Silbury Hill is a prehistoric artificial chalk mound near
the English county of Wiltshire. It is part of the Stonehenge, Avebury
and Associated Sites
UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 39.3 metres
(129 ft) high, it is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in
Europe and one of the largest in the world; similar in size to some
of the smaller
Egyptian pyramids of the Giza Necropolis.
Silbury Hill is part of the complex of
Neolithic monuments around
Avebury, which includes the
Avebury Ring and West Kennet Long Barrow.
Its original purpose is still debated. Several other important
Neolithic monuments in
Wiltshire in the care of English Heritage,
including the large henges at Marden and Stonehenge, may be culturally
or functionally related to
Avebury and Silbury.
2.1 17th, 18th and 19th centuries
2.2 20th century
2.3 21st century
2.4 Comparable sites
3.2 Other suggestions
6 See also
7.1 Other references
8 External links
Seen from near Swallowhead Springs
Composed mainly of chalk and clay excavated from the surrounding area,
the mound stands 40 metres (131 ft) high and covers about 5
acres (2 ha). The hill was constructed in several stages between
c.2400–2300 BC and displays immense technical skill and prolonged
control over labour and resources. Archaeologists calculate that it
took 18 million man-hours, equivalent to 500 men working for
15 years (Atkinson 1974:128) to deposit and shape 248,000 cubic
metres (324,000 cu yd) of earth and fill. Euan W. Mackie
asserts that no simple late
Neolithic tribal structure as usually
imagined could have sustained this and similar projects, and envisages
an authoritarian theocratic power elite with broad-ranging control
across southern Britain.
The base of the hill is circular and 167 metres (548 ft) in
diameter. The summit is flat-topped and 30 metres (98 ft) in
diameter. A smaller mound was constructed first, and in a later phase
much enlarged. The initial structures at the base of the hill were
perfectly circular: surveying reveals that the centre of the flat top
and the centre of the cone that describes the hill lie within a metre
of one another. There are indications that the top originally had a
rounded profile, but this was flattened in the medieval period to
provide a base for a building, perhaps with a defensive purpose.
The first clear evidence of construction, dated to around
2400 BC consisted of a gravel core with a revetting kerb of
stakes and sarsen boulders. Alternate layers of chalk rubble and earth
were placed on top of this: the second phase involved heaping further
chalk on top of the core, using material excavated from a series of
surrounding ditches which were progressively refilled then recut
several metres further out. The step surrounding the summit dates
from this phase of construction, either as a precaution against
slippage, or as the remnants of a spiral path ascending from the
base, used during construction to raise materials and later as a
Silbury Hill, seen from the nearby hill on which West Kennet Long
Barrow is located
17th, 18th and 19th centuries
There have been several excavations of the mound. The site was first
illustrated by the seventeenth-century antiquarian John Aubrey, whose
notes, in the form of his Monumenta Britannica, were published by
Dorset Publishing Co. between 1680 and 1682. Later, William Stukeley
wrote that a skeleton and bridle had been discovered during tree
planting on the summit in 1723. It is probable that this was a later,
secondary burial. The excavation came in October 1776 when a team of
Cornish miners overseen by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel
Edward Drax sank a vertical shaft from the top. In 1849 a tunnel
was dug horizontally from the edge into the centre. Other excavations
were undertaken in 1867 and 1886.
