- England -

"...O that sound or sign, vision, or legend,
Or the eagle glance of science,
Could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!"

Emmeline Fisher, 1849

The largest man-made mound in Europe, mysterious Silbury Hill compares in height and volume to the roughly contemporary Egyptian Pyramids. It is located near Avebury in the English county of Wiltshire. It is a part of the Neolithic complex, located around Avebury, which includes the Avebury Ring and West Kennet Long Barrow, which we had already described in our previous Chapters.  The original purpose and significance of this ancient monument, built around 4 750 years ago - still remains unknown...

The 37 metre high mound has been subjected to several excavations. In 1776 a shaft was opened at its summit, and in 1849 an attempt to dig the horizontal tunnel to the centre of the structure has begun. These and subsequent investigations showed that the hill is constructed of layered chalk rubble, taken from a surrounding ditch, and began as a 40 metre diameter mound which later increased to 160 metres.

"Abury, a temple of the British druids", William Stukeley, 1745

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 base of the hill is circular and makes 167 metres (548 ft) in diameter. The summit is flat-topped circle of 30 metres (98 ft) in diameter. The slope angle of the sides makes 27 degrees. 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.

Below is the scheme with the measurements of Silbury Hill, taken from the James Fergusson's book "The megalithic monuments of all countries, their age and location", 1878.

Les monuments mégalithiques de tous pays, leur âge et leur destination. James Fergusson, 1878

The site was first illustrated by the XVII-th 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.

"Abury, a temple of the British druids", William Stukeley, 1745

"Abury, a temple of the British druids", William Stukeley, 1745

"Abury, a temple of the British druids", William Stukeley, 1745

The excavation came in October 1776 when the Duke of Northumberland asked Colonel Drax to tunnel into the mound. He brought in tin miners from Cornwall and sank a vertical shaft in the hope of finding the burial chamber and various mythical treasures. But all they found - was a thin slip of oak.

In 1849 a tunnel was dug horizontally from the edge into the centre. Other excavations were undertaken in 1867 and 1886.

Recent Excavations at Silbury Hill. By ALFRED C. PASS.
(Read December15th 1886.)

Flinders Petrie investigated the hill after the First World War. In 1968 to 1970 professor Richard J. C. Atkinson undertook work at Silbury. Atkinson dug numerous trenches at the site and reopened the 1849 tunnel, where he found material suggesting a Neolithic date of the monument. He suggested a version, that the hill was constructed in steps, each tier being filled in with packed chalk and then smoothed off or weathered into a slope. According to Atkinson research the date of Silbury Hill construction was close to 2750 BC.

After heavy rains in May 2002, a collapse of the shaft, which was excavated in 1776, caused a hole 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 (whilst not contradicting the 2750 BC date for the initial construction).

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, as was supposed by the previous research, including 1849 excavations, 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.

English Heritage has been engaged in work at Silbury since May 2000 when a vertical shaft originally dug in 1776 re-opened up on the summit of the hill.

"King Sil of Silbury Hill", Gerry Palmer, 2012

After temporary stabilisation, a major investigative programme revealed further local problems associated with lateral tunnels dug at the base of the hill in 1849 and 1968. After much public debate and scrutiny, a scheme for permanent remedial works was agreed and work was duly carried out between 2007 and 2008.

On 11 May 2007, the construction and development company Sweden company "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. A programme of emergency conservation work has started. A series of tunnels dug into the mound by antiquaries and archaeologists in the XVIII-XXth centuries had compromised its stability. Detailed recording went in hand with engineering work, and the tunnels are now filled in to prevent further collapse.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. (An assessment of the conservation risks and possible responses arising from antiquarian and archaeological investigations deep into the Hill), English Heritage

(Click on the image to enlarge)
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. (An assessment of the conservation risks and possible responses arising from antiquarian and archaeological investigations deep into the Hill), English Heritage

The film below is briefly showing the works, providing by English Heritage on Silbury Hill.

This film is produced by Chris Corden Productions for English Heritage.

Below are the photos of the Entrance with temporary structures and the engineering works inside the tunnels.

The Heritage Journal


Current Archeology

Many questions remain to be explored. Foremost among them is: why? What was the purpose of Silbury Hill – what did it represent, what function did it perform, what was its meaning to the people who went to such great efforts to build it?

Post Scriptum:

Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,
If now we pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent Day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper through the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torch-light pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still.
O that it were not! O that sound or sign,
Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance
Of science, could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!
O that the winds which kiss thy flowery turf
Could utter how they first beheld thee rise;
When in his toil the jealous Savage paused,
Drew deep his chest, pushed back his yellow hair,
And scanned the growing hill with reverent gaze, -
Or haply, how they gave their fitful pipe
To join the chant prolonged o'er warriors cold. -
Or how the Druid's mystic robe they swelled;
Or from thy blackened brow on wailing wing
The solemn sacrificial ashes bore,
To strew them where now smiles the yellow corn,
Or where the peasant treads the Churchward path

Emmeline Fisher (1825-1864)

This poem she wrote was devoted to the opening of Dean Merewether's 1849 tunnel into Silbury. The poem, along with other items, was placed in a ceramic urn and left at the end of the Merewether tunnel where it lay undisturbed before it was finally unearthed by Richard Atkinson during his and the BBC's 'activities' at Silbury at the end of the 1960s.

Emmie's poem was placed in an envelope with the following inscription:

Lines on the Opening of
Silbury Hill, written by
Miss Emmeline Fisher,
Daughter of The Reverend William
Fisher, Canon of Salisbury and
Rector of Poulshot in Wiltshire
August 1849.

* * *

<< Back to the map of Great Britain


© Copyright 2014 of ISIDA Project & Khemit School. All rights reserved.