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Home » Archaeology » The Mysteries of Silbury Hill

The Mysteries of Silbury Hill

by Shelly Barclay

Silbury Hill is a man-made hill in legendary Wiltshire County, England. It is part of a landscape that boasts the Roman Road, Stonehenge and numerous other feats of long ago man. It dates back to roughly 4,750 years ago and was built by an unknown society. It is the largest of such hills in England, taking up about five acres and standing 131 feet in height. It may have even been taller when it was built, as the summit is now leveled off, though thought to have been originally rounded.

SilburyHill_gobeirne

Silbury Hill by Greg O’Beirne

Silbury Hill is constructed of chalk, clay, gravel and stones quarried from the surrounding area. Conservative estimates say it would have taken hundreds of workers 15 years to build. Other estimates say it took much longer. Some myths have arisen about the building of the hill, such as Satan dropping a pile of earth. However, the hill likely had a more humble, though no less fascinating beginning. Why it was built and who built it is as big a mystery as Stonehenge, possibly even greater.

Estimates based on carbon dating of an antler found at Silbury Hill put construction between 2490 and 2340 BCE. It is believed to have sat for thousands of years after whoever built it moved on and was then discovered by the Romans. Evidence of this is the Roman Road, which clearly veers around the hill, and a Roman village, which was discovered at the base of the hill in 2007. The hill fell back into relative obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 17th century. That is when the earliest writings on the hill appear.

Archaeological digs at the site began around 1723 by accident. Someone was digging at the peak in order to plant a tree and found a skeleton. Assuming this is true, it is likely that the burial took place after the hill was built and probably after it was abandoned by its builders. It is highly unlikely that the skeleton is the remains of the person for whom the hill was built. It does not appear to be a burial mound. In 1776, a shaft was dug through the top of the hill into the center. Nearly 75 years later, a tunnel was dug through the side.

The early excavations not only turned up very little, they also damaged the integrity of Silbury Hill. Heavy rains have caused the shaft to collapse, creating a hole at the summit. The tunnel has also become unstable. Work is ongoing right now to stabilize Silbury Hill so England does not lose this national treasure. So what have we been able to glean from Silbury Hill will the scant findings of the few digs conducted there?

Winged ants were found inside of the hill. This indicates that construction began in August. This conclusion would have to take into account any climate changes and habit changes of these insects between then and now. Even if correct, it tells us very little. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing if the time of year construction began was significant to these people, so it gives us no clue as to who they were and if they possibly moved elsewhere to form another culture or if they were wiped out somehow. An antler piece was discovered that was able to provide what is thought to be an accurate carbon date. That is about it.

Silbury Hill itself might be able to tell us a bit about the people who built it, but that is assuming any hypothesis about its purpose is correct. Its very height suggests it was built to elevate something above others. Perhaps it was a place for a ruling elite or a religious elite. Another theory is that it was a huge water filter of sorts. Given what we know of prehistoric societies, the former is more likely. Megaliths often have a religious connotation or were graves. As the latter has been all but ruled out, the former is looking more and more likely. However, even this is uncertain. There are literally no clues. Nearly everything of significance obtained from the site comes from later cultures. All we know for sure is that it was built a very long time ago and that it did not come to be there by accident.

Sources
Kennedy, Maev, Archaeologists discover Roman village at foot of Silbury Hill, retrieved 2/17/12.
Watkins, Jack, Silbury Hill mystery soon to be resolved, retrieved 2/17/12.
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