Flinders Petrie investigated the hill after the First World War. In
1968 to 1970 professor
Richard J. C. Atkinson undertook work at
Silbury which was broadcast on BBC Television. This excavation
revealed most of the environmental evidence known about the site,
including the remains of winged ants which indicate that Silbury was
begun in an August. Atkinson dug numerous trenches at the site and
reopened the 1849 tunnel, where he found material suggesting a
Neolithic date, although none of his radiocarbon dates are considered
reliable by modern standards. He argued that the hill was constructed
in steps, each tier being filled in with packed chalk and then
smoothed off or weathered into a slope. Atkinson reported the C 14
date for the base layer of turf and decayed material indicated a
corrected date for the commencement of Silbury was close to 2750
After heavy rains in May 2002, a collapse of the 1776 excavation shaft
caused a hole to form in the top of the hill. English Heritage
undertook a seismic survey of the hill to identify the damage caused
by earlier excavations and determine the hill's stability. Repairs
were undertaken but the site remained closed to the public. As part of
this remedial work
English Heritage excavated two further small
trenches and made the important discovery of an antler fragment, the
first from a secure archaeological context at the site. This produced
a reliable radiocarbon date of c. 2490-2340 BC, dating the second
mound convincingly to the Late Neolithic.
Other recent work has focused on the role of the surrounding ditch,
which may not have been merely a source of chalk for the hill but a
purpose-built water-filled barrier placed between the hill and the
rest of the world.
In March 2007,
English Heritage announced that a Roman village the
size of 24 football pitches had been found at the foot of Silbury
Hill. It contained regularly laid out streets and houses.
On 11 May 2007, contractors Skanska, under the overall direction of
English Heritage, began a major programme of stabilisation,
filling the tunnels and shafts from previous investigations with
hundreds of tonnes of chalk. At the same time a new archaeological
survey was conducted using modern equipment and techniques. The
work finished in Spring 2008: a "significant" new understanding of the
monument's construction and history had been obtained.
In February 2010, letters written by Edward Drax concerning the 1776
excavation were found in the British Library describing a 40-foot
(12 m) "perpendicular cavity" 6 inches (15 cm) wide. As wood
fragments thought to be oak have been found it has been suggested that
this may have held an oak tree or a "totem pole".
Following the 2007-8 works the archaeologists raised the question of
Silbury Hill was the only such mound built by the people of
the time, or if there might be other comparable mounds that have not
been recognised as prehistoric. A strong candidate was felt to be the
Marlborough Mound, in the grounds of Marlborough College, 8.3
kilometres (5.2 mi) east of Silbury Hill, downstream on the same
River Kennet. The mound is 18 metres (59 ft) high, so less than
half the height of Silbury. There are archaeological and documentary
indications that the Marlborough
Mound had been used for medieval
fortifications, and it had been assumed it was built as a Norman
motte. However, the team of archaeologists, led by Dr Jim Leary,
arranged for core samples from two 10cm diameter boreholes to be
analysed. Charcoal found immediately below the mound showed it had
been built in or around the period following 2500BC, making it a close
contemporary of Silbury. Another contender, but which had been
all-but levelled in the 19th century, was at Marden Henge, 10
kilometres (6.2 mi) south of Silbury. Known as Hatfield Barrow, a
surviving fragment of what may have been a 15m high mound also gave
construction dates to the mid third millennium BC.
Mound Project, to investigate other likely mounds, was begun
in 2015, and from 154 potential motte sites across England, 20 were
selected for core sampling and detailed surveying. By late 2017
fourteen of these mottes had produced results confirming that they
were indeed built in the years immediately after the Norman invasion
of 1066. Three were shown to be later medieval mounds and one dated
from Saxon times, so may be a burial mound. Only one, Skipsea Castle
mound in East Yorkshire, was found to be prehistoric, but dating to
800-400BC, during the British Iron Age. On the basis of this
survey, it would appear that neolithic mound building was restricted
to the upper Kennet and Avon valleys, and that nothing elsewhere in
Britain comes even close as a comparison to Silbury Hill.
Few prehistoric artefacts have ever been found on Silbury Hill: at its
core there is only clay, flints, turf, moss, topsoil, gravel,
freshwater shells, mistletoe, oak, hazel, sarsen stones, ox bones, and
antler tines. Roman and medieval items have been found on and around
the site since the nineteenth century and it seems that the hill was
reoccupied by later peoples.
