Sutton Hoo burial mound, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England.

Not a Great Place to Pass at Night: Haunted Mounds from Prehistoric Times

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It was a worldwide phenomenon during Prehistoric times for people to bury their dead under mounds (which are also known as tumuli). The dead were buried along with their worldly possessions and their spirits were revered as sacred ancestors who granted protection. However, it was believed that they could also take revenge on those who dared disturb their eternal rest - such as grave robbers or even modern archaeologists.

Stone Age Burial Mounds to Honor the Dead

During the Stone Age, people had a multitude of rituals. For example, weather was considered highly important for the crops - a bad crop could have meant starvation. Therefore, people believed they could use different rituals to influence the weather in order to bring rain, or to make it stop, if necessary.

The people from the Stone Age also venerated their ancestors, so they had to make sure that their dead were at peace. If they looked after the spirits of the dead, then they believed that the dead would look after the living. The spirit had to be released so that it would not remain trapped inside of the body and it was believed that the spirit could leave the body only once all flesh had disappeared from the bones. At times, when the dead were not pleased with their funeral rites, it was believed that they could return to haunt the living.

Thus Prehistoric people built burial mounds made of earth or stones. They were designed as homes for the deceased and somewhat resembled the prehistoric dwellings of the living. Until the Medieval period, Vikings continued to use such burial mounds.

Long mounds are the most common, such as Fussell’s Lodge in England. This mound was probably built in over ten years as it is over 100 meters (328.1 feet) long. Prehistoric people could also enter the mounds of their ancestors in order to perform the necessary rituals from time to time.

Two entrances to the Dissignac tumulus, Saint-Nazaire, France.

Two entrances to the Dissignac tumulus, Saint-Nazaire, France. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Legends of the Burial Mound at Silbury Hill

During the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, burial mounds lost their long shapes and became rounder. Silbury Hill is probably the best example of this style. Located near Avebury, Wiltshire, England, the mound was built around 2700 BC.

Silbury Hill is 40 meters (131.2 feet) high with a diameter of 160 meters (524.9 feet). The construction took about ten years, and it is regarded as the largest prehistoric monument in England.

Silbury Hill as seen from Swallowhead Springs.

Silbury Hill as seen from Swallowhead Springs. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Some miners gathered near the mound in 1776. They intended to unravel the secret of the mound by digging there to see what lied underneath. Nothing was found. Other digs from 1849 and 1969 also revealed nothing. Because the hill has remained surrounded in mystery, a large number of legends have also emerged about it.

Diagram of excavations at Silbury Hill in 1776, 1849, and 1968.

Diagram of excavations at Silbury Hill in 1776, 1849, and 1968. ( Archaeology in Marlow )

One of the legends speaks about how the Devil intended to cover the city of Devizes in Wiltshire with earth. A shoemaker took a bag full of used shoes and went to meet the Devil. The man encountered the Devil while he was resting after having carried an earth mound. The Devil asked the man how long the road was until the town could be reached. In response, the young man showed him all of the used shoes. He added that he had used all those shoes since he had left the city three years ago. Upset, the Devil said that he did not intend to travel that far carrying the mound, so he just left it there. This is one of the many legends explaining the existence of the mound at Silbury Hill.

Aerial view of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, England.

Aerial view of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, England. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

The mound is also said to be haunted by the ghost of King Sil. According to legend, the king was buried there - along with his horse and his armor that was made entirely out of gold. Despite the many digs at the site, nobody has uncovered any hint of the king’s remains to date.

Comments

Colin Berry's picture

Anyone wondering where the idea originated that Silbury Hill was a place for burial of “souls” as distinct from bodies could do worse than read this article from the UK’s Independent newspaper that appeared over 8 years ago:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-souls-of-silbury-hill...

It has this fascinating quote:

"The new information we are obtaining from inside Silbury Hill is transforming our understanding of the site," said the English Heritage archaeologist Jim Leary, who led the three- year investigation. "The discovery of sarsen stones inside the final phase of the monument has also been a surprise. Given the almost certainly religious and ceremonial nature of Silbury, it is likely that these stones had some symbolic importance, potentially representing the spirits of dead ancestors."

Why did you leave that out of your 2010 book, Jim? That suggestion of yours is pure gold dust, proposing as it does a symbolic role (at least) for those scores of sarsen stones inside trhe mound that have been compared with “raisins in a cake.”

Personally, I consider the sarsens had more than symbolic significance, since each was initially on the OUTSIDE of the mound as it grew in size for a century or so some 4,500 years ago.

Here’s my suggestion, posted just yesterday, for the REAL PURPOSE of those sarsen stones.

https://sussingstonehenge.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/new-silbury-soul-rele...

Symbolic of a soul? Nope – a  protective marker for an interment, but not of the entire body of the deceased.

ColinB

Since posting this comment just over a month ago, an idea has occurred to me that would explain the peculiar manner in which Silbury Hill evolved.

