This week I headed over to the latest ‘monument’ to arise in London, the Marble Arch Mound. Opened to the public earlier this year, it has been the subject of much controversy, due, in part, to its somewhat ‘unique’ aesthetic, and that its cost, from design through to completion, has ballooned to over £6,000,000. Visitor numbers remained stagnant due to an entrance fee which many did not feel was appropriate, but August saw 60,000 people visit after the fee was removed. This increase has led to the City of Westminster council (the ‘Guardians’ of the site) announcing that the Mound will now remain free to visit until January 2022.
A few of my friends have visited the site over the past couple of weeks, all coming away with differing opinions, which were floating through my head before my visit, but I was determined to approach the Mound with a clear eye and open imagination. What I experienced was enlightening and comforting in equal measure. The Neolithic continuing to echo down through the millennia, into the 21st century…
The Mound has been referred to as ‘shoddy’, ‘glitched’, and ‘8 Bit’, and yes, I can see why these comments have been made. The construction certainly doesn’t appear to warrant its rather excessive price tag, but there is something about this ‘monument’ which has really captured my imagination. Before I set off for my visit I was messaged by a friend, who informed me that it lay on a direct alignment with Silbury Hill, the largest human-made mound in Europe, constructed during the Later Neolithic (c. 2400 BCE). This sent my imagination into overdrive, a potential ley line between two artificial mounds which, although millennia apart, draw people into their environs, and beyond.
The positioning of the Marble Arch Mound immediately caught my attention. Located adjacent to Oxford Street, one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares in London, as well as in close proximity to the major northbound route out of the city, it struck me that many Neolithic communal sites were situated close to rivers, the motorways and A-roads of the day. Although it is widely agreed that water, both still and running, held mystical properties for Neolithic people, it was also logistically important too. With the wheel yet to appear in Britain, rivers played an important role in moving goods, materials, people, and probably differing livestock too. Stonehenge is located close to where five different rivers flowed, opening up access to the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Irish Sea, the Southern Channel, and the world beyond. Aqueous motorways, rivers of tarmac… This modern mound was really beginning to sing to me. Yes, I was aware of its physical ‘imperfection’, but I’ve always been taught that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I was certainly beginning to fall for its charms. It was time to get up close and personal, it was time to begin the ascent…
Taking the steps up to the Mound’s summit was an interesting experience; observing how people, myself included, engaged with the site, its proximal and distal environs, their overall movement, was stimulating. Visitors appeared to slip into a natural footfall, happily following each other on unmarked paths both towards, and away from the peak. As if a collective unconsciousness had taken hold of them once they passed over the threshold. Leaving behind the 21st century that they inhabit and entering a mirrorworld, where everything looks similar, seems familiar, but is different. A London where temporalities collide, where the old gods hold sway, reaching out from the underworld, from the watery depths, the soil, and the sky…
“It does feel like a kind of echo of an ancient experience, a processional way to a high point, but with modern architectural pavilion aesthetics…Dan Lockton, Pers. Comm August 2021
I would love it if it stayed for years, deteriorating and becoming part of the London landscape, playing a role in memories, and people living/partying/dying on/in it, its own subculture…”Dan Lockton, Pers. Comm, August 2021
This comment from my friend, Dan Lockton, made after he’d visited the Mound a few weeks before drew me back to previous research focusing on modification to Neolithic communal spaces during the Bronze Age in Britain. I wondered if there had been an intense need to reconnect with a past that was, by the Bronze Age (c. 2200 – 800 BCE) considered remote and distant? Both Gavin Lucas (2005), and Rebecca Younger (2016) have suggested that the later modification of communal sites, which were often centuries old, was an active form of commemoration which referred to the past whilst creating new memories for the construction workers, both collectively and individually. Yet, I would also add that the biographies of individuals, communities, and the monument as a whole, became interwoven both physically and temporally through the act of modification.
Certain examples of Neolithic communal construction, particularly henges and timber circles, were spaces which were subject to numerous physical and metaphorical changes, being left to naturally silt up and corrode (Younger 2016). I believe that they were observed as corporeal expressions of temporal transience by both Neolithic Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age peoples, and that although social and spiritual perceptions of these locales may have changed through the passing of time, the past was always significant to later communities who continued to return to, and modify, these monuments. By constructing anew around an older site, builders were not just looking to the past, they were also considering both the present and the future. Workers would have been conscious of the construction work undertaken by previous groups, whilst also forming their own memories. These, in turn, would be commemorated by future communities. The past was wrapped and contained within the new, yet, it was not forgotten. Instead, it was commemorated, not only as a vital aspect of both individual and communal histories, but also as a key element of the present, and the future. The past was physically and metaphorically present within the new; it was central to the modified monument, and the community.
So, how does this all relate to the Marble Arch Mound? Well, although it is a temporary structure, due to be dismantled somewhen next year, the Mound has already become embedded within peoples’ minds, especially of those who have engaged with the monument ‘in the flesh’. For these people in particular, memories have formed through physical connection and interaction, both with the mound itself, but also with other visitors, and those who work there (the monument’s ‘guardians’). Images collected through video, camera still, and the mind’s eye, have been curated and displayed via the twin museums of the Mind, and the World Wide Web. Whilst these ‘exhibitions’ will remain a permanent feature of the latter. The former will eventually pack up, and remove the exhibits to a storage facility, bringing them out for inspection and recollection periodically. Yet, even though packed away, these memories will remain. Visitors probably won’t remember the faces of the other people who ascended the Marble Arch Mound with them, let alone know their names, but they will remember that they were part of a collective, participating in a communal act. An act made memory which, in turn, will metamorphosise into commemoration by those who were not present, but who remember the telling through oral, audial and visual stimuli, the Mound providing different meanings for different people, connecting, not only the past, present, and future, but disparate people.
Connectivity Is Key!
Lucas, G., 2005. The Archaeology Of Time. London: Routledge.
Younger, R. K., 2016. Making Memories, Making Monuments: Changing Understandings of Henges in Prehistory and the Present. In: K. Brophy, G. MacGregor & I. Ralston, eds. The Neolithic of Mainland Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 116 – 138.