Aerial view of
Silbury Hill and the A4 road
Map of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, and nearby
The exact purpose of the hill is unknown, though various suggestions
have been put forward:
According to legend, Silbury is the last resting place of a King Sil,
represented in a lifesize gold statue and sitting on a golden horse. A
local legend noted in 1913 states that the
Devil was carrying a
bag of soil to drop on the citizens of Marlborough, but he was stopped
by the priests of nearby Avebury. In 1861 it was reported that
hundreds of people from Kennet, Avebury, Overton and the neighbouring
Silbury Hill every Palm Sunday.
Professor John C. Barret asserts that although we no longer know what
was at the top of
Silbury Hill and cannot suggest what specific
rituals or beliefs were associated with it, we can tease out basic
spatial concepts. He notes that any ritual at
Silbury Hill would
have involved physically raising a few individuals far above the level
of everyone else. These few individuals in a privileged position would
have been visible for miles around and at several other monuments in
the area. This would possibly indicate an elite group, perhaps a
priesthood, powerfully displaying their authority.
Writer, artist and prehistorian Michael Dames has put forward a
composite theory of seasonal rituals, in an attempt to explain the
Silbury Hill and its associated sites (West Kennet Long
The Sanctuary and Windmill Hill), from
which the summit of
Silbury Hill is visible.
Paul Devereux observes that Silbury and its surrounding monuments
appear to have been designed with a system of inter-related
sightlines, focusing on the step several metres below the summit. From
various surrounding barrows and from Avebury, the step aligns with
hills on the horizon behind Silbury, or with the hills in front of
Silbury, leaving only the topmost part visible. In the latter case,
Devereux hypothesises that ripe cereal crops grown on the intervening
hill would perfectly cover the upper portion of Silbury, with the top
of the corn and the top of Silbury coinciding.
Jim Leary and David Field (2010)  provide an overview of the
evolving archaeological information and interpretations of the site
and conclude that the actual purpose of this artificial earth mound
(Tumulus) cannot be known and the multiple and overlapping
construction phases – almost continuous remodelling – suggest
there was no blueprint and that the process of building was probably
the most important thing of all: perhaps the process was more
important than the Hill.
Silbury Hill with associated archaeological sites in the Avebury
region ca. 2600 to 2300BC
Silbury Hill is located in the Kennet Valley, at OSGB grid reference
SU099685 (51°24′56″N 1°51′27″W / 51.41556°N
1.85750°W / 51.41556; -1.85750). It is close to the A4, between
the towns of Marlborough and Calne, also the route of a Roman road
which runs between Beckhampton and West Kennet and runs to the south
of the hill. In 1867 the
Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History
Society excavated the east side of the hill to see if traces of the
Roman Road were underneath it. No traces were found and later
excavations south of the hill located the road in fields to the south
making a pronounced swerve to avoid the base of the hill. This was
conclusive proof that the hill was there before the road – but the
hill provided an alignment sight-line for the road.
The hill's vegetation is species-rich chalk grassland, dominated by
upright brome and false oat-grass, but with many species
characteristic of this habitat, including a strong population of the
rare knapweed broomrape. This vegetation has led to a 2.3 hectares
(5.7 acres) area of the site being notified as a Site of Special
Scientific Interest, this notification initially being given in 1965.
The site is unique in that its slopes have 360-degree aspects,
allowing comparison between growth of the flora on the
differently-facing slopes of the hill.
European Megalithic Culture
English Heritage Ancient Monument Listing". English Heritage.
^ Atkinson 1967.
^ Malone (1989), p. 95.
^ The measurement is taken from the present ground level at the top of
silt that has accumulated in the trench surrounding the tumulus, to a
depth of nine meters (Atkinson 1974:127).
^ a b Meirion Jones, Andrew (2012). Prehistoric Materialities:
Becoming Material in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. OUP.
^ Mackie, Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain (New York: St.
Martin's Press) 1977.
