Stonehenge's neighbour reveals prehistoric 'big society'
Release Date 20 June 2014
Dr Jim Leary, archaeologist at the University of Reading, is the author of a major new English Heritage monograph entitled Silbury Hill. Europe's largest prehistoric mound
But with so much attention on one monument it is easy to forget that it is not alone. Indeed there is a site down the road from Stonehenge that we do understand. One which is revealing secrets of our prehistoric past that its more illustrious neighbour refuses to part with.
At over 30m tall, and with a footprint three quarters the size of Trafalgar Square, Silbury Hill is every bit as majestic as Stonehenge. At precisely the time Stonehenge's giant sarsen trilithon stones were being erected, this enormous earthen mound was also being constructed 25 miles to the north. Why? Well after a decade of new research we finally have the answers. They weren't easy to find, however. The Hill posed difficult questions.
In the form that we see it today, the Silbury monument is the product of four millennia of weathering, erosion and modification. Exposure to the elements and intense human and animal activity making their marks across the surface. But the mystery mound's hidden contents had puzzled antiquarians and archaeologists for centuries.
In 1776 Colonel Edward Drax, aware of the Hill's size relative to the pyramids of Egypt, was curious about whether the mound covered an important burial. Much to his dismay his miners uncovered no ‘Tutankhamun'.
In 1849, the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (later the Royal Archaeological Institute) excavated the mound. Smaller interventions followed in 1867, 1886 and 1922 before Professor Richard Atkinson led a third major investigation between 1968 and 1970.
This was a landmark in the field of archaeology. Sponsored by the BBC, it was the first archaeological excavation to be televised live. It also revealed the first clues to Silbury's secret - four different phases of its construction.
However these revelations came at a price. In 2000 a 10-metre deep hole unexpectedly opened on the summit due to previous tunnels not being adequately backfilled. This void could have been avoided but for archaeologists like me it provided an opportunity to salvage something of its story. It provoked much public debate and scrutiny, and led to the reopening of the 1968-70 tunnel to conserve the Hill and prevent further damage to its exceptional archaeology.
This was the chance archaeologists needed. A chance to explore and record the body of Silbury Hill using modern methods and innovative techniques. This work has transformed our understanding of one of Britain's foremost prehistoric monuments.
Previously believed to be a piece of architecture, a statement on the landscape by a powerful individual, we now know that the Hill's construction was piecemeal and organic. It was developed gradually, the mound growing incrementally over four or so generations, perhaps as a community project - prehistory's answer to the Big Society.
From radiocarbon dating evidence we can estimate that it took between 55 and 155 years to build. Its construction beginning in the second half of the 25th century BC, with the final stages finished in the late 24th or early 23rd centuries BC.
The deposits within the centre of the Hill offer a rare insight into landscape of our prehistoric ancestors. The soil making up the core of the mound preserved a whole range of delicate biological remains that are rarely preserved on archaeological sites of this date; grass and moss, beetles and buttercup seeds.
This work has shown us that, later, a bustling Roman town grew up around Silbury Hill and thrived for centuries - generations of lives lived out in the shadow of the Hill - before disappearing from existence. And later still, when the Vikings were raiding deep into Wessex, that the mound was modified to become a defensive structure.
Silbury Hill has had a rich and exciting past. With each new generation it has been recast - to be understood and used differently. Like Stonehenge, every generation gets the Silbury it deserves or desires. With its future now secure, it will remain one of Europe's most remarkable archaeological sites.
So when you are planning your trip to Salisbury Plain spare a little thought, and some time, for a trip to Silbury Hill. This marvellous mound offers more glimpses into our prehistoric past that very few sites can match...including Stonehenge.