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Beginnings. The first in a series of guest features on Silbury Hill by Littlestone

Silbury. Image credit Willow

Nearly four and a half thousand years ago, a great six-tiered mountain of chalk was being slowly raised among the green downlands of southern Britain. Hundreds of men, women and children laboured day after day to complete their task, and when it was finished their mountain stood gleaming white, a symmetrical island set in a sea of gently rolling hills. It stood taller, larger and prouder than anything else man had ever built before in Europe.

High above, on a nearby track known as the Ridgeway (itself perhaps the oldest road in Europe), this six-tiered mountain of chalk must have presented a truly awesome sight to the warriors, pilgrims and other travellers who ploughed their way back and forth along that ancient highway to what was then, surely, the centre of prehistoric Britain.
Contemporary with the Pyramids, larger than St Paul’s Cathedral and containing more than twelve million cubic feet of chalk and rubble (all hewn by hand with no more than antler picks and shovels), that mountain still stands today fast and proud, a testimony to the skill and dedication of its builders. Today it is known simply as Silbury Hill, a silent and mysterious monument set on a quiet valley floor a few kilometres south of the great stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England and less than 30 kilometres from its more famous grandchild, Stonehenge (both Avebury and Stonehenge are World Heritage Sites).
For many, their first glimpse of Silbury Hill is from the old Roman road (now the A4) just as it would have been for travellers and Roman legions nearly two thousand years ago as they made their way between Cunetio (Mildenhall) and Aquae Sulis (Bath). It seems probable that Silbury was used by Roman surveyors as a geographical marker for their road to and from Bath and there is geophysical evidence of a substantial Roman settlement between Silbury Hill and the Swallowhead Spring. At Silbury however, perhaps as a mark of respect for the structure and its ancient builders, the Roman road veers slightly round the structure rather than cutting through it. Travelling by road today Silbury looms out at you as you pass by and there is hardly time to take it in. A small carpark just off the A4 is one of the closest points from which one can view Silbury and parts of its manmade valley floor. From this official viewing area one can gain some idea of the sheer mass of the structure. At the edge of the viewing area there are explanations of Silbury’s history, construction and condition set there on plaques by its present guardians, English Heritage.
The Silbury carpark however is not the only place from which to see this astonishing structure, in fact the further one travels from it the more one is able to understand its unique place in the surrounding landscape and to appreciate how beautifully it sits within that landscape.
But what is it? What was it used for? Perhaps, most of all, what’s inside? These are questions that have niggled away at antiquarians, archaeologists, gravediggers, treasure hunters and, more recently, television crews for several centuries. Beginning with the so-called Dax Shaft of 1776 several tunnels have been dug into Silbury in an attempt to discover its secrets. This, and subsequent excavations have revealed remarkably little – little that is in material remains. Numerous theories have been, and continue to be, advanced as to the meaning of Silbury but in the end we may never know for sure what it stood for. Silbury does not seem to be a burial mound. It appears to contain no tomb and certainly no gold or silver; no treasure at all except for the few archaeological treasures from its earliest stages – that is to say plant and animal remains, ‘rope’ and small sarsen boulders.
Whatever Silbury was intended for its sparse contents seem unable to provide the answer. Perhaps the Silbury Secret lies not within it but without; in its beautifully proportioned size and shape, and in something far more intangible – something that many sense when they first see it, and which pulls them back again and again – like some great beacon in the night.
Since writing this, “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.”


February 2010

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