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Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow

by Moira Allen

Just south of Avebury, and generally considered part of the overall Avebury temple "complex," stands Silbury Hill. In a county full of prehistoric "mosts," Silbury Hill is yet another: The tallest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Rising like a shallow, flat-topped cone from the fields, it stands 40 meters high and covers about five acres, with a base 1640 feet in circumference.

Silbury Hill

Work on the mound began around 2660 BC, during the first week of August -- a date determined by the discovery of winged ants and certain types of seeds within the mound. This places the beginning of construction right around the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasad or Lammas, which has led many to speculate that the mound may be associated with harvest rituals. Another factor contributing to this view is the fact that the mound cannot be seen from Avebury until the crops in the intervening fields have been harvested.

Experts aren't entirely in agreement on how the mound was built. Some believe that it was built in three stages, starting with a gravel core contained within a ring of stakes and sarsen boulders. This core was then covered over with chalk and earth, most of which was dug from the ditch that once surrounded the mound. It's not clear whether this ditch was dug intentionally (perhaps to be filled with water to form a sort of reflecting pool), or whether it was simply a byproduct of the quest for building material, as it was subsequently filled in. The final phase of construction involved building six concentric terraces, which were then filled in and smoothed over with more rubble and chalk (which was by this time being brought from elsewhere). Only one terrace remains, about 17 feet below the summit. In all, more than 12 million cubic feet of chalk and earth went into the building of the mound.

Silbury Hill

Originally the mound was thought to have been built in concentric layers, like a cake (hence the terraces). Another view, however, is that it was actually built in a spiraling pattern, rising from the bottom to the top. Again, experts disagree on why this might have been the case. Some believe that the spiral indicates a ritual processional path to the top of the mound; others believe that this was simply a much easier method of construction than the layer-cake approach. Given that the terraces of the mound were apparently smoothed over as part of the original construction process, and not at some later time, the second theory seems more likely; if the spiral had been intended as a road, one would imagine that it would have remained in use for a period of time before being covered over. In fact, the mound does not appear to have been designed to have been "climbed" at all; its smooth walls do not permit one to simply walk up to the top, without carving a new pathway (which, based on drawings of the site by William Stukeley in his 18th-century book Abury - A Temple of the British Druids, appears to have been done in later times). Quite possibly, therefore, the mound was not built to be used, so much as to be observed from another location.

As to the purpose of the mound, the only thing that theorists can truly agree upon is that no one really knows. Theories abound, linking the mound to fertility rituals, harvest rituals, the Mother goddess, ley lines, and even "dragon lines" (based on its resemblance to lung-mei mounds in China). Local legend attributes the mound to the devil, who was planning to dump a load of earth on nearby Marlborough but was prevented by the priests at Avebury. In another version, it is a clever cobbler who thwarts the devil. The cobbler was bringing home a load of shoes to repair when Old Nick confronted him and asked, "Old Cobbler, is it far to the town of Marlborough?" Perhaps noting that his questioner's feet wouldn't have fit into any of the shoes that he was carrying, the cobbler quickly replied that it was far indeed, for he had worn out all the shoes in his pack trying to get there! Discouraged, the devil gave up his plan and dropped his load of earth by the side of the road.

Silbury Hill

Yet another theory, still prevalent in the 18th century, was that the mound was the barrow of a great king named "Zel" or "Sil." Zel was thought to have been buried sitting upright upon his horse (which was perhaps meant to explain why such a tall mound was needed). A variant upon this theory was that the mound housed a life-size gold statue of a horse and rider. This is the theory that Stukeley ascribes to. Stukeley claims that the remains of a horse and rider were indeed discovered in 1723:

In the month of March, 1723, Mr. Halford order'd some trees to be planted on this hill, in the middle of the noble plain or area at top, which is 60 cubits diameter. The workmen dug up the body of the great king there buried in the center, very little below the surface. The bones extremely rotten, so that they crumbled them in pieces with their fingers. The soil was altogether chalk, dug from the side of the hill below, of which the whole barrow is made. Six weeks after, I came luckily to rescue a great curiosity which they took up there; an iron chain, as they called it, which I bought of John Fowler, one of the workmen; it was the bridle buried along with this monarch, being only a solid body of rust . I immerg'd it in limner's drying oil, and dry'd it carefully, keeping it ever since very dry. it is now as fair and entire as when the workmen took it up... There were deers horns, an iron knife with a bone handle too, all excessively rotten, taken up along with it.

