Silbury Dig: The Heart of the Mound

BBC2's Chronicle series "...filmed excavations at the Silbury Mound from 1968 to 1970, one of the largest operations mounted by the programme. This 1968 dig was not, however, the first attempt to uncover the secrets of Silbury Hill. The Duke of Northumberland sank a shaft into the mound in 1777. A tunnel was dug in 1849, while in 1922, Sir William Flinders Petrie cut a large trench into the base of the mound. This trench was reopened and re-examined as part of the 'Chronicle' series in 1969."

Silbury in Wintertime. Image credit Bozzer

Silbury and New Beginnings

William Morris once wrote of a visit he took to Avebury one summer afternoon. He was a schoolboy at Marlborough College, and would cycle out on his afternoons off to visit the stones and have a drink at the Red Lion Inn. In a letter written to his sister he describes wading through the water meadows around Silbury before he climbed to the top, and finding a snail shell which he kept. The water meadows have long gone, though maybe they will be returned soon to the fields round this great mound leaving the grass full of the flowers of summer.

Water is such an important part of our lives, it has a somewhat mystical aura as to its magical properties as well in history, its glassy surface reflecting back a mirror image, and there is evidence to suggest that the ditch round Silbury when filled with water could have been a part of the ritual ceremony bronze age people would have taken part in, progressing across a causeway to the sacred mound. The Winterbourne running beneath Waden Hill which turns with such abruptness at the Swallowhead Spring to become the Kennet River reminds us that springs have also been sacred as well. The Roman settlement discovered so recently in the water meadows, may also have come into being because Silbury had carried its sacred powers through time from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, several Roman wells have also been discovered round the base of Silbury.

Suddenly we are leaving the archaeological world behind and stepping into the natural world, where water flows, plants grow and people move about in the landscape busy at their chores. The first phase of Silbury brings us a sharp reminder of what plants existed at the time, the soil and turves heaped on the first mound have preserved the minute details of leaves, seeds and insects, here we find all the plants of a mixed ecology.
So what has this to do with saving heritage? History is most often the recorder of destruction, archaeology even more so, yet when there is something tangible to explore and preserve people take a lot of time and trouble to do just that. Silbury after the calamitous hole that appeared at the top of the mound has now been restored, it is once more whole in its outside appearance, the inner voids and tunnel also being filled. The scars have slowly healed and we can be grateful for that.

Yet we still often see the various monuments round the Avebury landscape as single units, isolated in their layers of history, we forget that Silbury once towered above a busy Roman settlement, the soldiers clattering past on the road that went to Aqua Sulis, or stopping for a rest, or maybe standing quietly beside the spring to contemplate the world of the gods. There is evidence of Saxon and Viking also on the mound, a fortified settlement, or perhaps a ‘Christian footprint’ of disapproval on this pagan relic – who knows… then there are the fairs and festivals of the medieval period when people celebrated the special festive days of the year; bull baiting is recorded in the 18th century, when between 4000 and 5000 people sat at the foot of Silbury and on a facing eminence… where there was also wrestling, bowling and dancing (The Gloucester Journal – 9th November 1736), and bonfires were lit and the poor bulls having met their demise were roasted and imbibed with ale on the following two days!

So let’s celebrate our heritage, that rich tapestry of history from the past, welcome in the New Year with a promise that we will protect this serendipitous cauldron of myth, history and archaeology; welcome the new pagans who once more come to dance at the stones of Avebury; the archaeologists who write, and then write once more, their varied interpretations of prehistory; even the crop circle makers who cleverly decorate the fields of wheat on the Marlborough downs, though I doubt the farmers are in the same mind; and finally in a wider sweep let’s celebrate the people who through extraordinary devotion and energy seek out all those prehistoric stones in the British Isles and abroad to add to our knowledge in the form of a gazetteer on The Modern Antiquarian, The Megalithic Portal and other sites – there is in the end more gain than loss…

Feature by Moss, Heritage Action member. This feature first appeared on the Heritage Action Journal - and is republished here with the author's kind permission.