Archaeologists have discovered that a hill in Slough long believed to be a rare Norman castle motte is in fact a much older and rarer Anglo-Saxon mound. Researchers with the Round Mounds Project took two core samples from Montem Mound, a technique that allows archaeologists to examine the guts of a mound without destructive excavation. The samples revealed that the mound was artificially built from a combination of sand and gravel.
The team found charred plant material from the base of the mound and halfway up it in the core samples. Radiocarbon dating of the plant remains narrowed down the mound’s construction to some time after the mid-5th century, probably in the 6th or 7th century A.D. That makes it roughly contemporaneous with the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo, famous for the incredibly wealth of artifacts discovered in the tumulus, and the Anglo-Saxon burial mound of Tæppa at Taplow, a village neighboring Slough, which also contained high status artifacts.
Very few Anglo-Saxon mounds are known, and this one is already getting dubbed the “Sutton Hoo of Slough” even though no remains or grave goods have been discovered.
Dr Jim Leary added: “We tested material from all through the mound, so we are confident that it dates to the Saxon period. Given the dates of the mound, its size and dimensions, and the proximity to the known richly-furnished Saxon barrow at Taplow, it seems most likely that Montem Mound is a prestigious Saxon burial mound.”
Slough, a town 20 miles west of London best known to TV audiences as the home of the branch of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company run by David Brent (aka Ricky Gervais), is a thriving economic center with a growing population and high employment. As the city has grown, office buildings and parking lots have mushroomed up around Montem Mound, but thankfully the mound itself is protected from development thanks to its designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance.
The designation was based primarily on the belief that the hill was a Norman motte. This was not confirmed by excavation. It was deduced from the mound’s form — its circular shape about 92 feet in diameter and 20 feet high at its peak — even though it appears to have been significantly altered over the centuries. The shape, size and location overlooking a river suggested it was a small castle motte built by the Normans to control that stretch of the river, perhaps a fording point.
Notwithstanding all these unknowns, Montem Mound still qualified for listed status because Norman mottes are extremely rare. Most surviving Norman castles are motte-and-bailey designs (a central mound surrounded by outbuildings enclosed in a defensive embankment). Very few motte castles with just the central mound surrounded by a palisade and tower have survived in any form at all, even shaved down and modified.
Also, this one had the additional claim to historical fame of being the locus of Eton College’s famously offbeat “Ad Montem” celebration, observed regularly from 1561 to 1846, including by many generations of reigning monarchs. Its beginnings were an initiation ritual for Eton students during which they were sprinkled with salt. (Montem Mound was known as Salt Hill for centuries because of this association.) It evolved into an increasingly elaborate pageant wherein attendees gave money in exchange for pinches of salt and people flocked for miles to watch the students and faculties parade up the hill in wacky outfits.
Here’s a description of it from Knight’s Quarterly Magazine in 1823:
We have at length reached the foot of the mount — a very respectable barrow, which never dreamt in its Druidical age, of the interest which it now excites, and the honours which now await it. Its sides are clothed with mechanics in their holiday clothes, and happy dairy-maids in their Sunday gear; — at its base sit Peeresses in their barouches, and Earls in all the honours of four-in-hand. The flag is again waved; the scarlet coats and the crimson plumes again float amongst us– “the boys carry it away Hercules and his load too,” and the whole earth seems made for the enjoyment of one universal holiday. […]
“And I say, out upon your eternal hunting for causes and reasons. I love the no meaning of Montem. I love to be asked for ‘Salt,’ by a pretty boy in silk stockings and satin doublet, though the custom has been called ‘something between begging and robbing.’ I love the apologetical ‘Mos pro Lege,’ which defies the police and the Mendicity Society. I love the absurdity of a Captain taking precedence of a Marshal; and a Marshal bearing a gilt baton, at an angle of forty-five degrees from his right hip; and an Ensign flourishing a flag with the grace of a tight-rope dancer; and Sergeants paged by fair-skinned Indians and beardless Turks; and Corporals in sashes and gorgets, guarded by innocent Polemen in blue jackets and white trowsers. I love the mixture of real and mock dignity; — the Provost, in his cassock, clearing the way for the Duchess of Leinster to see the Ensign make his bow; or the Head Master gravely dispensing his leave till nine, to Counts of the Holy Roman Empire and Grand Signiors. I love the crush in the cloisters and the mob on the Mount — I love the clatter of carriages and the plunging of horsemen — I love the universal gaiety, from the peer who smiles and sighs that he is no longer an Eton boy, to the country-girl who marvels that such little gentlemen have cocked hats and real swords.
The Montem ceremony was abolished in 1846 by Eton headmaster Dr. Hawtrey as it had gotten so top-heavy that it no longer raised enough money to pay for the expense of the spectacle.
It’s interesting that in the 19th century Salt Hill was assumed to be “druidical” and therefore long predating the Norman conquest. It’s not, but the traditional association of the mound with pagan antiquity may be a holdover, distorted by a generations-long game of telephone, of its real Anglo-Saxon origin.