Silbury Hill is the tallest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe. Although its precise build date is elusive it was believed to have been built using 400 million man hours sometime between 2470 an 2350 BC. Why did Neolithic people use their time, effort, and talents to create this...and what are the myths and legends that endure to this day.
The hill itself takes up about five acres and stands at an impressive 131 feet high today, although some believe it may have once been even taller when it was originally built. It is made up of a variety of natural materials including gravel, stones quarried from the surrounding area, clay, and chalk. According to English Heritage.org “The monument we see today was not conceived and built in a single campaign but enlarged over several generations. Perhaps different people brought soil and chalk from their own neighboring lands, bringing communities together. Over time, the project became more ambitious, with huge quantities of chalk dug from the surrounding ditch to build the mound.”
It was also much more complicated than it appears today. In addition to its grand height, there was also a double-moat the enclosed much of the hill. There is also evidence of heaps of mud and dark soils in and around small pits that were likely related to a ceremonial activity.
Although it as built long before the Romans ever saw it they still seemed to respect its purpose and those who built it as evidenced by the Roman Road which purposefully weaves around the hill. In addition to the road, there is also evidence of a small Roman village at the base of the hill.
The mound first gained some archaeological interest in the late 1770s. Specifically, Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland, supported the first dig lead by Edward Drax. They dug a vertical shaft beginning from the summit and into the center of the hill but failed to find the exciting central burial they were expecting. A little less than 100 years later, the dean of Hereford, oversaw the creation of a horizontal tunnel into the hill. But, once again, no central burial was discovered.
The BBC then sponsored a dig another 100 years later from 1968 through 1970. The excavation was televised and many people were looking forward to discovering hat may lay inside this fascinating hill. While no grand chamber was discovered, it taught us much of what we’ve learned today about the construction of the hill and the team was able to identify that the hill was built in three phases.
As mentioned before many were interested in the hill early on because of the belief that it may be a very important burial site. Folklore dictates that it may have been the final resting place of King Sil. King Sil was a mythic warrior knight who was buried in this monumental hill atop his horse. Folklore even says that the king and his horse transformed in death to figures of solid goal...so perhaps early interested was roused by those looking for treasure.
Many stories of strange monuments from the Neolithic age also were rumored to be helped along by the devil himself and Silbury Hill is no different. Allegedly, the Devil was planning a serious attack on the people of Marlborough. What was he going to do? Drop a huge apron of soil onto the town. However, priests at Avebury united and the Devil was forced to drop the dirt on Silbury.
Like many large archaeological finds, it is also a popular theory that the hill may have served an astronomical purpose. The top of the hill is leveled specifically to the north and the meridian line from Silbury runs through Avebury church which stands on a ley line between Stonehenge at the stone circle at Winterbourne Abbas.
Perhaps we will never know the true purpose of Silbury Hill...but it sure is fun to theorize!
The above image comes from Chris Gunns / Meadow near the car park Avebury, Silbury Hill in the distance / CC BY-SA 2.0