Archaeologists solve mystery of Silbury Hill (maybe)

It is one of England’s most mysterious monuments. Just a short walk from the massive stone circle complex of Avebury, Silbury Hill is a giant, flat-topped mound rising 120 feet above the surrounding countryside. Researchers have proposed dozens of theories over the years to explain its purpose, suggesting everything from a giant burial mound to a platform for religious music.

Now new research by English Heritage has revealed that Silbury Hill was constructed relatively quickly–in about hundred years–and finished around 2300 B.C. Previous researchers thought the mound took centuries to build. Archaeologists Jim Leary and David Field dug a cross-section tunnel into it in 2007 and found it was made up of 15 layers. The monument started as a circular ditch and embankment but soon grew into a giant hill. The researchers suggest that there was no final plan, no purpose. It was the building of it that mattered, the bringing together of various groups for the common purpose of a “continuous storytelling ritual”.

“Our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument – to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It’s as if the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important,” Leary said.

“The most intriguing discovery is the repeated occurrence of antler picks, gravel, chalk and stones in different kinds of layering, in ways that suggest that these materials and their different combinations had symbolic meanings. We don’t know what myths they were representing but they must have meant something quite compelling and personal,” he said.

Leary and Field’s new book, The Story of Silbury Hill, explains their findings.

Of course archaeology isn’t a hard science, and this theory will be debated for years to come. Future excavations may refine or even overturn what Leary and Field have found. Silbury HIll hasn’t given up all its mysteries.


Avebury–more awesome than Stonehenge

Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge, the enigmatic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, but just seventeen miles to the north stands an even more imposing monument–Avebury.

Actually it’s a whole landscape of monuments. For miles around the rolling fields are dotted with the burial mounds of forgotten chieftains, and many hilltops are protected by ancient ramparts. Avebury itself is a massive stone circle with two avenues running across the fields to a pair of smaller stone circles. The entire area has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Stonehenge is more self contained, a pretty picture and fascinating to stare at, but it suffers from familiarity, so much so that the Times Online listed it as one of the world’s five most overrated tourist attractions. Avebury is far more vast, and instead of walking along a cordoned path with hundreds of other visitors, you can wander through a prehistoric landscape away from the crowd.

Getting off the bus at the village of Avebury, you don’t have far to go to see the main monument, in fact you’re right in the middle of it. An impressive circle of stones (called a henge in scientific parlance) more than a thousand feet in diameter is surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart. Two smaller henges stand inside the large one. An avenue flanked by smaller stones heads south, and there used to be another one headed west, although that’s all but disappeared thanks to the march of time. This main monument was started around 3000 BC, or five thousand years ago.

Considering the region’s history, it’s amazing any of the smaller stones survive at all. During the Middle Ages the local farmers got religion in a big way and decided to destroy this reminder of their pagan past. Easier said than done. Whole villages turned out to make huge bonfires to crack the stones, and then they hauled the pieces away and used them for local buildings, a common practice throughout England and seen especially along the route of Hadrian’s Wall, where the Romans were kind enough to make properly shaped stones instead of massive monoliths.

Destruction was as dangerous as it was difficult. Local legend says that one day a group of men were working to topple a large stone and it fell over, crushing one of the workers. In 1938 archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath. He carried some 14th century coins and the tools of a barber-surgeon (the jobs were the same back then). These folks, who cut hair, lanced boils, and utterly failed to find a cure for the plague, were considered to be quasi-magical, their strange arts necessary but somewhat suspect. It’s interesting that a magical person was brought along to destroy a magical place, and it’s no wonder his death became enshrined in local memory.

Fortunately much has been preserved or restored. A walk down the avenue of stones headed south from Avebury brings you to two more famous monuments.

%Gallery-72633%The field slopes down toward the south, and as you pass around the brow of a ridge a giant conical hill appears. This is Silbury Hill, a 130 ft. chalk mound erected around 2500 BC. Nobody is sure what it was for, but some researchers noticed it’s in a large circular valley that works as a natural amphitheater. I spoke to one of the site’s volunteers who participated in an experiment a couple of years ago. A group of musicians using reconstructed prehistoric instruments played them atop the hill while people stood at various locations around it. This woman stood a mile away and could hear all the instruments clearly, except the drums which were muffled due to the rain. She could even hear a song one of the musicians sang, picking out most of the words even though artillery practice was going on at the nearby military base!

On a ridge beyond Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, a gallery of stones forming a long hall and four side chambers, with a larger chamber at the end. All of it is covered with earth to make a long artificial ridge atop the natural one. It was started around 3600 BC and remarkably some of the burials survived to the modern era. The first two rooms flanking the gallery held the remains of women, children, and the elderly. The next two contained adults, and the big room at the end had bones only of adult males. Were these warriors? Nobody knows, but it’s fun to speculate.

All in all, Avebury makes for a fun day of wandering. I suggest starting early and taking a good pair of walking shoes and an Ordinance Survey map. There are many smaller archaeological sites in the area worth visiting that only take a mile or so of walking to get to. The visitor center in town sells detailed maps.