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Uncovering the Hidden Gardens at Marble Hill House

During March, our archaeologists at Marble Hill House worked to uncover hidden landscape gardens from 1752 loved by Henrietta Howard. Their weekly blog below reveals what they found.

For daily updates, follow the team on Twitter @HE_Archaeology #MarbleHillHouse

The Final Week

The excavations have come to an end. With glorious sunshine for our very last week of excavating there has been frantic activity as we finish excavating as well as processing the finds.

So…what did we discover in the end? Here's our working hypothesis and tentative results. As we began the post-excavation stage of assessment and analysis….more surprises lay in store.

The grotto

The trenches laid here were designed to locate the gravel path complex around the grotto. Did we find them? No we didn’t! What did we find here? Archaeology which made us scratch our heads every day but led us to discover that the grotto itself has a complex history.

In all of the four trenches we excavated around the grotto we discovered the edge of the grotto which matches with the 1752 garden plan. We then found evidence of a series of digging events related to the creation of the hole for the grotto, gravel extraction, infilling to reduce the size of the grotto, an interval of a series of linear planting beds, and a large infilling which probably represents the decommissioning of the grotto. It is all a little complicated and we still don’t have the whole story. We need to excavate wider and deeper to find the very beginnings of the grotto’s history.

What the excavations have revealed is a new chapter in understanding the history of the grotto, but there is another chapter still waiting to be discovered!

Ninepin bowling alley

Having completed the excavation of this area in the first two weeks, we had time to ponder and re-visit the trench to piece together the puzzle of the features we had uncovered.

Our result in progress is that the shallow feature with a possible lozenge shape is indeed the bowling alley. It also appears to have been patched up over time due to wear and tear. There must have been many games played here!

Ice house seat

At the last minute, we got permission to place a trench behind the ice house to investigate the existence of a seat. This was no small seat, but quite a hefty structure which appears on the 1752 plan in a roofed alcove, designed in the same style as the house itself and facing an avenue to the river.

It was a race against the clock to excavate what we could in a short timeframe – just four days to dig and find some information. The team did an excellent job. We opended the trench to 20 centimetres in depth on the Friday afternoon of the third week of excavations. By the end of Monday the following week it was over one metre in depth in one half and nearing 1.5 metres in the other half! We didn’t find the seat itself although we did gain more of an understanding of the bank leading down from the ice house. We discovered three different phases of bank building and modification, one of which very possibily relates to the seat itself. So where is the seat? We think the seat is situated a lot closer to the ice house than we were able to excavate this time around so it's still waiting there for us to discover….next time! 

Archaeologists digging a trench.
Digging deep to uncover information about the ice house seat in the short time remaining © Historic England


What finds did we find?

We found a lot more than we anticipated. From medieval pottery made in nearby Kingston, to yellow bricks made in Kent or Sussex, to 18th century clay tobacco pipes including one with an inscription. We also discovered quite a bit of glass including a complete 20th century milk bottle from Cross Deep, Twickenham. And we found a fragment of dressed Marble which is a possible tile - quite apt given the name of the house! All the finds will now be sent to specialists for identification and analysis and once all the information is collated, we will be able to share it!

What’s in store for the future?

We would love to return to Marble Hill for more excavations as we have even more questions to ask than we did a month ago! However, we have plenty of work to be getting on with in post-excavation of this seasons digging! Farewell Marble Hill House, maybe one day we’ll be back!

Photograph of the excavation team
Historic England's excavation team at Marble Hill © Historic England

As the trenches get deeper, there are many questions still to be answered - Wednesday 29 March

The original thinking for placing the trenches around the grotto area was to try to uncover the interlinking paths running around the grotto area. It seems we have found everything else except this. We think we may have uncovered the original cut for the grotto as well as some planting beds pre-dating the construction of the house. Read on....

Using our trowels and mattocks to 'follow the edge' in the grotto trenches we've discovered evidence of a very large hole which appears in the corner closest to the grotto in each trench. What does this mean? Current working hypotheses include a large pit dug for gravel extraction. The current debate is whether we also have evidence for the deconstruction of the original grotto! We are hoping that this proves to be the case but more excavating is needed to investigate this possibility. The hole just keeps getting deeper!

