| 8 November 2010
Silbury Hill's construction process was more important than design
Silbury Hill, the neolithic chalk mound in Wiltshire (England) is Europe's largest prehistoric man-made feature. This ancient monument was believed to have taken many centuries to build, but research by English Heritage archaeologists suggests the prehistoric site was made in 15 distinct layers over 100 years. A new book has challenged some of the long held assumptions about Silbury Hill.
New and more precise dating of materials found inside the hill now suggests the monument was created not in three stages as previously suggested, but in 15 distinct phases involving some three generations between 2400 and 2300 BCE - right after nearby Stonehenge's thirty enormous sarsen stones were put in place. But new evidence is increasing telling us that Neolithic people display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument.
A survey by English Heritage suggests the prehistoric mound is not in fact truly circular: on the summit it appears to be more angular than circular, while at the base it is almost octagonal in form. It is possible a spiralling ledge led up to the mound. The research has also shown that Silbury Hill was at the centre of a Roman-British settlement and it could have been considered as sacred in the Roman period as when originally constructed. Later, in the medieval period, the top of the hill was flattened and a building - possibly defensive - was constructed on the summit.
In the new book 'The Story of Silbury Hill', published by English Heritage, all this emerging evidence has given rise to a radical new theory: Silbury Hill was not a single construction project and that the builders did not have any blueprint in mind. Instead, the creators were building the mound as part of a continuous storytelling ritual and the importance of the shape that we see now is of secondary importance.
Jim Leary, English Heritage archaeologist and co-author of the book, explains: "Most interpretations of Silbury Hill have, up to now, concentrated on its monumental size and its final shape. But new evidence is increasing telling us that our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument - to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It's as if the final form of the Hill did not matter - it was the construction process that was important. It seems as if the hill developed organically and the strangest thing is that this hasn't always been a hill. The first phases of it were a bank and ditch enclosure, much like a henge monument."
Further, analyses of the material composition of the mound have revealed that chalk, stones, gravel and antler picks were consistently used in an ordered fashion and combined in different ways to yield discrete patterns, textures and colours. "The most intriguing discovery is the repeated occurrence of antler picks, gravel, chalk and stones in different kinds of layering, in ways that suggest that these materials and their different combinations had symbolic meanings," Jim Leary says.
Silbury Hill has now been restored to as near its original condition as possible. All the known voids inside the prehistoric mound, and the crater on the summit, have now been re-filled. The hill is deemed a Site of Special Scientific Interest for chalk land vegetation and the public are no longer allowed to walk on to it.
Edited from BBC News, Heritage Key (26 October 2010), Swindon Advertiser (27 October 2010), BBC News (30 October 2010)
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