This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

New Excavations to Uncover Hidden Gardens at Marble Hill House

We're back! Yes, we’re digging at Marble Hill from Sunday 6 August for another month! We’re very excited to be continuing our search for further remains of the Marble Hill House Grotto and the Pleasure Grounds.

There are some familiar faces from our March excavations as well as a few new members on the team. Join us! Get involved! Follow us! You can follow our progress on Twitter and Facebook as well as our weekly blog post below. We’re also inviting you to come and see the excavations on one of our regular weekly tours or the Open Day.

The final week - Friday 1 September

It has been a frantic final week, a real race against time to finish digging, recording and data entry. With alternate days of rain and sun, it’s been quite a challenge!

Goodbye trenches!

Our trenches investigating landscaping in the lawn provided us with an answer! The breaks of slope are the natural undulations of the landscape and have not been substantially modified by landscaping. We didn’t find our Italian Gardens in the trenches, however, remains of formal gardens are so ephemeral that either there aren’t any traces left in the archaeological record, or simply, the evidence for them still lies beneath the surface waiting to be found.

Our trenches around the Grotto continue to puzzle us. Which cuts are the sunken paths? Which cuts are parts of the original Grotto? It's going to take some piecing together of the evidence and trying to work out what it all means in the post-excavation stage - watch this space for updates.

The search for the Pergola in the trees got off to a successful start when we uncovered a drain associated with a down pipe. This may or may not be part of the Pergola. Unfortunately, time was against us here and so a selection of bricks from the drain structure have been sampled for further investigation. We've covered up the rest of the brick structure to protect it, hopefully for further investigation in the future.

Group shot of the team under an arched driveway
The August 2017 Team. From left to right, Tom Cromwell, Edmund Palka, Kathrin Winzer, Mairi Eilidh, Kathryn Price, Andy Valdez-Tullet, Vicky Crosby and Duncan Stirk. © Historic England

What did we find?

We found an array of artefacts! Most were the typical finds you would expect to find on an archaeological site of this type and location (adjacent to the Thames). We found 18th century clay tobacco pipes, animal bone fragments including part of both a sheep and a dog mandible, 18th and 19th century bricks and tiles, a small number of ephemeral prehistoric worked pieces of flint and lots of oyster shell.

We also found two very beautiful pieces of pottery representing our earliest post-medieval find and our latest post-medieval find. Can you guess which is which from the photographs before reading on?

A brown glossy pottery fragment in palm of someone's hand.
Fragment of treacleware © Historic England

The brown and yellow fragment is dated to the mid to late 19th century. It's called treacleware and was named after the factory in Yorkshire which made some of the finest examples. It was also made in Staffordshire and Bristol and was very popular in the USA! This fragment would have formed part of a jug, teapot or tankard.

The blue fragment is dated from the end of the 17th century into the early 18th century. It is called Westerwald blue and grey stoneware and it was imported from the German Rhineland. Cobalt is painted onto the surface of the pot to produce the blue colour under the salt glaze. This fragment would have formed part of a jug, tankard, chamber pot or a fancy flask.

What’s next?

We now move into our post-excavation phase of sorting through the records and piecing together a site narrative. We'll also be sending out all our finds to specialists to learn more about what we have uncovered.

Will we be returning to excavate once more? Maybe, so watch this space!

Glossy blue and white pottery fragment displayed in the palms of someones hands.
Westerwald blue and grey stoneware fragment © Historic England

The search for the Pergola! - Friday 25 August

It's been a busy week three here at Marble Hill where we've been concentrating our efforts on a trench to look for the Pergola. This trench has to be dug by hand as it's in the wilderness area amongst the trees. We have to go very carefully to protect the trees and their roots. It's tough going but the team are doing a sterling job!

Woman in hi-viz on the right in a trench surrounded by woodland with two trays of finds to the left of the trench.
Mairi excavates in an area of the trench, searching for evidence for the Pergola © Historic England

At the beginning of the week we cleaned up the trench and found the bottom rung of an iron barrel which we lifted from the ground and then kept on excavating. After a day of digging, we unearthed a very interesting structure! A brick lined structure which contains 18th and 19th century bricks with what appears to be later 19th century additions. The brick structure also appears to be lined with tiles, but there's still some more soil to excavate before we can see what these tiles are.

