Tumulus: OS Grid Reference – SU 1836 6867
Also Known as:
- Marlborough Mount
- Merlin’s Barrow
- Merlin’s Mound
Pretty simple. Get to the chapel in front of Marlborough College, and look at the stepped hill in the grounds thereof (with a big hole cut into the top where a water tower once stood). That’s it! Please be aware that this monument is on college ground, so it might be worthwhile telephoning them if you wanna wander upon the hill.
Archaeology & History
This curious rounded, pyramidal hill is thought by some to have given the town of Marlborough its very name. Described in Domesday as ‘Merleberge’, which is reckoned to derive from “the hill or barrow of Maerla”: Maerla in this case being a lost olde English name, said in local folklore and tradition to have been our old heathen magickian, Merlin, of Arthurian fame and legend. Long ago his bones were laid to rest here and this great ‘tomb’ built over him. We might never know…
The exact nature and date of this mound has yet to be satisfactorily explained. Commonly ascribed as Norman in origin (based mainly on the notion that it wasn’t mentioned before Domesday and there being motte and bailey ruins here), the finding of Roman remains near its base then led some to think they had built the hill; but when “antler picks used by its prehistoric builders were unearthed in the late nineteenth century and again in 1912 when a trench was cut for the flue of a new engine-house chimney” (Burl 2002), the dates for its origin went a lot further back!
One of the earlier commentators on this archaeological curiosity was Sir Richard Colt-Hoare (1812) in the days when much more of this and other sites were visible in the landscape, saying:
“The Mount within the gardens of the Castle Inn is a remarkable earthwork: it is a huge pile of earth, and inferior in proportions only to Silbury Hill. Each is situated on the River Kennet; the one near its source, the other near its margin; and I have no doubt but that in ancient times each had some corresponding connection with each other.”
A sentiment echoed by our modern megalithic scholar, Aubrey Burl. (2002) But as Burl points out, the distance between Silbury and Merlin’s Mount would have been measured not in distance by those who constructed these giant mounds, but in time. And the focus of our ancestors here in relation to these two great artificial mounds, would not be esteemed as much by engineering or measurement — for both mounds are gigantic — but a wholly mythic one. Colt-Hoare continued:
“This mound has been so mutilated, as well as lowered in its height, that it is impossible to calculate an exact measurement of either its circumference or height; but as nearly as we could guess with our chains, we found the base to be about 1000 feet in circumference, and the diameter of the summit 100 feet.”
When the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) described Merlin’s Mount — or ‘Marlborough Hill’ as he preferred it named — more than seventy years later as, “an artificial tumulus which deserves careful examination”, it seems little further investigation had been done. And despite Smith’s wish for such care and attention, even today no detailed archaeological investigation has been undertaken. Astonishing! This fascinating-looking pyramidal “barrow” was thought by several early writers to have been constructed along similar architectural designs as that of Silbury Hill. In Massingham’s (1926) fascinating Egyptian-origin hypothesis, he tells us the following:
“Merlin’s Mount encompasses only an acre-and-a-half of ground in comparison with Silbury’s five-and-a-half, and reaches a trifle more than half its height (60 feet). In every other respect the twain are alike. Both were raised at the foot of a gentle slope, both were made of chalk resting on a thin layer of clay, both were trenched around the bases, and in both were buried the antlered picks of the builders. Both were built near the banks of the (River) Kennet within five miles of one and other.”
It certainly is impressive! When Michala Potts and I came here last year in the fine company of Pete Glastonbury and others, we were somewhat in awe of the fact that so little has been said of this site in modern archaeological terms. Indeed, the fact that the jury is still out as to the age of its construction we found quite surprising at the time. Though another quick reading of Mr Burl’s Avebury work, combining the Roman finds and the antler picks here, makes him think that “a prehistoric origin for the mound likely.”
The name of Marlborough itself has been given a number of interpretations, most notably the attempt to derive it from the great shaman-poet Merlin. But on a down-to-earth peasant level we find, in John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica there’s a note in the margin concerning the ‘marl’ element in the place-name that was told to him by a local man called Edward Leigh, which said,
“Marga, marle, we use instead of dung to manure our ground. It (Marlborough) lieth near a chalky hill, which our ancestors knew. They borrowed this name ‘chaulk’ of the Latin, calx, named marle.”
More recently Margaret Gelling (1984) thought that the name of this hill or mound “is variously interpreted as a plant-name or a personal name.” Which for some brings us back to Merlin! We might never know…
- Best, J., “The Marlborough Mound,” in A. Whittle’s Sacred Mound, Holy Rings (Oxford 1997).
- Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.
- Field, David, Brown, Graham & Crockett, Andrew, “The Marlborough Mound Revisited,” in Wiltshire Archaeologial & Natural History Magazine, 94, 2001.
- Gelling, Margaret, Place-Names in the Landscape, Phoenix: London 1984.
- Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of South Wiltshire and the Ancient History of North Wiltshire, London 1812.
- Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathon Cape: London 1926.
- Smith, A.C., Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, WANHS 1885.
With many thanks to Pete Glastonbury and Brian Edwards for their hints and corrections.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian