Folkdays: Silbury Hill

The Avebury World Heritage Site is a prehistoric landscape which boasts stone circles, henges, burial mounds and barrows. It has been considered a site of pilgrimage since the Neolithic and Bronze age period in which these monuments were built, and continues to draw in visitors today. It’s a place rich with mystery and fascination, and much work has gone in to piecing together the lives of those who built it.

Yet unlike the barrows, built for burials, and the henges creating enclosures for large gatherings, the purpose of nearby Silbury Hill remains one of the most enduring mysteries. In this week’s Folkdays post, I’m going to explore this mystery a little.

For a few months now I’ve been longing to go back to Avebury. As a family, we used to go at least once a year, to explore the heritage site and go on walks in the surrounding countryside. It was a magical experience, as a young child, to go to this place steeped with prehistorical mystery and folk belief. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been able to source this undercurrent in more places – but at Avebury, it runs closer to the surface, and is less obscured by the modern world.

I think Silbury Hill is often overlooked, or seen as a bit of an outsider. It sits outside the epicentre of Avebury village, but is closer than West Kennet Long Barrow, and the Sanctuary. Perhaps it is because it lacks megaliths: the large stones that characterise stone circles, and sit at the entrance to barrows. With its grassy flanks, it blends in to the surrounding downland, and though it is too unusual a shape for a naturally occurring hill, it could be discounted as a spoil heap from some, less ancient period in time.

For me, Silbury was always ‘that hill that was filled with polystyrene’ – this being one of the earliest facts I learned about it. But now with a greater appreciation of how special it is, I set out to find out more about it. I read Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill, a book which sits somewhere between investigation, memoir, travel writing, and philosophical musing. Thorpe mixes what is known and understood about Silbury with his own creative interpretation: a style of writing which really appealed to me. Some of his ideas are threaded in below, but the purpose of this Folkdays post is to conduct my own act of exploration into this mysterious monument.

Construction on Silbury began in around 2400 BC, and after several stages of deposits, the hill reached the size it has retained (more or less) since: 30 metres high, and about 160 metres in diameter. Thorpe puts this into perspective by explaining that ‘if the Titanic sailed just behind [Silbury] in your dreams, you would only see the smoke from the funnels’. Its astonishing size makes it the tallest artificial mound in the world, built of chalk rubble and earth, and with only the crudest of bone, antler, and wicker tools. What is often cited as Silbury’s most fascinating feature is the imagination and organisation it must have taken to envisage and oversee such a project, most likely across several lifetimes.

Interpretations on Silbury’s purpose has varied; most seek inspiration from other similar monuments. The shape of Silbury resembles a motte, and indeed, evidence suggests that the top of the hill was flattened and a medieval fort build on top, but this was not its intention in prehistoric times. Looking to the surrounding barrows, and perhaps even to the pyramids of Egypt, a common belief was that Silbury was a burial mound for someone of importance. Legend tells that King Sil lies beneath the hill, which encases a lifesize gold statue of the ruler sitting astride a horse. Excavations have found no such treasures, nor any burial, inside the hill.

Other theories suggest Silbury was not for the dead, but the living. Its height elevated people up towards the sky, perhaps bringing them closer to where they believed the gods or their ancestors resided with the stars. With the hardships of life shrinking to insignificance below, I can imagine sitting atop Silbury would have been the ideal place for some sort of meditation or prayer. This elevated position – above all others and visible from miles around – would also have been an ideal place for rituals, maybe even sacrifices. It is symbolic of power, both physical and spiritual, and the awe it inspired might have been motivation enough for its construction.

Thorpe comes to another possibility. After watching the shadows of dancers magnified on the large, flat surfaces of the Avebury megaliths, he wonders whether Silbury provided a similar purpose. Built of chalk, Silbury would have been a brilliant white when initially constructed: the perfect backdrop against which shadows could be cast during fire rituals. Not only could Silbury raise people higher, but it could also show them grown to a superhuman size.

Folk belief has, of course, sprung up around Silbury’s mysterious purpose. The most enduring is that, on his way to bury the nearby town of Marlborough beneath a clod of earth, the Devil comes across a cobbler carrying a bag full of broken shoes. The Devil asks how far it is to the town, to which the cobbler cunningly answers: ‘such a long way off, I’ve worn out all these shoes since leaving’. Defeated, the Devil drops the clod where he stands, which then becomes Silbury Hill.

It is an entertaining folktale, and one that fits in a wider canon of stories which tell of topographic features being created by supernatural beings (my mind goes to the legend of giants and Holy Austin Rock in Kinver). But to think of Silbury as one clod of earth goes against the truth of its construction. It was a gradual process, taking approximately 4 million hours of labour, and spanning over several generations. Those who started the undertaking would not have been alive to see it finished. This has lead some people to question whether or not Silbury was ever truly ‘finished’, or whether it was the process of construction – the ritualistic depositing of material, an act of teamwork or community – that is the meaning behind the mound.

While its original purpose and meaning may never be truly understood, Silbury Hill is fertile ground for our own meaning-making. Shaped like an upturned bowl, I see the mound as a vessel of sorts: a container much like a time capsule. Excavations have found flints, sarsen stones, freshwater shells, mistletoe, oak, hazel, mosses, ox bones, and antler tines within the hill. Simultaneously, excavations have left iron arches, sheet metal, plastic tubes, wiring, and liquified chalk, pumped in to backfill the invasive tunnels – native chalk, but not those grains which preshistoric people toiled to deposit upon the mound. Silbury preserves, even that for which we feel regret.

Silbury preserves the past, but also the present and future. The flanks of the hill support a community of flora and fauna which marks it as a thriving ecosystem, so much so that it has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Climbing the hill has now been prohibited, to prevent erosion and reduce damage to this habitat.

There’s a little part of me that is dismayed that I will never be able to stand atop Silbury as our ancestors did, but of course, I do not wish to harm this monument. Silbury can only preserve our story, if we preserve it. For me, Silbury – and the stone circles and long barrows – preserves the magic of those visits when I was young, and I hope to go back there someday soon.

Adam Thorpe, On Silbury Hill (Little Toller, 2014), click here.

Artworks by David Suff, ‘Silbury Hill Sketchbook’, found here.

Silbury Hill, English Heritage

Silbury Hill, National Trust

‘Silbury Hill: A last look inside’, Current Archaeology

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