What is this structure? It appears to be a drain for a down pipe. Such a structure could have been associated with the Pergola and it's roughly in the area we would expect the Pergola to be. However, we're not sure as yet if this is exactly what this structure represents. There's a lot more uncovering and excavating to do. If it's not associated with the Pergola then it represents something else...what that could be we don't know yet.
During our final week we'll be digging as frantically and as carefully as we can to unravel this mystery of the brick structure and to see if there's any evidence of the Pergola in other areas of the trench. There is a lot of digging to be done, and it's now a race against time!

An archaeologist kneeling down next to the end of a brick lined drain in the middle of the trench.
Ed uncovers a brick structure which contains 18th and 19th century bricks © Historic England

Lots of trenches, lots of archaeology, but what does it all mean? - Friday 18 August

At the end of a very busy week, we now have a total of eight trenches open, a wealth of archaeology and now we are trying to figure out what does it all mean...?

Landscaping on the lawn

Last week we blogged we had discovered the edge of a large 18th century drain which ran from the house to the river and which may be original and contemporary with the gardens. We've located this in another trench so we're now fairly certain this is what it is.

However, we did report this drain initially indicated to us the breaks of slope in the lawn were artificial. But, this week, we've uncovered evidence which led us to a different conclusion. This is what makes archaeology all the more exciting and interesting and keeps archaeologists on their toes! Evidence can lead you to one conclusion, but then further evidence can change everything...

In Trench 13 (closest to the house) we have one large feature which appears to be cut in the opposite direction to our trench – we can see the outline of this feature in the section walls of our trench. We're not entirely sure what this could be as yet - perhaps some kind of drain? What we are sure of is that it is much later than the original gardens but it didn't alter the physical characteristics of the overall garden landscape.

In Trench 15 (our middle trench on the lawn) we have the 18th century culvert visible, just like in the other trenches. Apart from this, there is nothing substantial in this trench which would suggest to us a change in topography of the landscape.

Week 2 photo gallery

Please click on the photos to enlarge

  • Trench 15 on the lawn. 18th century culvert is visible, as are the as yet unknown features cut below the turf-line. Duncan Stirk is taking soil samples in the background.
  • Trench 13 in the background and Trench 15 in the foreground. The 18th century drain appears in both trenches but no signs of formal landscaping. Mairi Maclean is drawing the section of the trench wall.
  • Archaeologists Mairi Maclean and Kat Winzer stand on the cut of a possible sunken path which leads to the Grotto (in the background).
  • Pottery, glass, clay tobacco pipe, and oyster shell recovered from the excavations in Marble Hill House gardens.

Trench 14 (closest to the river) has revealed some interesting features cut close below the turf-line. Unfortunately for us, they don't really contain the wealth of medieval and post-medieval finds which we recovered from our excavations at the bowling alley. We still have more digging to do of these features, so hopefully this will reveal more! What we can see very clearly, however, is that there is no evidence of landscaping or the raising up of the lawn. We can see this through the absence of evidence for an earlier turf line, the absence of a buried soil horizon and the fact the depth of the topsoil (20 centimetres) is the same at the top and bottom of the trench.

Therefore, all of our trenches on the lawn indicate to us that in fact the break of slope is not artificial but that the topography of the landscape is natural. The search for the Italian Gardens continues!

Grotto paths

In March we blogged that we had found some of the edges of the original Grotto. This partly aligned with our thinking that the paths leading to the Grotto were on or close to the surface. In our trenches this week, we have found the same Grotto edge cut which we found in March.

However, what we've found this week has altered our thinking that all of these cuts are in fact parts of the original Grotto. They may actually be part of a sunken path network leading to the Grotto! It's unclear which are part of the Grotto cut and which are sunken paths but this is what we're going to try to unravel this week.

Rather excitingly, what we do have is evidence of landscaping, a feature which lines up EXACTLY with one of the sunken paths shown on the 1752 garden landscape map! The alignment of this very wide feature is very close to where one of the sunken paths appears on the map. This is very exciting!! And will help is in trying to figure out what are the Grotto cuts and what are the sunken paths!!

