Silbury in August's Edition of Current Archaeology
In August's edition of Current Archaeology, Jim Leary talks about his theory first aired in 'The Story of Silbury Hill'. Did our ancestors build Silbury to mark the source of the Thames. I've always liked this theory.
This afternoon I attended an English Heritage tour of the digs taking place at Silbury in the Swallowhead Spring Meadow and the next hillside meadow. Many people attended; the dig is looking specifically at the Roman settlement that appeared on a geophysics survey published in an English Heritage report about five years ago... continues...
"New information has emerged from letters written in 1776 about excavations at Silbury Hill and published for the first time in the new volume of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine."
As you may have seen in the Press English Heritage recently announced the appointment of engineering contractor Skanska to take forward the next stage of repair work to Silbury Hill. Skanska will now begin working with English Heritage to draw up detailed repair plans for the Hill... continues...
Plans to stabilise the ancient Silbury Hill mound in Wiltshire have been unveiled by English Heritage.
The man-made monument, believed to date to the Neolithic period, developed a hole at the top five years ago after the collapse of infilling in a shaft... continues...
Urgent remedial work must be carried out to save Silbury Hill from collapse, English Heritage said yesterday. The threat to the 130ft mound, which is one of the West's most mysterious prehistoric monuments, was blamed on excavations made for a BBC TV documentary in the 1960s... continues...
From the Wiltshire GAzette and Herald, 31 May 04
Campaigners gathered at Silbury Hill, at Avebury, on Saturday, four years after the summit collapsed, to air their concerns over its future... continues...
"English Heritage is now planning to investigate the area of the previously collapsed shaft. As part of this assessment we intend to test the consistency of the backfilling in the lower part of the shaft by drilling a borehole through it from the top. Another borehole will be drilled nearby as a control... continues...
Yes, it's true that a huge hole has appeared at the top of Silbury. I've just come back from checking it out, and the entire area is roped off and the NT is not letting anyone near. The hole has appeared precisely where it was excavated in the late 1700s, and an NT spokesperson believes that it was re-opened as a result of all the recent rain... continues...
What can possibly be added to what has already been said? Only to reiterate that this is a MUST SEE site to anyone who is able to make the trip to Avebury - an incredible place. Perhaps best viewed from West Kennet Long Barrow? Enjoy!
A few years ago I stood on top of Silbury Hill, and was absolutely gobsmacked by the sheer effort required to raise this behemoth. Why? Deep thought fails to bring an answer. With all the comforts and ease of a modern day life I bet we couldn't be arsed to do anything remotely as big with the tools they had to hand. Their life would be hard work without the hassle of this monumental construction.
To get into the mind of these people is impossible, and beyond the realms of archaeologists, who can, like us, just theorise.
Looking from The Sanctuary, on 07/07/09, I could see the downs rolling across the landscape, and there, in the middle of it all, was a flat-topped mini-down, dear old Silbury Hill. It didn't look at all drawfed by the surrounding landscape, truly a tribute to her architects, for she always seems a she to me. Bless 'er.
Access none at present due to well documented subsidence and English Heritage's inability to get its finger out. May be able to walk around it at ground level. Can view from road. (And various other points around the area!)
Monday 15 September 2003
This is one of those 'what the hell can I say that hasn't been said?' places isn't it? One thing I have to mention however is that my ass is numb from kicking myself for not walking up the damn thing back in 95 or whenever it was....
What the bl**dy hell DO English Heritage think they're playing at?
Most impressively viewed (in my opinion) from the hill above and to the west of East Kennett Long Barrow, the field below West Kennett Long Barrow, the bank of the Kennett on the way from Avebury, from Windmill Hill and, best of all, coming round the top of Waden Hill from Avebury.
I shouted to stop the car when I saw Silbury just after leaving Avebury. I wasn't expecting to see it. When I did I felt priveliged. I just gawped for 10 mins from half a mile from the hill. 2 years ago, 500 miles and I want to come back here. The impression I remember was that the hill has a magic, living presence.
Big beautiful steam pudding shaped Silbury wearing a frosting of snow. On a cold November day we stood in awe of this mighty mound. The slushy sounds of the traffic povided a soundtrack to our wondering. Why the fuck........
Having made the long trip down from london via stonehenge, primarily to climb and meditate on the top of the hill I was very depressed to find it fenced off.
It is impossible even to walk completely round the base of the hill at present (if it ever was), since barbed wire stops progress seemingly at every juncture.
Still, this being my first visit, I was awestruck at the sheer size and shape of silbury. It is easily within walking distance of West Kennet longbarrow, and a suitable consolation? is close by in the form of Devil's Den.
Hecateus of Abdera, a Greek writer writing in the 4th century BCE, wrote of a large island to the north of Gaul populated by a race called the Hyperboreans. Their chief god was Apollo, and they had a city dedicated to him, with a "remarkable round temple".
