817. English Heritage hopes to find out more about this feature by obtaining dating material from any surviving features within its centre.

Prehistoric sites are extremely vulnerable. Mount Pleasant in Dorchester, the third largest henge in Britain, has almost been levelled by cultivation. This excavation will make sure that valuable archaeological information from Marden is recorded for the future. Geophysical and topographical surveys have already been undertaken.

Jim Leary added: "Marden Henge deserves to be understood more partly because of its size, but also due to its proximity to the more famous stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge. The relationship between the latter two sites – chronology of their construction, whether it is built by the same people, how they were used, etc – is of immense interest. How Marden relates to them is another layer of interest which we want to study. We are potentially looking at a much more intricate system of Neolithic ritual sites in this part of the world than we previously thought.

"The study of Prehistory is entering a very exciting phase with lots of fascinating research and dating techniques emerging. The stunning discovery of Neolithic houses at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge a few years’ ago, for example, has really turned things on its head. We certainly hope that this excavation will bring more pieces of the puzzle to light."

Marden Henge is situated in a valley in central Wiltshire close to the source of the River Avon. The dig is due to finish on 6th August.

What is intriguing is the evidence at the centre of the henge of a huge mound similar to a smaller version of Silbury Hill, which collapsed in 1806 and was completely levelled by 1817. English Heritage hopes to find out more about this feature by obtaining dating material from any surviving features within its centre.

The excavation also hopes to find out more about a mysterious circular feature in the southern half of the henge, which comprises a large circular depression surrounded by a bank and gullies.

Prehistoric sites are extremely vulnerable. Mount Pleasant in Dorchester, the third largest henge in Britain, has almost been levelled by cultivation. This excavation will make sure that valuable archaeological information from Marden is recorded for the future. Geophysical and topographical surveys have already been undertaken.

PROFESSIONAL
Marden Henge NMP