Was Neolithic Silbury Hill Designed as a Welcoming Home for Omnivorous, Upwardly-Mobile Earthworms?
Silbury Hill, said to be the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, looms over the landscape. Yet so little is understood about this enigmatic British site. However, surprising as it may seem, evidence supports the idea that it was intended to be a specialized funereal mound, a veritable processing plant, intending to free souls trapped within their mortal bodies.
Let’s start our story on what, for the writer, was a breezy elevated ridge on southern England’s North Wiltshire Downs at the West Kennet Long Barrow in March 2016.
Fig. 1: Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Fig. 2: From inside the West Kennet Long Barrow looking towards entrance. (Photograph courtesy writer).
Neolithic Defleshing Released Trapped Souls
The barrow, south of Avebury in Wiltshire, England, with its chambered tombs constructed of megaliths, was reckoned to be in use as a repository for bones and largely disarticulated skeletons up until about 2400 BC.
West Kennet Long Barrow (Ben Cremin, Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )
The underlying belief seems to have been that upon death of a human, the soul was trapped with the mortal body. Any process – natural or assisted – that consumed the flesh served to release the soul.
Thus we have the ‘difficult,’ not to mention repellent (to modern eyes) literature on “excarnation” – or the defleshing of the newly deceased, which could either be passive (e.g. by primary burial assisted by soil microorganisms and earthworms, or scavenger-assisted, as with birds in sky burial) or by active excarnation (separate harvesting of bone from soft tissue using sharp implements).
Barrows only tell us that the bones were revered. But was soft tissue (heart and other vital organs especially) so appreciated?
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Swing around from the Long Barrow and another iconic site greets one, a mere half mile away. It’s Silbury Hill, claimed to be the largest man-made mound in Europe.
Fig. 3: The iconic Silbury Hill, as seen from the West Kennet Long Barrow. (Photograph courtesy writer).
Despite its impressive size (31 meters or 101 feet high) it’s reckoned that Silbury Hill was constructed in a relatively short time, variously estimated at between a decade and a century. It’s believed that Silbury began when the nearby Long Barrow was finally abandoned and the entrance sealed up. Was this a change in mind-set and funereal practice? Maybe. Let’s take a closer look at what’s inside Silbury Hill.
Silbury Hill, Enigmatic Mound
First let’s join our fellow tourists near the visitor car park, where one is greeted by a helpful, open air display board.
Fig. 4: Silbury Hill: visitors’ observation area with display board, summarizing results of centuries of archaeological investigation. (Photograph courtesy writer).
Fig. 5: Close up of display board artwork (Judith Dobie).
The three panels above show the initial stages in the Silbury construction, as inferred from the various tunneling and excavation operations, starting with the first (vertical) shaft in 1776, ending in most recent 2007 probing by English Heritage archaeologist Jim Leary and archaeological investigator David Field and their fellow researchers.
It may help to consult this writer’s own schematic cross-sectional diagrams. Beware: they are based on interpretation of sentences from archaeologists Leary and Field and are not to scale regarding relative dimensions, precise ordering of soil layers etc.
“Silbury 1” is the name of the first small mound made of layers of gravel and dark layers of turf and soil. “Silbury 2” was built up over this first mound, and was composed of chalk rubble and soil. “Silbury 3” was the final phase, wherein ditches were filled in, others were created, and the mound was finished off, creating a 60-degree sloping, pyramidal structure.
Fig. 6: Left: initial site with topsoil. Center: removal of topsoil. Right: Silbury 1 - adding heap of gravel. (Image courtesy writer)
The third diagram on the right corresponds with the first on the display board, showing the initial gravel mound. Note that the gravel was NOT deposited on original soil and turf, which had first been removed (see below for later use). Many questions stem from this revelation.
Why bother to remove the topsoil if one is building a mound, even if planning only a modest-size one initially?
Fig.7: The seemingly ever-more perplexing steps. Mounds upon mounds, and then pits dug in and backfilled. (Image courtesy writer)
In Figure 7 we see at left that the top soil has now been added back, together with turves—turf or sod — (some still green after 4,500 years!) and residents such as ants and other insects (as well still visible after 4,500 years!)