I have been in touch with the owners of this site, proposing that the idea in question be announced here, where it’s likely to attract far more attention than if published on my dormant Silbury blogsite.
But there’s a snag: even if the site were to agree to publish my article, that could take time, with the risk that I could lose publishing priority (“publish or perish” as they say).
While the idea is simple in principle, absurdly so, it could have important implications for the way in which one judges the level of technological development in late Neolithic society (circa 2500BC).
So, to establish priority (“you read it here first”) here’s my idea in telegraphic form.
Silbury Hill began as a gravel mound, with the underlying turf and top soil removed down to subsoil, and the turves and topsoil then placed back on top of the gravel.

I believe that was a device to create the beginnings of a compost heap, and that earthworms were deliberately introduced into what Leary and Field have described as the initial “organic mound”. The gravel heap with uninviting subsoil was a device to keep the earthworms captive within the mound, where they would then be given human mortal remains, namely selected internal organs and/or other soft tissue as primary input (while recognizing that earthworms are considered to obtain their major nutrition from the microorganisms – bacteria and fungi - that grow on the biodegrading organic detritus).

Silbury Hill can be seen as the end result of a coalescence of scores, perhaps hundreds of individual small ‘compost heaps’ each containing a deposition from one deceased individual, each “seeded” with a handful of earthworms that would reduce the soft tissue offering via aerobic (NOT smelly anaerobic) processes to something resembling inoffensive-looking, inoffensive smelling black soil.

Hopefully there will be an opportunity to back up the hypothesis at a future date with more information. In the meantime, I strongly recommend the book “The Story of Silbury Hill” by Jim Leary and David Field (English Heritage 2010) with its delightful artist’s impression of the early stages of construction provided by Judith Dobie (which can also be seen on the helpful display board at the visitor’s observation area).

Fascinating, especially the theory as regards the need for decarnation of the skeleton before the soul could be released.

One small gripe however, namely the idea that the largest man-made mound on Europe was constructed in a mere 10 years. What's the evidence for that?

Back in 2012 when this science blogger was writing on Silbury Hill (linking it with Stonehenge!), that excellent book by Jim Leary and David Field appeared (see link to my 'sciencebuzz' site below).

They too reckoned it had been constructed fast, amazingly so given the complexity of Silbury's structure, starting with a small starter mound with "sticky gravel", then the progressive addition of further mounds around the periphery, then on top, forever expanding, then addition of chalk and rock and ramparts for structural support and drainage, building it up like a layer cake. Let's not forget all the mysterious dark banding (decayed organic matter? soft issue remains?)

They reckon it took a century or thereabouts, an estimate I'm more inclined to believe.

So what was Silbury for, and why are there no recognizable human remains if it was used as suggested here for initial decarnation of the newly deceased?

Well, the idea of letting the soft tissues decompose, and then (presumably) removing the skeleton later is a neat suggestion. It's very close to my own hypothesis, namely that the internal organs - viscera, possibly including the heart too - which may or may not have been venerated, conceivably on a par with the soul - was what went into those individual mounds that gradually coalesced to become a giant super-mound.

What about the rest of the body, notable flesh, i.e. muscular tissue and bones? Ah, well that's where Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and finally Stonehenge enter the story, they being some 25 miles away, the sites we're told of communal winter feasting on roast pork. Or was it smoked bacon? And what were the pigs fed on (don't ask, unless interested in the gory business of ritualized, dare one say semi-industrialzed decarnation, 'secondary necrophagy even thanks to those unfussy pigs'!) ? Was Woodhenge (Stonehenge Mk1) designed to facilitate smoking and curing of hung meat? Was it later replaced by a more durable, less flammable structure, the one we call Stonehenge?

Yup,or should that be YUK, one can get a flavour of what may have been the REAL PURPOSE of Silbury Hill AND Stonehenge from thje link below. But you'll need a strong stomach, even for that fairly restrained posting (later ones being more explicit as regards detail):

http://colinb-sciencebuzz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/new-theory-for-silbury-...

Those tumuli were not burrial mounds in the beginning of their construction. They were underground temples. Bones were never found in them or if found some bones they were dated of a much later period of time than the construction time of the tumuli. Such tumuli were found all over the earth - from Oman to the Northern Sami people. The stone civilization people were of one spirituality, one language, one culture - they were the people of Sun God Bal the Ancient Balgarians. When you are a nephilim and nephilim is a Bulgarian word meaning "inborn weak with a fragile waist. " , gravity increasing makes you suffer. Therefore you start building underground tunnels and temples, pyramids and dolmen. Ancient tunnels, underground wells and temples have to do with the fact that under earth surface gravity goes lesser. That is the reason for the ancient giants the nephilims to build underground temples as well. You start also climbing mounts and lay niches and sanctuaries on thop of rocks there, because there gravity goes lesser, tоо. Today this knowledge for the past is classified by the warmongers...

they should have dug deeper into the Silbury hill- just just to ground level --- look at the pyramids ... they went Down into the earth --

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