^ Atkinson 1974 p. 128
^ Staff writer. "A brief introduction: Silbury Hill". English
Heritage. Retrieved 17 May 2009.
^ a b Staff writer (2007). "Silbury Hill". National Monument Record.
English Heritage. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
^ Darvill, Timothy (1996). Prehistoric Britain (2 ed.). London:
Routledge. p. 93. ISBN 0-415-15135-X.
^ a b Field, David (May 2003). "Great sites: Silbury Hill". British
Archaeology. York, England: Council for British Archaeology (70).
^ Kerton, Nigel "Long lost theory on
Silbury Hill is uncovered"
Gazette and Herald 2 February 2010 
^ 'Prehistoric Avebury' by Aubrey Burl, Yale University press,1979,
^ Reuters News.
^ "Conservation Projects: Silbury Hill". Retrieved 19 January
^ BBC News – Tunnel open again at Silbury hill
^ Pitts, Mike (6 June 2008). "Silbury is safe". British Archaeology.
York, England: Council for British Archaeology (101): 8.
^ "Letters suggest
Silbury Hill 'built around totem pole'" 3 February
^ a b Leary, Jim; Marshall, Peter (December 2012). "The Giants of
Wessex: the chronology of the three largest mounds in Wiltshire, UK".
Antiquity Journal Vol. 86, Issue 334. Retrieved 12 August 2016.
^ a b Jim Leary, Elaine Jamieson and Phil Stastney (2018). "Normal for
Normans? Exploring the large round mounds of England". Current
Archaeology (published April 2018) (337). Retrieved 4 March
^ Robt. M. Heanley, "Silbury Hill" Folklore 24.4 (December 1913), p.
^ In Wilts Archaeological Magazine December 1861 p 181, noted by J. B.
Wiltshire Folklore" Folklore 26.2 (June 1915), p 212.
^ Barret, John. 1994. Fragments from Antiquity: An archaeology of
social life in Britain 2900-1200BC. Blackwell, Oxford. pp29-31
^ Dames, The Silbury Treasure
^ Leary, Jim and Field, David, 2010 The Story Of Silbury Hill, English
^ "Silbury Hill", BBC Publications 1969 - Refers to the excavations
for the BBC TV programme dealing with the new 1968/1969 excavations
BBC2 TV programmes about the hill.
Atkinson, R.J.C., Antiquity 41 (1967)
Atkinson, R.J.C., Antiquity 43 (1969), p 216.
Atkinson, R.J.C., Antiquity 44(1970), pp 313–14.
Atkinson, R.J.C., "
Neolithic science and technology", Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical
and Physical Sciences (1974) pp. 127f.
Dames, Michael, 1977 The
Avebury Cycle Thames & Hudson Ltd, London
Dames, Michael, 1976 The Silbury Treasure Thames & Hudson Ltd,
Dames, Michael, 2010 Silbury: Resolving the Engima, The History Press,
ISBN 978 0 7524 5450 4
Devereux, Paul, 1999 Earth Memory: Practical Examples Introduce a New
System to Unravel Ancient Secrets Foulsham
Malone, Caroline (1989). Avebury. London: B T Batsford and English
Heritage. ISBN 0-7134-5960-3.
Leary, Jim and Field, David, 2010 The Story Of Silbury Hill, English
Oliver, Neil. 2012 A History of Ancient Britain. Phoenix.
Vatcher, Faith de M and Lance Vatcher, 1976 The
Department of the Environment HMSO
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Silbury Hill.
British Archaeology magazine article on Silbury
Map sources for Silbury Hill
SSSI boundary at English Nature's "Nature on the Map" website
BBC Wiltshire: Going Inside Silbury Hill
Secrets of Silbury Hill, a short BBC report on the archeological work
at Silbury Hill
SSSI Citation sheet at Natural England
Silbury Hill, English Heritage
Coordinates: 51°24′56″N 1°51′27″W / 51.41556°N