We've also uncovered some intriguing linear features in two of the trenches. From these we've discovered a thimble and sewing pin, both of which may date to the 18th century and be contemporary with the house. A little more research is needed on these two objects. We were very hopeful for more lovely finds from the other linear features and although we didn't recover any more metal objects, we did discover an array of pottery, glass, clay pipe and building material. It's been an interesting time in the Finds Shed.

Women with a mattock excavating in a shallow trench
Kate Winter excavating a linear feature © Historic England

What are these linear features? Following some discussion about garden features, we've come to the conclusion these linear features represent planting beds. We can see these features very clearly in two of our four trenches. On closer inspection of the stratigraphy we can see that one group of planting beds could be contemporary with the grotto house, but the other group evidently pre-date the construction of the grotto.

Things are certainly heating up on site with glorious sunshine and so many questions to answer. We're in our fourth and final week of excavations. It's going to be a very busy week. A new trench is planned, so watch this space! We have so many finds passing through the Finds Shed ready to share with you in the next blog. There are always some last minute surprises on an archaeological excavation, so who knows what else will happen during our last week...

Could this be the bowling alley? - Friday 17 March

It has been a very busy week here at the excavations. The trench exploring the bowling alley is complete. All the features have been excavated, recorded and drawn with many deep discussions as to what the archaeology reveals. The consensus is that we have a large linear feature in the area we believe the bowling alley to be. Have we found the ninepin bowling alley? Yes! (we think…)

Why do we think this? Many reasons. The linear feature is aligned east to west, exactly as it appears on the 1752 garden plan. The linear feature is also exactly 18 feet wide indicating that someone has taken the time to measure this exact width.

Archaeologists Tom Cromwell, Kat Winter and Duncan Stirk record the linear feature in the ninepin bowling alley trench at Marble Hill House
Archaeologists Tom Cromwell, Kat Winter and Duncan Stirk record the linear feature in the ninepin bowling alley trench © Historic England

There is of course a possibility the linear feature is not the bowling alley. Garden features were often altered, added or removed and so this linear feature may in fact simply represent a large flower bed or a different type of garden feature. What we're 90% sure of is that it's a feature in the area where the ninepin bowling alley appears on the map.

Evidence of a path complex

In the trenches alongside the grotto, we've uncovered what appears to be a 20th-century rubbish pit full of large fragments of ceramic drainpipe, bricks and tiles! Ugh! Not the archaeological material we want! The trenches are, however, revealing many gravel patches which we're investigating to discover if there is more of a pattern to the gravel. This will inform our suspicions that this gravel is part of the path complex from the 1752 garden plan. One of the trenches appears to have a linear feature running through it which we also suspect is part of this path complex. We are giving the trench a good clean with our trowels before we begin to excavate to investigate.

Ashley Bryant and Cecilia Salkendal investigate the gravel path complex in the Grotto area at Marble Hill House
Ashley Bryant and Cecilia Salkendal investigate the gravel path complex in the Grotto area © Historic England

Inspiring budding archaeologists

It's also been a busy week with students visiting from local primary and secondary schools. It's been fantastic to open up our excavations, share our archaeology and, we hope, inspire possible budding archaeologists! The students also spent some time looking at and asking questions about what we had found as well as undertaking hands-on activities about Grottos, shells, animal bones and knuckle bone floors! A great experience all round!

Please tune in to Twitter @HE_Archaeology on Friday 17 March between 1pm and 2pm for our live interaction of 'Ask an Archaeologist'. Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask but haven't had the opportunity? Now's your chance!

Saturday 18 March is our open day so please come along!!

Uncovering features and objects - Friday 10 March

It's been a glorious sunny week at the excavations. We've made good use of both sun cream and sun hats.

Trevor the digger driver came at the beginning of the week to strip back the turf. He opened up five trenches: a large T-shaped trench in the area of the ninepin bowling alley and four rectangular trenches around the Grotto. With the temporary fencing in position, information posters attached and trenches surveyed, it was time to start digging.