The large island is thought to be Britain, and the round temple has previously been identified as Stonehenge. However, the Greek word translated as "round" is "sphairoeides" which actually means "spherical" and not round. Geoffrey Ashe in his "Mythology of the British Isles" suggests that the word in question has been misspelled at some point in the past, and originally may have been "speiroeides", meaning "spiral".
Ashe discusses the possibility of a "spiral temple" being a labirynth of some kind, or even rock art, but surely there's a chance that Hecateus' "remarkable round temple" - when "spiral" is substituted for "round" - could actually be Silbury Hill, with it's spiral path?
You expect to stir up a thunderstorm if you mess with any barrow - but what if you start digging into Silbury Hill? You're surely asking for it. Perhaps that's why EH won't touch it - they're scared of the consequences.
The following is a description of what happened during the 1849 dig (I don't know who wrote it.. could it be Lukis mentioned below? it is quoted in 'The Secret Country' by J&C Bord).
"As a finale to the excavations, the night following work in unfavourable weather, a dramatic high Gothick thunderstorm set the seal on [Dean] Merewether's Wiltshire sojourn. This event was much to the satisfaction.. of the rustics, whose notions respecting the examination of Silbury and the opening of the barrows were not divested of superstitious dread. It must have been a spectacular affair. The Dean described it as 'one of the most grand and tremendous thunder-storms I ever recollect to have witnessed.' It made the hills reecho to the crashing peals, and Silbury itself, as the men asserted who were working in its centre, to tremble to its base."
Stukeley wrote that the country people "make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetched from the 'Swallow head'." (see 'Swallowhead Springs.)
It has been suggested that this ceremony had some connexion with the gospel story of the barren fig tree, but it is much more probable that the tradition has a very early origin. As a matter of fact the cakes were mostly made with raisins which are called figs by natives of Wessex.
Aubrey noted that "No history gives any account of this hill; the tradition only is, that King Sil or Zel, as the countrey folke pronounce, was buried here on horseback, and that the hill was raysed while a posset of milke was seething.."
Or you could believe the story that it was dumped there by the devil - it's a story found all over Britain about various mysterious mounds and hills. The people of Marlborough hated the people of Devizes, and somehow they'd got the devil to agree to smother them with a big spadeful of earth, to get them out of their hair for good. A cobbler (or St John?) was walking towards Marlborough with a cartload of worn out shoes, which he was going to mend. He asked the devil what he was doing. On hearing the reply he explained that he'd set out from Devizes a very long time ago, and pointed to all the shoes in his cart - explaining that he'd worn them out along the way. The devil's very lazy, so he decided he couldn't be bothered to walk such a distance. He dropped the spadeful of earth by the side of the road in disgust, and it became Silbury Hill.
Jordan (in her 'folklore of Ancient Wiltshire' records another variation which she heard from a old local man. He claimed that the devil was travelling from Salisbury plain and Stonehenge to smother the people at Avebury, complaining that there was too much religion in the area. Grinsell's source (Folklore v24) completes the story:
"but the priests saw him coming and set to work with their charms and incussations, and they fixed him while he was yet a nice way off, till at last he flings down his shovelful just where he was stood. And THAT'S Silbury."
A turn up for the books - the Devil actually trying to get rid of a pagan site?
On a moonlit night you might see King Sil in golden armour ride by the hill. Perhaps that's because he's buried on horseback - or maybe in a golden coffin. A headless man is also sometimes seen. Kathleen Wiltshire (in her 'Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside') recounted how she'd been told these legends when she was a small girl, by an old stone-breaker, Worthy Gaisford.
"Every time a botanist journeyed from London to Bath, he was tempted to get down from his horse and climb Silbury, as Thomas Johnson had done in 1634, for in 1570 the Flemish botanist De l'Obel had written having been up the mound..this 'acclivem cretaceam et arridam montem arte militari aggestum'(this steep chalky hill dry hill raised by military art) as he called it.... On Silbury he found a plant blossoming in July and August which seems to have been Asperula Cynanchica, which he called Anglica Saxifraga, the first record for Gt.Britain.
Squinancy is the quinsy,sore throat and this waxy--flowered little perennial of the downs made an astringent gargle"
Taken from The Englishman's Flora by Geoffrey Grigson.
Note; Squinancywort is similer to sweet woodruff which you can find in woods, but I doubt Silbury still has Squinancy on its slope.
from an article entitled Folk Games at Silbury Hill with details provided by Mr John Goulstone
An account in The Gloucester Journal on 9 November 1736 describes how a dinner was served on the summit while between 4000 and 5000 people sat at the foot of Silbury and on a facing eminence, all of which was made a very agreeable appearance. A bull was baited at the top and bottom of the hill and: There was also backsword, wrestling, bowling and dancing. The same diversions were repeated on the 2nd day, and also running round the hill for a petticoat. The 3rd day the bull was divided by Mr Smith amongst his poor neighbours on top of the hill, where they diverted themselves with bonfires, ale and roast beef for several hours...
