Address: West Kennet, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 1QH

Website

 

Silbury Hill History

Its reason for existence is not clear, but whatever its function, Silbury Hill is a pretty impressive structure, especially when you consider the period in which it was built and the tools available at the time. Its dimensions are impressive too. The hill is 131 feet high, 548 feet in diameter, 1620 feet in circumference, 5 acres in area and has a capacity of 324,000 cubic yards. And when you think it’s the height of a 12-storey building, it really puts things into perspective.

It’s been calculated that it would have taken around 15 million man hours to construct, this over a consecutive period of 10-20 years. Requiring such a colossal effort, it’s been suggested that it was probably the work of a powerful chieftain and one who could commandeer the necessary labour force over a long time.

From a practical point of view, the task was incredible. There are thought to have been 500 men building it and the logistics of such an operation would stretch an organisation today. But then when you take away things like machinery, electricity, modern measuring equipment, transport systems, office buildings, modern tools, proper shelter, shops, proper food, running water, proper shoes and clothing, maybe language/communication and proper health care the achievement is astonishing. They had the task of feeding and housing the labour force and you’d love to know the real story and the conditions that they worked under. Remember, this was nearly 3,000 years before the Romans arrived.

Through excavation and carbon dating of antler tools found, the Hill can be dated back to around 2600BC, making it over 4,500 years old. Whilst the year or century may be in question, the month of starting is fairly definite – believed to have been August as the remains of winged ants were found at ground level and they only live at this time of the year. This has been disputed though as there’s a possibility of climate change over such a long period.

The Hill was built in three main stages, with the second stage starting around 2400BC and the third shortly after. The first stage was constructed with the use of wooden posts creating a type of fence together with Sarcen stones. It is believed to have been a prehistoric ritual site with similar standing stones being found at nearby West Kennet, Avebury and Stonehenge. The construction of the first stage was continued with the addition of organic materials such as soil and turf and was 16 feet high and 26 feet in diameter. The second stage was built using chalk and clay excavated from the surrounding ditch. The ditch was 25 feet deep in places and an estimated 170,000 cubic yards was added this way. The ditch may have been filled with water and was elongated on the western side. The Hill was now 80 feet high and the ditch was backfilled in places.

The last stage saw a series of six concentric circular ‘drums’ to the top, one on top of the other like on a wedding cake, with chalk bricks forming honeycomb walls within the drums and chalk infilled in the honeycombs and on the outer slopes. The chalk sloping has been left off in part at around 17 feet from the top with this creating a flat terrace on the east side and being visible also on the west side.

The Hill has a flat top of 98 feet in diameter. The finished Hill contains chalk, wood, stones, earth, gravel, picks, plants, animal bones, yew berries and mistletoe and may even have had quartz crystals on the top at one point to reflect light and illuminate it. The Romans set up a settlement on the main London to Bath route next to the Hill, with this now being our modern-day A4 road. It is thought that the Romans may have built a fort on top of the Hill, hence the flat top.

Understandably there have been a number of archaeological excavations over the years. The first was in the 17th century by John Aubrey, who showed King Charles II around the site at one point. In 1776 a major project was undertaken by the Duke of Northumberland and landowner Edward Drax with the Duke financing it and Drax organising it. They commissioned a team of Cornish miners to sink a central shaft down from the top. After excavating down 95 feet they discovered a central six inch wide hole that continued all the way down to ground level which suggests the existence of a large post or totem pole which has now perished.

A second excavation took place in 1849 and was led by the Dean of Hereford, John Merewether who tunnelled horizontally from the south west, just to the east of the western causeway across the ditch. The next excavation was in 1867 and sought to locate the line of the Roman road. It wasn’t found in the mound, but 30 metres away. In 1886 there were shafts dug in the ditch to examine its fill, whilst in 1922 Flinders Perrie, a renowned Egyptologist tried without success to find a burial chamber. He made cuttings on the east side, both opposite the eastern causeway and between the causeways. A survey took place in 1959 to again look for a burial chamber.

This brings us to the most famous excavation. It was led by Professor Richard Atkinson of Cardiff University and took place over three seasons between 1968 and 1970. He led a project funded by the BBC who in turn broadcast it as a live television programme called ‘The Silbury Dig’. The team sunk a shaft from the top and tunnelled from the west. They thought that they’d found a burial chamber but had simply dug into Merewether’s tunnel and they didn’t find the treasure they were hoping for. The project was a success nonetheless.

In May 2000, due to tunnels and shafts not, or not properly, backfilled, heavy rain caused a 14 metre wide and 20 metre deep hole to appear on the summit. English Heritage then embarked on a £2 million restoration programme and this saw a construction company fill the previous openings with local chalk. It was thought that if the Hill had not been of such a well constructed form it would have collapsed in places long ago.

There are many theories about its function. One theory is that it’s the tomb of the legendary King Sil or Zel, who some believe was buried here with his horse. In 1723 during a tree planting on the summit, a human skeleton and a horse’s bridle were found which some say back this up. A fable states that the devil was carrying a bag of soil to drop on the people of Marlborough when it was stopped by the Avebury priests, so dropped its load.

It was certainly a ritual site at some point and lies on a ley line between the church at Avebury and Stonehenge.

 

Silbury Hill Visit

Like Stonehenge, the marvellous thing about this place is that you don’t have to traipse for miles across fields or struggle to find parking as the landmark lies conveniently next to a road (A4). In fact it’s a landmark that some people will see every day on their way to work. When seen for the first time it’s a special sight and this will usually be enhanced by the fact that you’ll probably turn a corner in the road and it’s suddenly in view, not miles in the distance and getting closer all the time.

There’s a roadside layby nearby, but a few hundred yards away you’ll find a free car park which gives information and a view.

The view from the car park is fine, and you get a better view from the pavement adjacent to the Hill, but I think the best view of all is from over the river to the east and on top of the hill, looking west. This way you can get a great view of not only the Hill, but also the groundworks around it.

If you visit, it’s a great idea to do homework before you arrive. That way you can identify all the minor detail which enhances your visit.

Whilst the distant views are marvellous, by far my best memories are from the top and the route up. This seems similar to walking up Glastonbury Tor and it would be wonderful if the National Trust opened it to all.