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.


Archaeologists explore stone circle ten times larger than Stonehenge

Move over Stonehenge, there’s a bigger stone circle in town.

Archaeologists are busy excavating Marden Henge, a giant stone circle and earthwork ten times larger than its more famous cousin. It’s not nearly as well-known, however, because all of its stones have been lost or buried. Traces of a giant earthwork and ditch that encircled the monument do survive, and archaeologists hope they’ll reveal secrets of England’s prehistoric past.

While everyone knows about Stonehenge, many people don’t realize there are nearly a thousand stone circles in the British Isles, from massive ones like Avebury (shown here) to smaller ones like the Rollright Stones. Marden Henge is in Wiltshire, close to Stonehenge and Avebury, and could provide clues to how and why they were constructed. The giant circle encloses about 15 hectares (37 acres) and has a mound at its center. Archaeologists plan to investigate both the central mound and the earthwork and ditch. The Neolithic farmers who built these monuments often put sacrifices in the surrounding ditches.

While there are no current plans for a visitor’s center at Marden Henge, there are plenty of other stone circles open to the public. Some of the more famous cater to visitors with interpretive signs and parking lots, while others simply stand in open fields, an enduring part of Europe’s ancient landscape. An excellent website to help you plan a visit is The Megalithic Portal, which includes information on stone circles and other megaliths such as barrows (tombs) and menhirs (individual standing stones) in the UK and all around the world.

No historical plaque for Scientology founder

English Heritage has rejected an application to put up a plaque at the former home of L. Ron Hubbard.

The American science fiction writer, who became a controversial figure when he founded Scientology, was based at 37 Fitzroy Street in London’s West End from 1957 to 1959. The Hubbard Foundation had applied to English Heritage for a blue plaque to mark the building. Blue plaques are recognizable to anyone who’s been to London as marking the spot of a famous event or building, or where a famous person has lived, worked, or died.

English Heritage states they rejected the application because, “It was felt that since Mr Hubbard had died only relatively recently, in 1986, that more time was required to make an objective assessment of the importance and longevity of his achievements. The panel also noted that Mr Hubbard had no address in London which could be considered as comparatively settled, and moved around a great deal.”

The Hubbard Foundation owns the building and runs it as a museum. They are appealing the ruling.

Dover castle gets medieval makeover

For nearly two years one of England’s most famous landmarks has been undergoing a radical transformation. Blacksmiths, woodworkers, painters, embroiderers, and craftsmen have been working with historians to recreate a 12th century interior for the Great Tower at Dover Castle. It’s now open to the public and gives an idea of what it was like to live the good life in the Middle Ages.

Dover Castle was built by King Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189. He was one of England’s most powerful kings, asserting control over an often unruly church and nobility and strengthening the rule of law. Dover Castle was his most important fortification and he often stayed there because it was on the coast, where he could keep an eye on his extensive lands in France.

This project is something new for English Heritage, which manages the castle. In the past it has avoided doing reconstructions when researchers weren’t sure what the original looked like. Records of day-to-day rooms and objects from the Middle Ages are scarce, and most of the things that have survived from that era are trophy pieces like armor or jewels, not mundane things like cushions. To the folks at English Heritage, the historical accuracy of cushions is a big deal. So they made a compromise. The artisans used techniques and materials common to the period, scoured medieval art books, and made things in the same general style.

The result is impressive both in its detail and its vibrant color. People in the Middle Ages loved bright colors and painted every surface they could with brilliant tones. They even added natural dyes to their food to give it a nice neon look, even though neon hadn’t been invented yet. If it had been, they would have put it everywhere. The main hall has an ornate wooden king’s chair painted deep blue and bright gold with vines spiraling up the legs, and a rich red standard hangs behind it. The smaller details are interesting too, like the simple yet durable ironwork, and the expressive carvings of animal and human heads that decorate many of the wooden objects.

These aren’t simply vacant rooms. Costumed actors and soundtracks bring the period alive and as visitors wander through the rooms they’ll realize that a lot is going on, from the deadly diplomacy of the rich and powerful to the gossiping of the servants. There’s even a court jester named Roland the Farter. The man actually existed and was granted a manor and thirty acres of land in Suffolk in return for acting as the royal flatulist.

All in all it’s a stunning wok of historical reconstruction but perhaps English Heritage could have been a bit less accurate with the royal flatulist.

Satnav through England’s past

If you’re driving through England, a free download from English Heritage will make sure you won’t miss anything interesting along the way.

English Heritage is a government organization that manages more than 400 historic and archaeological properties across the country and advises the government and the public on preservation. They’re offering a free download satellite navigation application that shows the location of all their historic properties along your route. England is absolutely full of castles, cathedrals, stately homes, and other attractions but many of them are away from the highways and easily missed. With this application you can take a quick detour and have lunch in a medieval garden instead of some awful service station.

I’ve been to a lot of English Heritage properties, including famous ones like Stonehenge and lesser known ones like Tynemouth Priory (pictured here) and I’ve always found them worth a visit. The staff really know their stuff and they keep the properties in good shape. So if you’re brave enough to drive on the left (or know how to already) you’ll enjoy this app.