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.