The Monumental and Mysterious Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill is a prehistoric site located near Stonehenge and Avebury (a Neolithic henge monument) in the southwestern English county of Wiltshire. Silbury Hill has been measured to be 30 m (98.4252 ft.) tall and 160 m (524.93ft.) in width, thus making it the largest artificial earth mound from Europe’s prehistoric period. This structure was constructed mainly of chalk that was excavated from the surrounding area. Today, Silbury Hill is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site known as ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’.
Silbury Hill’s Construction
Based on radiocarbon dating, the construction of Silbury Hill began at some point of time during the 3rd millennium, which corresponds to the Late Neolithic period in that region. The work on Silbury Hill likely began during the last hundred years of the 25th century BC, and involved three phases.
According to one interpretation, each of the phases was followed quickly by the next, and that the whole structure could have been completed in a century, perhaps towards the end of the 25th century BC, or around the middle of the 24th century BC.
Alternatively, there is an apparent break between the second and the third phases, indicating that there may had been a pause of a few hundred years. Therefore, according to this interpretation, Silbury Hill was only completed around the 22nd or 21st centuries BC.
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The Silbury Hill was not planned and built in one go, but was expanded over several generations. It has been thought that, initially, the topsoil and stones from the ground were stripped. Then, a small mound of gravel was built, using material that might have been obtained from the nearby River Kennet. This mound is thought to have been a little less than 1 m (3.28 ft.) in height.
River Kennet between Avebury and Silbury Hill. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Later on, a larger area, 16 m (52.49 ft.) in diameter, was defined, perhaps using a ring of stakes, and filled with earth. The mound continued to grow over the years, until it reached its present size. Additionally, a ditch was dug around Silbury Hill.
Silbury Hill, seen from the nearby hill on which West Kennet Long Barrow is located. (Ethan Doyle White/ CC BY SA 3.0)
The Mystery of the Hill
The function of Silbury Hill has always been a mystery, and still is even today. There is no consensus as to the purpose for which it was built, and many speculations have been made regarding this subject. Numerous legends have also sprung up regarding Silbury Hill, as people in the past tried to explain its function or origins.
In one legend, for instance, Silbury Hill is said to be the final resting place of a mythical warrior king by the name Sil. The king is said to have been buried in this mound on the back of his horse. A later, modified version of the story has the king and his horse transformed into life-size figures of solid gold.
Aerial view of Silbury Hill and the A4 road (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In another story which involves gold, the Devil, for some unknown reason, was travelling to the town of Devizs, and decided to hide a gold statue in Silbury Hill. In yet another story with the evil being, the Devil is said to have been carrying an apron of soil, with the intention of dropping it on the people of Marlborough.
He was prevented from doing so, however, by priests at Avebury, and dropped it in Silbury instead, thus forming the earthen mound. Other explanations include the idea that Silbury Hill served as a representation of a ‘primal mound’; functioned as a representation of the ‘earth mother’; operated as a ‘beacon hill’; was used as a water reservoir.
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Excavations of the Hill
Excavations have also been carried out in the past in the hope of revealing the secrets of Silbury Hill. At least three separate tunnels have been dug into the center of the mound over the last three and a half centuries. The first two tunnels (the first vertical, whilst the second horizontal) were dug in 1776 and 1849 respectively, and the excavators hoped that they would find a burial chamber somewhere in the middle of the mound. Nothing was found. During the 20th century, another horizontal tunnel was dug, which revealed the three building phases.
Silbury Hill with associated archaeological sites in the Avebury region ca. 2600 to 2300BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Unfortunately, none of these tunnels were fully backfilled, resulting in the weakening of the mound’s internal structure. In May 2000, a 14 m (45.93 ft.) deep crater opened on the hill’s summit, and the tunnels inside were also found to be collapsing. This incident made archaeologists aware that other techniques, such as non-invasive survey, limited excavation and seismic survey were required if they intended to keep the monument standing whilst trying to learn more about it.
Featured image: A view of Silbury Hill. Photo source: (CC BY 2.0)
Ancient-Wisdom, 2016. Silbury Hill. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/englandsilburyhill.htm
English Heritage, 2016. History of Silbury Hill. [Online]
Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/silbury-hill/history/
Leary, J., 2008. Silbury Hill: A last look inside. [Online]
Available at: http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/silbury-hill-a-last-look-inside.htm
Sacred Destinations, 2016. Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/silbury-hill
UNESCO, 2016. Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/373
Watkins, J., 2009. Silbury Hill mystery soon to be resolved. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/4385933/Silbury-Hill-mystery-soon-to-be-resolved.html