This, however, is the only record of any sort of burial uncovered upon the mound, and judging not only by Stukeley's description of its proximity to the surface, but also by his drawing of the bridle itself, it must have been considerably later than the construction of the hill.

Silbury Hill Bridle

Excavations into the interior of the mound have been conducted in 1776, 1849, and 1967, but all have proven disappointing in terms of uncovering artifacts or any indications of the purpose of the mound. The only artifacts discovered within the mound seem to relate to its construction (or perhaps to the construction workers' lunches), and include various twigs, antler tines, grains, flints, clay, ox bones and freshwater shells. Unfortunately these shafts were not always filled in correctly, leading to subsequent erosion and slippage of the mound itself.

In fact, more Roman artifacts have been found in and around the mound than any other, including more than 100 coins in the ditch that once surrounded the mound, and a platform cut into the mound containing ashes from burnt artefacts. Many other Roman shafts and wells have been found nearby, and Stukeley's illustrations point out a "Roman camp" not far from Silbury. And even as this article was being written, archaeologists discovered evidence of a large-scale Roman settlement at the base of the hill that no one had previously known about. This village straddles the Roman main road where it crossed the River Kennet, and was laid out with buildings and streets perpendicular to a main north-south thoroughfare. The Roman Road itself breaks the usual ruler-straight pattern of most such roads, to detour around the hill. The village was discovered by non-invasive sensing equipment during the process of restoring damage to the hill.

Today Silbury Hill stands on private land and is fenced in to prevent climbers from causing further damage and erosion. It can be viewed from the road or from a small carpark nearby. Sadly, many people ignore the posted signs and fences and clamber up the slope anyway; a rather scruffy-looking bunch of visitors was doing just that when we viewed the mound, and then descended to have a picnic at its base. So perhaps it is best to observe the mound as its builders probably did: From a respectful distance.

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long BarrowClose by Silbury Hill and yet another on the list of "biggest" in Wiltshire is the West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the largest chambered barrows in Britain. (Wiltshire, by the way, holds the record not only for "biggest" but "most," as it contains 148 of Britain's 260 long barrows; to get an idea of their density, just stand on the grass at Stonehenge and survey the skyline!)

West Kennet Long Barrow, which is managed by English Heritage, stretches more than 320 feet from east to west and stands 8 feet high. Only a small section of the barrow, however, was actually used for burials. From the upright sarsen stones at the entrance (which were repositioned in 1956), one enters the forecourt, and thence into a passage grave that extends about 33 feet into the barrow. This passage leads to five separate burial chambers: Two on each side, and a larger polygonal chamber at the end.

Construction on the barrow began around 3600 BC, about 400 years before the first building began at Stonehenge. It was thought to have been used as a communal tomb for about 1000 years, though in all, only about 46 burials have been found, ranging from infants to old people. Unfortunately, many of the bones had been removed from these burials, and no one seems quite sure whether this was done at the time or by subsequent looters. A doctor in the 17th century was known to have removed several bones for use in compounding medicines (I'd rather not speculate as to what kind of medicines!). Eventually the passage and chambers were filled in with earth and stones, amid which have been found bits of pottery, bone tools and beads.

As with Silbury Hill, very little is known about the purpose of the barrow. According to one legend, a ghostly white figure appears on the mound at dawn on Midsummer, accompanied by a white hound with red ears. Since this type of hound was traditionally associated with the underworld and the Wild Hunt (and with later "fairy" mounds), this suggests that the mound itself may have been considered an entrance to the underworld at one time.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Unlike Silbury Hill, you can visit the barrow. You'll find a small car park outside the village of West Kennet; from there, you'll hike a steep half-mile to the ridge. Check the English Heritage website for opening times and tour hours.

More Information:

Silbury Hill

Earth Mysteries


Stone Pages

Prehistoric Britain

British Archaeology

William Stukeley's Abury

News accounts of Roman village discovery

West Kennet Long Barrow

Mysterious Britain

Earth Mysteries

English Heritage

Prehistoric Britain

Moira Allen has been writing and editing professionally for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and several hundred articles. She has been a lifelong Anglophile, and recently achieved her dream of living in England, spending nearly a year and a half in the history town of Hastings. Allen also hosts the Victorian history site VictorianVoices.net, a topical archive of thousands of articles from British and American Victorian periodicals. Allen currently resides in Maryland.
Article © 2007 Moira Allen.
Silbury Hill photos by Moira Allen; Long Barrow photo by Patrick Allen.


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