One of 2019 LitFest’s most local authors will be Marlborough resident, archaeologist, writer and broadcaster Mike Pitts. He will be talking about his new book Digging Up Britain: Ten Discoveries, a Million Years of History (to be published by Thames & Hudson on August 29).
Digging Up Britain starts in the more familiar Viking period and then turns back – far back – revealing “Increasingly less familiar and more bizarre times – with cultures unlike our own.”
He traces his vast time span through ten recent and spectacular archaeological discoveries. “These,” he told marlborough.news, “add up to a new narrative of Ancient Britain – and what it tells us about our modern identity.” A main theme of his work is the ever changing movement of peoples.
Mike Pitts came to Wiltshire in 1979 to be curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury. Since then he has directed two important excavations at Stonehenge and for fifteen years has been the editor of British Archaeology – the Council for British Archaeology’s bi-monthly magazine. He also edits SALON – the fortnightly newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries.
We asked Mike Pitts how Marlborough might fit into his story of Ancient Britain. Finds of artefacts from the Late Neolithic period made during excavations before the new St Mary’s Primary School was built, may not, he says, be unexpected as Wiltshire has many of them. However: “The St Mary’s discoveries are fantastic in the local context, because they are broadly contemporary with Marlborough Mound.”
The Marlborough Mound, which is in the College grounds, was only dated to Neolithic times in 2011 – many had thought it was created by the Normans so their castle’s keep could lord it over nearby houses. It is some 4,400 years old and can now be called ‘Silbury’s Little Sister’.
Mike Pitts: “Wiltshire already had the two largest Neolithic mounds in Britain – at Marden, which no longer exists, and Silbury Hill near Avebury. They were both associated with great Neolithic complexes. Remains at Marden and Avebury show settlements and religious activity – they were both developed over a thousand years or more – they’re big places.”
“Other things being equal we could expect to find the same around Marlborough Mound. All three mounds are close to rivers – Silbury to the source of the Kennet, Marlborough almost in the Kennet and Marden by the Avon.”
“One of the most distinctive things about them is they don’t do what we might expect – they’re not on hill tops – they are down near rivers. Marlborough Mound is surrounded by hills – and best seen looking down from those hills.”
“The trouble with Marlborough Mound is the town.” Town and college have spread and covered up the most likely places for late Neolithic activity associated with the Mound.
“It would be good to do more investigations of the Mound – preceded by a proper survey of all the archives, museum stores, aerial photography and similar evidence from across the Marlborough area. Then investigating close to the foot of the Mound could be very productive.”
So there is a possible future archaeological project aimed at revealing more about Neolithic Marlborough. But, as both an active archaeologist and an editor keeping his eye on the full range of British excavations, Mike Pitts is worried about the future:
“As an archaeologist I am very concerned how leaving the EU might affect what we can do – in several ways. British archaeology is extremely successful in getting EU grants for university projects.”
“But it’s not just the money – EU grants bring several advantages. They encourage universities across Europe to work together and scientists from Europe coming to Britain to work together – they are among the brightest people in their field. They’ve helped make British universities a powerhouse in world archaeology.”
“There is currently excavation on an unprecedented scale across the UK to fulfil planning law – that’s why the dig occurred at St Mary’s. It’s transforming what we know about our history. But we do not have the trained archaeologists to do all that work. On a big project you might need 100 excavators – and up to half can be EU citizens from outside the UK.”
“EU grants have been vital. EU money allowed the National Trust to turn the Stonehenge landscape into permanent pasture – as soon as you plough you erode remains and destroy history.” He adds that the grant was publicised as the government ‘saving Stonehenge’ with ‘government money’.
Strong views among archaeologists do not just concern their interpretation of our ancient past. What is indisputable is that archaeology is teaching us more and more about history – Mike Pitts’ new book will show us how this is happening and what it means.
The current issue of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine includes the full technical report on the excavations on the site of the new St Mary’s Primary School. For easier access the full Cotswold Archaeology report can be found at https://reports.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/ and search for Report No. 17107.
In July 2017, Marlborough.news published a resumé of the discoveries at the school site.
Mike Pitts’ talk will be at St Mary’s Church Hall on Saturday, 28 September at 12noon.