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Uncovering the Hidden Gardens at Marble Hill House

During March, join our archaeologists at Marble Hill House as they dig to uncover hidden landscape gardens from 1752 loved by Henrietta Howard. Come back to this page every Friday for the latest update on their findings.

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

Or you can join them on Saturday 18 March for their open day.

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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