A digger strips the topsoil in preparation for archaeologists to trowel trenches in the grounds of Marble Hill House. Archaeologist Tom Cromwell looks on, scanning the newly revealed soil for features and artefacts.
Trevor the digger driver strips the topsoil to our trenches whilst Archaeologist Tom Cromwell looks for features and artefacts uncovered © Historic England

The T-shaped trench, investigating the ninepin bowling alley, is already showing some very interesting features. We've exposed a sizeable patch of gravel in the shape of a square. The 1752 garden map shows two rows of parallel trees alongside the bowling alley. Could this gravel represent a planting place for one of these trees? Was the gravel backfilled into the holes once the trees were removed to aid drainage? We'll start to dig it next week to find out.

In the same T-shaped trench, we've uncovered, (to use a technical term), two big black splodges. One splodge is beginning to look rather like a pit and as we trowelled the area to find out more, we found pottery dating to the Tudor period – a whole century before the Georgians. Not part of the ninepin bowling alley we're looking for, but an interesting twist in the story we're uncovering.

The three trenches in the area around the Grotto are in their final stages of cleaning and the features which lay within are beginning to be revealed. We can already see areas of gravel which are potentially the network of paths we're looking for. This is very exciting and when we start to dig them next week, it will become clear what they represent.

Archaeologists trowel a trench in a fenced off area of the grounds of Marble Hill House
Archaeologists Ashley Bryant and Cecilia Salkendal trowel trench three in the Grotto area, revealing the features to be excavated © Historic England

We're also very busy in the Finds Shed. We've uncovered lots of finds whilst clearing the topsoil and revealing the features beneath. Pottery, brick, tile, clay tobacco pipe, glass and waste slag from glassmaking have been uncovered in all of the trenches. We're in the process of washing the finds and in our next blog post we'll be able to tell you more about them.

What a great first week!

Let's get digging - Friday 3 March

Trowels - check, wheelbarrows - check, waterproofs - check, sun hat … wait a minute, sun hat? Not sure we'll need this for the first week of excavations at Marble Hill.

Ten archaeologists, six trenches, four weeks, one mission: to uncover the hidden landscape gardens from a 1752 plan of the grounds of Marble Hill House. We're on a search for the ninepin bowling alley, a pergola, an ice house seat, remains of the original paths of the gardens and last but not least, a possible structure to the south of the Grotto.

Why are we searching for these long lost gardens?

English Heritage has submitted a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid to breathe new life into the Georgian landscape of Marble Hill House and its 66 acres of riverside parkland. Our excavations will examine the original layout of the gardens and contribute to the eventual re-instating of features of this original fashionable Georgian garden. Maybe your visit to the Palladian villa of Marble Hill House in the future will include a game of bowling just as it did in the mid-1700s. Georgian attire essential!

18th century sketch showing an example of a Ninepin Bowling Alley
This 18th century sketch shows an example of a Ninepin Bowling Alley probably similar in design to the one located here at Marble Hill © Trustees of the British Museum

So who lived in a house like Marble Hill?

The first tenant was the amazingly fascinating Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, for whom Marble Hill House was built from 1724-1729.

Henrietta was not considered a traditional 'beauty' but well known and much loved for her radiating charm, wit and intelligence. Henrietta became the royal mistress of King George II for 16 years, retiring from court life in 1734. In 1735 following the death two years earlier of her abusive, drunken first husband, Charles Howard, she remarried for love to the Honourable George Berkeley, an MP. Following 11 years of very happy marriage, Henrietta was widowed again and retired permanently to Marble Hill House surrounded by her many friends, including Alexander Pope, Lord Chesterfield and Horace Walpole.

And so, let's dig! Re-visit this page every Friday for a weekly update on our excavations. You can also follow us daily on Twitter @HE_Archaeology #MarbleHillHouse and join us on Saturday 18 March for an open day - watch this space for more information.

Ground Penetrating Radar survey over the North Lawn
Ground Penetrating Radar survey over the North Lawn © Historic England
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