What have we found?

It's been a slow start in the Finds Hut but we do have some artefacts! Green-glazed 18th century pottery, willow pattern 19th century pottery, clay tobacco pipes from the 18th and 19th century, and glass from windows and bottles. So it's a good start, but of course, we want to find more!

Female archaeologist on bench at Marble Hill House dig
Katherin Winzer finds washing during the March 2017 excavations at Marble Hill House © Historic England

Big diggers, big trenches, big archaeology! - Friday 11 August

It’s the end of week one and it's flown by! Rain interrupted digging for a day but we wore waterproofs and carried on. With the help of a very big digging machine we opened up three trenches to explore the archaeology beneath the surface.

Two of our trenches lie N-S at the back of the house in the centre of the lawn between the house and the river. We 've put one trench on each of the breaks of slope in the lawn. Why? We want to find out whether or not these breaks of slope represent the natural surface or if they are artificial and were created as part of the different phases of development of the lawn and gardens.

We've found the answer already! These breaks of slope are indeed artificial. We know this because we've found the edge of a large 18th century drain buried more than one metre below the surface of the lawn and in each trench we can see the alignment of this drain - so it runs all the way from the house to the river.

We still have many more questions for these trenches to answer. Can we find evidence for the Italian Gardens? Are there remains of other garden features waiting for us to uncover? What are the seemingly pre-garden features emerging in the trenches? So many questions...   

Our third trench was opened to the west of the Grotto - the opposite end to the modern day Grotto entrance. We've found the edge of the original cut of the Grotto which we discovered in the Grotto trenches during our March excavations. This is great as it helps us continue to get an idea of the extent of the size of the original Grotto. However, what's intriguing about what we've found in this trench is that this cut leads away from the Grotto in a twisting, curving, snake like manner……interesting. Next to this seems to be an area of pebbles…even more interesting. What could this mean? Further digging in week two will hopefully explain this mystery.

It’s been a slow start in the Finds Hut this week, hoovering cobwebs and setting up, but we have found some rather lovely Victorian glass medicine bottles. One is a container for vaseline and the others containing a ‘cure for Consumption, Asthma and Coughs’!  

Come visit us next week on Tuesday 15 August for a tour of the excavations at 2pm, and for our Family Activity day on Wednesday 16 August as 2pm to have fun with all things Grotto!  ​

What are we looking for this time?

We’re hoping our excavations will identify both the location and nature of the Pergola and the Grotto.

A pergola is an arched structure consisting of a framework covered with climbing or trailing plants to form a shaded walkway or sitting area. The nature of the Pergola at Marble Hill House is a mystery. What was it made of? Was it post-built or formed by training trees to form an archway? Was it wooden with climbing plants? We simply don't know. We’re hoping our excavations will give us the answers.

At the Grotto we’ll be opening up a larger space for excavations, this time around its northern and western areas. Following our successful excavations last season which began to shed some light on the history of the development of the grotto and its immediate surroundings, we’re hoping to uncover more of the hidden history of Marble Hill House. We’re hoping to find the extent of the original Grotto, the limits of the 1980's archaeological excavations and firm evidence of how the Grotto was re-landscaped over time. And who knows, we may even find evidence for that elusive second Grotto. What a mission!

If you look closely at the lawn in front of Marble Hill House, you'll see some very subtle elongated 'bumps'. We know from documents that there was once an ‘Italian Garden’ and terraces which included ornate flowerbeds. Our third mission is to investigate whether these bumps are the terrace remains. A new mystery for us to solve!

What will we uncover? What artefacts will we find? What stories are awaiting us? There is only one way to find out....let's get digging!

Archaeology team at Marble Hill House dig
Archaeology team at the March 2017 Marble Hill House excavations. Back row from left to right: Duncan Stirk, Andy Valdez-Tullett, Tom Cromwell, Kathrin Winzer, Kevin Wooldridge. Front row from left to right: Ashley Bryant, Kathryn Price, Kate Mawson, Cecilia Falkendal, Dan Miller © Historic England
Was this page helpful?

Related News

Also of interest...