A new book on Silbury Hill, from English Heritage, claims to be the most definitive survey of the ancient mound ever published, shaking up some long held assumptions about the construction and purpose of this mysterious structure, the largest prehistoric man-made feature in Europe.
New book claims Silbury Hill was Anglo-Saxon lookout
Foreword by Sir David Attenborough
Paperback, 224pp, with 100 colour and b&w illustrations.
Published by English Heritage, October 2010.
Featuring cover artwork by David Inshaw
English Heritage have just published a new book on Silbury Hill written by two experts armed with unrivalled information and knowledge from the latest excavations. Claiming to combine both scholarly research and readable narrative, this book sets out the archaeological story of Silbury.
Silbury Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire, is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, acquired its distinctive shape in more modern times, according to new archaeological evidence detailed in this book. Similar in size to some of the smaller Egyptian pyramids, it is traditionally thought that Silbury Hill, with its steep banks and flat top, was conceived and completed in pre-historic times, but new research presented in this new book by English Heritage archaeologists Jim Leary and David Field suggests the final shape was a late Anglo-Saxon innovation.
Leary and Field's account sets out the archaeological story of Silbury, beginning with the early recognition of its importance to antiquarian and archaeological investigations of the hill.
The book contains much information from the latest surveys of the hill, including the 2007-2008 re-excavation of the tunnel first dug between 1968 and 1970 by the archaeologist Richard Atkinson. This was due in part to the emergence of a crater on the summit in 2000 owing to the collapse of an 18th Century shaft; Atkinson's tunnel being re-opened in an attempt to repair the mound and fill in this hole in Silbury's summit. However, the 2007-2008 works also resulted in a further minor collapse, although now all known tunnels through the structure have been filled in and the mound re-sealed.
For the first time the results of this recent work are set out in detail, describing early activity on the site, the origins of the monument and the construction techniques used. Here, the authors propose a new theory of the process of construction and thus an new way of interpreting Neolithic monuments.
Leary states that samples taken from the Atkinson tunnel suggest the hill was created not in three stages as previously suggested, but in 15 distinct phases over about 100 years involving some three generations between 2400 and 2300BC, claiming that the people who built it were not so much concerned with the final shape, but more with the ritual of building the structure.
Detailed analysis of the structure points to an ongoing process of ritual construction; archaeological evidence suggests chalk, stones, gravel and turf were consistently used to create textures and patterns, prompting the author's suggestion that the process of construction might have been a means by which peoples from across a much broader area came together. Soils found within the hill seem to come from different areas, and could have been brought to the site by various communities.
The Story of Silbury Hill describes how the monument was seen and used by later communities; from the Roman small town that grew up around the hill - the inhabitants quite literally living in its shadow; to medieval buildings on the summit, suggesting the mound was adapted as a defensive position in the late Anglo-Saxon period.
The Neolithic banks of the hill underwent a certain degree of re-modelling during that period, with the top of Silbury being modified in the medieval period, probably around the year 1000. A massive post hole found on top of the hill during recent work is seen by the authors as evidence of an Anglo-Saxon look out post, with the suggestion that a wooden palisade crowned the summit during the period, with the interior housing either a small fort or a beacon; Leary suggests that the Saxons may have been protecting themselves from Viking incursions, with the hill standing next to a Roman road which invaders could have used.
The book includes reconstruction drawings to illustrate the authors' new interpretation of this iconic prehistoric monument. Finally, the book discusses what Silbury means to people today: its power and spirituality for locals, visitors, New Agers and Druids alike.
"A superb and authoritative work which communicates all the excitement of the quest to understand the mysteries of Silbury." - Barry Cunliffe
"This is the best book on Silbury to date, incorporating the results of all the recent investigations. It manages wonderfully to bring out both why the Hill matters to archaeologists and why it matters to everybody else." - Ronald Hutton
If this is the 'definitive survey' of Silbury Hill, let's trust that archaeologists can now refrain from digging further tunnels into this ancient mound before it finally collapses. Now the tunnels have been backfilled, hopefully the enigma of Silbury will remain.
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