Folk Games at Silbury Hill and Stonehenge
Notes and News
Vol. LIX No. 225 March 1985
From "The Secret Places Of The Heart" by H. G. Wells (1922).
"Clumsy treasure hunting," Sir Richmond said. "They bore into Silbury Hill and expect to find a mummified chief or something sensational of that sort, and they don't, and they report nothing. They haven't sifted finely enough; they haven't thought subtly enough. These walls of earth ought to tell what these people ate, what clothes they wore, what woods they used. Was this a sheep land then as it is now, or a cattle land? Were these hills covered by forests? I don't know. These archaeologists don't know. Or if they do they haven't told me, which is just as bad. I don't believe they know.
..."To-day, among these ancient memories, has taken me out of myself wonderfully. I can't tell you how good Avebury has been for me. This afternoon half my consciousness has seemed to be a tattooed creature wearing a knife of stone. . . . "
An account from 'An Illustration of Stonehenge and Abury' by Henry Browne, 1823 (in Wilts Arch & Nat Hist Mag v95, 2002). It's an eyewitness account of the 1776 dig.
"... This elderly gentleman [a Mr Hickley from Avebury] when a youth, was at Silbury Hill on the occasion of some miners sinking a large hole or well down the centre of it to the ground on which it began to be raised. In doing this they found a piece of timber continued down the whole way, evidently for a centre from whence to take the measurement of the hill in working it upwards."
It was nearly 50 years after the event, so although you might expect some elaboration / misremembering - surely this isn't an obvious yarn to tell? Wouldn't you be more likely to come up with the old 'skeleton / treasure' option rather than a central timber?
Another contemporaryish account is interesting: James Douglas, in his 1793 'Nenia Britannica' recorded that the Duke of Northumberland's foreman of the work (a Colonal Drax) "had a fancy that this hill had been raised over a Druid oak, and he thought the remains of it were discovered in the excavation."
And indeed, Richard Atkinson, leader of the 1960s BBCized dig thought that the 1776 shaft would probably have destroyed any central deposit at the base of the mound, and no doubt anything vertical in the core...
I was reading an article from WANHM (v95, 2002 - a missing drawing and an overlooked text: silbury hill archive finds) - sounds like the hole was never filled in properly. Does this mean the structure has been precarious - for centuries? Is this why EH don't feel they have to do anything immediately?
This is what I gleaned from the article:
The vertical shaft was mined in 1776, the brainchild of the Duke of Northumberland. A horizontal tunnel was later mined at the base of the hill in 1849. The Rev. WC Lukis was on hand to draw this one, but he also included a dotted line dipping like a cone into the top of the hill, indicating the entrance to the 1776 shaft was open - open to a similar depth to that which opened up in 2000?
A Dr Merewether visited with Lukis, and he recorded that there were mounds of soil on top of the hill that the miners from 1776 hadn't bothered to throw back in. You can see heaps of soil on one of Hoare's illustrations from 1821 and in a late 19thC print (these are in the article). A Major Allen took some aerial photos in the 1930s and these show the heaps too - and a dip in the ground next to them. So it seems the hole has been present to varying depths since the 1770s, and was only filled in to near the surface level in 1936. However, the filling material gradually disappeared.
In 1963 Silbury was capped with chicken wire, to prevent what was perceived to be rabbit damage. Later this wire (covered in soil and grass) actually hampered some surveys that were being done to check the state of the hole. 'The capping has now disappeared from view'.
"Aerial views of Silbury Hill. This hill dates back to around 2400BC and is the largest man made mound in Europe. No-one can say what purpose it had, but as usual with pre-historic sites, there are lot's of theory's!
"Filmed with own design hexacopter and Sony CX730."
A Guernseyman among the English megaliths by Mark Patton.
"When, in 1865, Sir John Lubbock and James Fergusson argued, in the pages of the Athenaum magazine, as to whether the Roman road passed around Silbury Hill (as Lubbock thought, making the hill itself prehistoric) or beneath it (as Fergusson insisted, making the hill post-Roman), far more was at stake than simply the dating of one of England's iconic monuments. The argument, fundamentally, was about whether archaeology should be seen as an adjunct to history, its discoveries sterile unless they could somehow be related to the written record; or as an essentially scientific pursuit, allowing prehistoric cultures to be understood on the basis of the material evidence alone."
"Diary of a Dean. Being an account of the examination of Silbury Hill, and of Various Barrows and other earthworks on the downs of North Wilts, opened and investigated in the months of July and August 1849. With Illustrations."
How excellent that John Merewether's book should now be available to read online, and especially at this time when the new excavations are going ahead.
The latter part of the book contains loads of information, if you can pin down the locations he's talking about. But it might upset people of a delicate constitution as it is basically 'speed-barrowing', as seemed to be the fashion of the time.