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2 August 2010
Marden Henge: the builder's yard for Stonehenge?

The last party-goers seem to have cleared up very carefully after the final celebration at Marden Henge (Wilthsire, England), approximately 4,500 years ago. All left-overs from the feast - the pig bones, the ashes and the burnt stones from the barbecue that cooked them, the broken pots and bowls - were tidied up into a dump to one side. A few precious offerings were carefully laid on the clean chalk, one of which included an exquisitely worked flint arrowhead. Then the revellers covered the whole surface with a thin layer of clay, stamped it flat, and departed. Forever.
     In the past two weeks, English Heritage archaeologists have removed the thin layer of turf covering the site, which has miraculously escaped being ploughed for more than 4,000 years. They were astonished to discover the undisturbed original surface just as the prehistoric Britons left it years ago. "We're gobsmacked really," said site director Jim Leary.
     The Marden site in Wiltshire has been puzzling archaeologists for centuries. It is located almost exactly half way between Stonehenge and Avebury, which are two of the most famous and tourist-choked sites in Britain. The rough oval of outer earth banks at Marden, completed by a bend of the Avon, enclose more than 14 hectares, compared with 11.5 hectares at Avebury, where the banks surround an entire modern village. This makes Marden larger by far than the other two more popular sites.
     One you familiarize yourself with the site, you notice the sweep of the ditches and the belt of trees obscuring some of the earth bank, which still rises to three metres in some places. There is a stain in the grass marking the lost barrow with its massive surrounding moat, and an utterly unexpected discovery - a second, smaller henge, so close to the modern houses that the roots of two trees at the foot of a back garden are growing into its bank.
     The Neolithic buildings were on top of the bank, not where others have looked for them on the level in the centre of the henges. "We've all been looking in the wrong place," Leary said, "there will have to be a major rethink about other henges. And it's actually almost terrifying how close to the surface the finds were."
     An early 18th century map shows the only known image of Hatfield Barrow: The artificial hill is pictures as a jaunty little sandcastle sporting a copse of trees. At one time, it rose to a height of almost 15 metres, approximately half the height of Silbury near Avebury. Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington, the two antiquarians who burrowed like rabbits through many of Wiltshire earthworks in the early 19th century, dug a massive shaft through Hatfield Barrow in 1807. Their poor records torment modern archaeologists and include references to animal bones, burned wood, and "two small parcels of burned human bones". After the excavation the mound collapsed and later the farmer at Marden filled in the moat and also sold the collapsed hillock as top soil.
     Excavations at one of the original entrances and at the small henge reveal what appears to be a broad gravelled ceremonial road leading toward the river. Uncovering undisturbed neolithic surfaces and building platforms of this magnitude counts as a discovery of international importance. As there is no evidence of permanent occupation of the dwellings or the site as a whole, the implication is of people gathering for seasonal rituals and celebrations, and perhaps a work camp.
     The question is now: what purpose did Marden serve? If it wasn't a village, a temple, a farm, or a cemetery, then what? Leary suspects that the answer may be lie in stone working tools, and flakes of sarsen, being discovered all over the site. If you were going to drag sarsens the size of double decker buses from their original site to Stonehenge, he said, the obvious route is straight through Marden where there is a naturally occurring gap in the hillside. The evidence that Marden was a sort of builder's yard for the most famous prehistoric monument in the world may have been hidden in the mud under the boots of Leary's unwitting predecessors.

Source: The Guardian (28 July 2010)

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