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Silbury Hill (Avebury)

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Prehistoric monument near Avebury in Wiltshire.

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      29.09.2011 20:39
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      Silbury Hill - one of the oddest prehistoric monuments in Britain

      The landscape around Avebury in Wiltshire is one of extremes and excess; longer, higher, larger, most numerous and most concentrated are all terms that can be easily applied to the abundance of ancient sites that crowd into a relatively small area between Marlborough and Calne. Silbury Hill occupies a unique place even in this special setting - as well as being the largest surviving prehistoric man-made structure anywhere in Europe (indeed, nothing higher than it was made in Britain until the middle ages), it could creditably lay claim to being the most puzzling of them all. There it sits next to the A4, towering over passing traffic and the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside like a giant upturned pudding bowl. It is an outlandish sight, even in a landscape liberally peppered with the results of ancient activity, the purposes of which have been lost in the mists of time.

      The hill is in fact over 4,000 years old, with building having begun on it around 2,400BC. This time was an age of short (by our standards) life-spans and of great effort needing to be expended just to keep alive - yet people were also motivated to take on tasks which, given the resources available to them, must have seemed barely achievable when they started. Silbury Hill is a prime example of this. The mound is 37m (121 feet) in height, 30m (98 feet) wide across its flat top, and 500m (1640 feet) in circumference around the base; these are staggering proportions for something built not just without modern technology, but without metal of any kind.


      == Why Build It? ==
      Even living in a time where large man-made structures are nothing new, Silbury Hill is still a wonderful thing to see for yourself. It can't help but invite wonder as to what it may have been used for - why would the builders of it have put so much time and effort into constructing something without an obvious use? Past theories have ranged for the downright barmy to the halfway plausible. There is a story that the devil built it to hide a gold statue while on the way to Devizes, another that it was the burial chamber for a legendary warrior, others still that it is connected to Arthurian legend. One more practical theory suggested that the hill might have been built as a giant water cleaner, designed to filter rain water through its chalk and create a ditch of drinking water around it that was safer that drinking other water in the valley that could easily become contaminated by sheep waste. You start to think that this one could have been a good idea until you realise that the hill took anything between 100 and 400 years to complete; nobody needs a giant water filter that badly.

      My own thought upon seeing the hill for the first time was that it may have been a site used for sky burials. Nearby barrows - mounds of earth raised over the dead - suggest that bodies were not complete when they were interred. This may indicate that the bodies were first laid in one place to allow natural processes to remove the flesh, before the bones were collected and put in special burial places. A mound like Silbury Hill might well have lent itself well to such a process, bringing the dead closer to the sky until they were ready for burial, with the height of the hill and the flat top providing ideal conditions.

      My idea may well have been trumped by English Heritage, who manages the site, however. Back in 2000, great panic was caused by a collapse at the hill - caused, ironically, by previous archaeological excavations at the site. Back in 1776, the pioneering Duke of Northumberland, assuming the mound to be a giant barrow, thought to hire some miners and dig a shaft vertically down from the summit of the hill to see what on earth it had been built over (nothing, it transpired). A second tunnel was dug by a team in 1849, who chose instead to dig horizontally to the core of the hill, hoping again to find out why it was built (they didn't). Further, more scientific, excavations took place over the 20th century, revealing how the mound was built and an abundance of environmental data. Unfortunately, each dig structurally weakened the mound and all it took was some heavy rains for one of the old tunnels to collapse in.

      Work to reconstruct and stabilise the site took a long time, but the data from this work seems to show that the mound was originally a complete dome - so no space for sky burials to be held. How do they know this? Well, remains of medieval building work on top of the hill suggest that later residents of this area may have lopped off the top of the dome, flattening it and putting up structures that look decidedly defensive. Finds of Viking age arrows heads support the idea of a military use, and indicate that the mound wasn't simply abandoned after its original purpose was finished with: it was used afterwards, quite possibly in an entirely different way. This doesn't explain why Neolithic and Bronze People wanted such a thing to start with, but it certainly makes you think about the monument tin a whole new light.


      == Visiting Silbury Hill ==
      While there is a car park and viewing area close to the hill, there is no public access to the mound itself; given that I have just told you about the recent collapse of the hill, this is hardly surprising. Fences around Silbury Hill bar (legal) access to site, helping to prevent further erosion, collapse and other damage to the site. It is an impressive monument close up, but I found it could be better appreciated from a short distance away. If you take the B-road just east of the hill and head towards Avebury, there is a small parking area next to the West Kennett Avenue that seemed a lot quieter that the one intended for visitors to the mound itself. A short walk up the hill next to the avenue will give you a spectacular view over the valley and an excellent perspective on Silbury Hill in the surrounding landscape.

      You need a bit of thought and background knowledge to get the best out of a visit to Silbury Hill, but it is something I would certainly recommend to anyone with an interest in the past. If you want any further information than is provided at the site, a five minute drive or short walk will take you into Avebury, where you can buy comprehensive guidebooks (the one produced by the National Trust is only £4 and is very clearly written) or visit the Alexander Keiller Museum (see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-avebury.htm for details of opening times and cost), both of which provide interesting discussion about the site.

      Recommended - but remember to bring your imagination when you visit!


      == Practical Details ==
      Opening hours: English Heritage say "during reasonable daylight hours", but warn that things may change around the summer solstice (20th - 22nd June)

      Cost: Free

      Public transport access: The Stagecoach 49 bus service between Swindon and Devizes stops in Avebury, which is ¾ mile walk from Silbury Hill. See www.stagecoachbus.com for timetable.

      Road directions: Follow the A4 between Marlborough and Beckhampton - Silbury Hill is right next to the road.

      Nearest visitor facilities: Refreshments, public toilets and more parking are available in nearby Avebury.

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