Saturday, 21 May 2011

Manton Long Barrow

Manton Long Barrow lies north off the A4 near Marlborough, in the parish of Preshute.

The Wiltshire countryside is home to many ancient barrows but there is one in particular, the Manton Bronze Age Barrow, that was to prove a most exciting find.

The excavation in 1906 by archaeologist, Maud Cunnington, was heralded as possibly the most important finds of Wessex style burials in the Avebury area. Maud had discovered the skeletal remains of a ‘primary’ crouched female, laying on her left side with her knees drawn up to her chin. She had been swathed in cloth, which became evident by examination of the impressions in the clay. No stones covered her body as is often the case with barrow burials, just earth and turf to a depth of approximately 2ft 6in (0.762 meters). What was remarkable about the excavation, was the wealth of beautiful grave items which were placed about her body, amongst the finds were: ceramics, elaborate pieces of worked gold, probably imported from Ireland, worked amber from the Baltic, various items of worked bronze, a shale-bead necklace with gold bands, ornamental lignite, and bronze blade with amber pommel. Several animal bones were also discovered, left, it is thought, as a final meal. It was not fitting to transcend the liminal on an empty tummy. It was quite evident that the deceased was of some considerable standing, not just for the elevated position of her grave which overlooked the River Kennet, but also for the riches found within.

The finds needed cataloguing, so they was packed up and sent off to Maud’s husband, Ben, who was the honorary curator at Devizes Museum. As for the skeletal remains, they appear to have been surplus to requirements and found their way into a shed owned by a Mr. Bucknell, who resided at Barrow Cottage close by. It is not clear why this happened as archaeological finds should, and do, encompasses all items including those of human and animal remains and not just artefacts. Some say Maud told Bucknell (who helped on the excavation) to keep them in a safe place till she decided what to do with them. Again, if this be true, it is an extraordinary, unprofessional request to make of anyone. It is also rumoured that Bucknell was told to promise to keep quiet about the contents of his shed, a promise he was quick to break, as at every opportunity to make a penny, he would let slip what resided within his shed.

What we do know, before the remains fell into Bucknell’s possession, is that they were examined by Dr John Beddoe, who concluded that the individual had suffered from rheumatic arthritis and was much older than first thought. He also noted a remarkable and uncommon malformation of the nasal bones. ‘On the whole, I conjecture that these remains belonged to a woman of considerable age, and that their period was somewhere during the latter portion of the Bronze Age‘.

It was during the excavation that several of the village folk warned of disturbing the grave and that no good would come of such a desecration by so-called 'hill-diggers'. Folklore was prevalent about these parts and many believed that barrows were the threshold to the underworld, a mythical realm where the living could walk with the dead. To open and pillage such places would surely release the wrath of whoever lies within.

A friend of Bucknell’s arrived from America and was keen to view the relic before he returned. As a macabre souvenir, Bucknell decided to give his friend a rather grisly going away present. He had removed one of the skeleton's fingers and pressed the digit into his friend’s hand, who happily accepted it. It was some weeks later that Bucknell noticed that one of his hands had become rather painful and his fingers tips were tingling. The pain grew in its intensity, especially his little finger, which to his horror started to turn an angry black. He finally went to see his doctor in Marlborough, who on seeing the finger immediately packed him off to hospital where he was given the news that the offending digit was badly infected and would have to be amputated. He agreed but with the proviso that he should be allowed to keep the digit. It was agreed and Bucknell underwent the operation eventually returning to Manton with his finger.

Shortly after arriving home, he received instructions from the Cunningtons’ to reinter the woman’s remains. Bucknell wasted no time and went to the barrow where he carefully placed her remains exactly as they had been found with one inclusion, he placed his amputated finger next to the one that was missing. He piled earth back over the body then made his way back to Barrow Cottage.

It would seem that Bucknell’s recompense was not sufficient to pacify the restless barrow spirit, for some days later a ghostly figure was seen peering in through a window at a cottage close by. Another doctor from Marlborough, a Mr J.B. Maurice was called by the distraught woman who‘s window it was. She told the doctor of the ‘old creature’ that had appeared nightly at her window scratching at the pane ever since ‘that woman from Devizes (Maud) had dug up the grave‘. She asked of the good doctor for ‘summat to make it be gone’. The doctor, well acquainted with this particular patients' eccentricities, smiled inwardly as he rummaged in his bag for a bottle. ‘Take this’ he said holding a bottle aloft, ‘with a tall glass of wine then off to bed with you and make sure all the lights are off, if she comes again, she will think you're out’.

After the doctor departed, the woman did as she had been told, drinking the contents of the bottle with a tall glass of wine. She made her way to her bed extinguishing the lights as she went. Climbing into bed she pulled the covers up to her chin and waited. Sure enough after a little while, there came the chilling sound of someone scratching at her window. The woman held her breath, her heart pounding in her chest, then, suddenly the scratching ceased just as the good doctor foretold. She never heard or saw the ’old creature’ again.

Was it spirit revenge that caused Bucknell to lose a finger, and was the barrow spirit scratching at that cottage window looking for its treasures,or was it just aggrieved for having been disturbed from its eternal slumber?

Her remains still lay buried at Manton Barrow behind Manton Farm which is on private land. As for sightings of the ‘old creature’, there have been none since that I'm aware of. I can only surmise she now sleeps peacefully once more.

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