Why would prehistoric man go to the effort of building an artificial mound that is 131 ft high with a base of more than five acres and using more than 248,000 cubic metres chalk, clay and packed earth? It’s the tallest ancient monument in Europe and is so perfectly conical that many people who see it for the first time assume that it was made recently rather than several thousand years ago. Although there have been several official and informal excavations over the centuries, and it is now possible to accurately date at least one phase of the construction to 2400 BC, the purpose of the hill near Avebury (Wiltshire) remains a mystery. (As are the many crop circles that appear nearby.) What is certain is that it was a massive undertaking that required millions of man-hours of labour. One official calculation estimates that it might have taken as many as 500 labourers as long as 15 years.
However, the infrastructure required to support 500 workers is many times that number. The reality is that it would have required thousands upon thousands of people and years of back-breaking effort as it’s roughly the same size as one of the smaller pyramids of Ancient Egypt.
Whoever decided that this structure should be created definitely had both the influence and the vision to see that the project was taken to completion. The natural temptation is to assume that it was some form of religious caste but there simply isn’t any evidence for this theory either.
It appears as if the mound was constructed in several phases with each successive level reaching higher than the previous one.It is possible that the Silbury prominence started out as a stone circle with an inner ring that, over time, grew into a mound. Stones were used to support the edges and this provided both the base and the core for future growth. According to various sources the initial mound was approximately 16ft high. Archaeologists are uncertain as to the total construction period but it was probably measured in decades if not longer. The second phase seems to have involved piling chalk and clay on top of the central elevation from a ditch that would have encircled the central feature. As Silbury Hill continued to grow the ditch was backfilled and the overall effort seems to have focused on achieving both the size and shape that can be seen today. Research seems to show that each level was buttressed with stones to ensure that the sides did not collapse. This is very similar to the techniques used in the construction of stepped-pyramids.
Although originally a prehistoric construction from the same period as the Avebury stone circles – Silbury has clearly been used by successive generations. Proof of this is the variety of minor artefacts that have been discovered from periods throughout the past few thousand years.
Several excavations of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire have been carried out over the centuries. It was first recorded by the renowned antiquarian John Aubrey, who not only made notes regarding the structure but also drew a sketch of the hill. These were published as part of his work on the ‘Monuments of Britain’ between 1680 and 1682.
The discovery of a buried skeleton and the reigns of a bridle were recorded by William Stukeley with reference to a tree planting that took place on top of the hill during 1723. It’s generally believed that this burial dates from long after the hill was completed and its original purpose forgotten. However, this find may have been the catalyst, or at least added some weight, to the legend of King Sil. This folklore tale claims that within the mound was buried a golden statue of the ancient ruler and his horse. Therefore, as a word, Silbury could derive from the words ‘Sil’ and’ beorg’ (burial mound). No trace of this treasure has ever been found nor do serious archaeologists believe that it exists.
During 1776 a vertical shaft was sunk from the summit of Silbury Hill under the supervision of Colonel Edward Drax and the Duke of Northumberland. A second tunnel was excavated horizontally from the side to the centre in 1849. Neither of these two endeavours recorded finding anything of major significance.
The truth is that very little is known about this prehistoric monument or the nearby Neolithic complex of Avebury. Researchers do believe that it was started during the month of August due to the discovery of specific winged insects but even this may be subject to debate as there has almost certainly been some climate change over the past millennia. Silbury Mound itself has suffered meaningful damage from random excavations that took place over the years and extensive work has been carried out to stabilise the sides and centre. It is no longer possible for walkers to climb the hill due to the damage caused by erosion. There is obviously speculation as to why Silbury was built and the importance of its location near to the Avebury Stone Circle as well as other ancient monuments. But … even today the mystery remains and nobody knows for sure.
Camping in the Forest Campsite
Long Harry Road, Postern Hill, Marlborough
Wiltshire, England, SN8 4ND
+44 (0)845 130 8224
- Address: Silbury Hill, The A4, Avebury, West Kennett, Wiltshire, England, United Kingdom, SN8 1QH
- GPS: 51.41573333,-1.857677778
- Part of UK: England
- Sat Nav Postcode: SN8 1QH
- Entrance Fees: Free Entry to viewing park
- Disabled Access: Excellent for viewing park
- Visibility from Road: Excellent