Silbury Hill – a most mysterious place

By: shortfinals

Jun 17 2011

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Category: British Isles, England, Great Britain, London, military, Plants, Prehistory, Wiltshire, World Heritage Site


Focal Length:38mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D40

Wiltshire is full of stone circles, barrows, henges and other ancient evidence of prehistoric Britain. Silbury Hill, however, is different. It is located roughly halfway between Avebury stone circles and the West Kennet Long Barrow, and dominates the local landscape. Here you can see the old A4 road from London (which follows the line of a Roman road), winding around the base of Silbury Hill on its way to Bath. Winston Churchill once described Russia as “..a riddle wrapped in a mystery shrouded inside an enigma”. Silbury Hill could well be described in such a fashion.

We know some things with a degree of certainty. From archeological finds, it seems that the invading Romans had an encampment near the base of the hill, and probably used it as a look-out post to observe the surrounding countryside from the flattened top. The amazing thing about the Romans’ look-out post is that it is man-made! Around 130 feet high (it rivals the smaller Egyptian pyramids), and occupying five acres, it is the largest man-made prehistoric earth mound in Europe, and until the cathedrals of the Middle Ages rose from the European landscape it was amongst the biggest artificial objects north of the Alps.

Radio-carbon dating of the lowest levels determined that Silbury Hill was built around 2,600 BC (or BCE, if you must) towards the end of the Neolithic period; the bodies of winged ants have been found, and since these only fly towards the end of summer, it is suggested that the work started in August! It is solid through and through, with an initial (small) foundation of laid turves, surrounded by a ring of branches and sarsen stones, which was quickly expanded. It is quite possible that the work involved would have amounted to 7,000 man/years. By the early Bronze Age (c. 2,500 BC) the TOTAL population of the British Isles was around 20,000, so whoever organised the building of Silbury Hill held immense power over the people.

The Hill is a mixture of chalk, soil, the shells of freshwater molluscs, sarsen stones, gravel, sand, twigs, mistletoe branches, deer antlers, oak fragments and assorted animal bones, built in at least three distinct phases. This is consistent with its use as a votive and/or religious venue. After all, mistletoe has long been sacred to the Celtic tribes of the British Isles, and probably filled the same function for the earlier people of the Isles. There are traces of a spiral path around the mound and/or ledges which could have given access to the summit to tribal elders and priests or petitioners.

Stories about the Hill abound. One legend has it that it was the burial mound of a great king with a fabulous golden treasure in the middle. Others stated that an early king (or chieftain) called Zel, or Sil, caused a golden statue of himself, riding a golden horse, to be buried there. Needless to say there had been several attempts, down the centuries, to reach the ‘treasure’. In 1776, Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland caused Cornish miners to dig a vertical shaft down from the top of the hill – nothing was found. In 1849 a horizontal tunnel was dug all the way to the centre – nothing was found. This tunnel was re-opened in 1968 by Professor Richard J.C. Atkinson, of University College, Cardiff – nothing was found. These, and other excavations, caused a partial collapse of the centre of the summit in 2002, and in 2007 English Heritage (who administer the site) arranged for strengthening work to be undertaken in order to stabilise the Hill.

Public access to Silbury Hill is not allowed, but I have seen – from afar – people making the ascent.  Silbury Hill is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (No. 373bis, 1986) which encompasses Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Stonehenge and much more. It is a magnificent monument to man’s urge to leave his mark on the landscape for future generations.

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6 comments on “Silbury Hill – a most mysterious place”

  1. I was wondering about rainfall erosion of Silbury Hill. In the motion pucture, THE ENGLISHMEN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, it is shown that a mound of earth several feet high was washed away by a single torrential rain storm. How could Silbury Hill have lasted so long given the erosion seen in that film.Also such rain would have formed great gullies in such a hill of unconsolidated material. Stukley who described this hill failed to suggest that it was cut into by many such gullies. Even grass covered hills allow gullying; why was Silbury Hill different. What possible answer is there to this problem?


    • Just as sand dunes are stabilised and protected from erosion by certain species of grass (initially, Sand Couch Grass – Elytrigia juncea – later, Marram Grass – Ammophilia arenaria), the earth of Silbury Hill could have contained seeds of all the local grasses, and more would have been blown there. You must also remember that the mixture of constituents which made up the hill would have been well tramped down by the builders, AND, since it had a large range of particle sizes and types, would have acted more like an aggregate (see the evolution of concrete, for example, the Romans were masters of this) and developed strength over time, aided by natural compaction, due to ever more material being added. However, it is necessary to keep humans OFF the Hill, as erosion of the grass cover can lead to damage by wind and rain (see the hills in my native Peak District). Natural grass-covered hills are also rarely symmetrical, thereby having the small furrows and cracks which can concentrate the erosive effects of rainfall.


  2. I also recent learned BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY issue 70 that in 2001 after the ditch around Silbury Hill was drained there was found a mark 33 feet wide and straight edged crossing the ditch that ran 50 meters just off the center of the mound which apparently was manmade. Could you inform me about the exact orientation of this mark as it related to the roman road?


    • Having read the ‘Great Sites: Silbury Hill’ article in British Archeology that you noted, I cannot give you an exact orientation of the vegetation marking which is mentioned. However, if it is running towards the little River Kennet, it might be headed towards the Roman road before the small rise (and bend) you can see on the left of my photograph. I have been told that the modern road follows the route of the Roman road from Londinium to Aquae Sulis.


  3. I just read the last two comments and was wondering if that dark 50 meters long mark in the ditch of Silbury Hill which appears to align with the Roman road before it bends around the hill and apparently nearly passes through the center of the mound might possibly be James Fergusson’s straight road, In this case if it extended to the other side of the mound it could align with the other straight part of that road where it also bends around the hill. I know because of Sir John Lubbock’s inspection, it is taken that the Roman road curves around the monument. I also know Fergusson withdrew his argument that roman roads are straight as arrows But his earlier supposition can be tested with ground penetrating radar to see if the two parts of the Roman before they curve around Silbury Hill are connected by evidence similar to this mark . At the very least a map of all these points will show that if a line drawn down both outer edges of the dark mark and extended will either confirm or deny that there is tentative evidence that the road was straight.Since I don’t have a map with these points clearly displayed do you know whom I can communicate with about this question? If such a map exists showing the dark mark and the end points of the Roman road before they bend around Silbury Hill could you inform me what and where it is so I can check it for myself?


  4. I think that the best source for such evidence is the Witshire County Council’s Archeological Service. Here is a page of good links from Wiltshire County Council.


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