Silbury Hill – Recent Findings only deepen the Mystery of Britain’s Great Pyramid.

martin cross By martin cross, 3rd Oct 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Europe>England>Hampshire, Dorset & Wiltshire

Mystery has always surrounded Silbury Hill, the largest artificial chalk mound in Europe, located near Marlborough and Avebury in Wiltshire. Recent excavations shed new light but only deepen the mystery.

Silbury Hill – part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Silbury Hill forms part of the extensive UNESCO site covering Stonehenge and the nearby Avebury ring in Wiltshire. It is a huge artificial conical chalk mound, resembling an earth-covered pyramid and built around the same time as the Pyramids at Giza. At 130 feet high, it is not only the tallest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe, it also rivals some of the pyramids on the Giza site. Although built in the same period as Stonehenge, its actual purpose remains unclear. Recent findings enable its dating to be confirmed but reveal even more mystifying details of its construction.

Excavations at Silbury Hill

Legend has it that Silbury Hill was named after an ancient King Sil who was buried under the mound together with a solid gold life-size effigy of himself seated on his horse. Unfortunately for the legend, several excavations from 1776 onwards have never unearthed any sign of gold.

Details of the 1776 excavation were discovered in the British Library in February 2010 in the form of letters written at the time by Edward Drax, who partnered with the Duke of Northumberland in organizing the digging of a vertical shaft from the top of the hill to its centre. No evidence of a burial chamber was found but a peculiar cavity 40-feet high by six inches wide was discovered in the centre of the hill. Wood fragments, thought to be oak, were discovered in the cavity, suggesting that the hill may have been built around the trunk of a sacred oak or a form of totem pole.

Other excavations followed in 1849, 1867, 1886 and after the First World War. An extensive dig from 1968 to 1970 provided much of the environmental evidence known about the site and also some carbon-datable material. This material suggested a Neolithic date but, by modern standards, the dating was considered unreliable.

Recent Findings at Silbury Hill

It had long been thought that Silbury Hill was a pre-Roman site. A Roman road had been unearthed, which makes a detour around the hill and, in 2007, the discovery of a large Roman village at the foot of the hill was announced, confirming a pre-Roman date.

During repairs to the hill caused by the collapse of the 1776 excavation, two small trenches were dug, resulting in the discovery of an antler that was reliably radiocarbon dated to c 2490-2340 BC, confirming that the hill was built in the Neolithic period around the time of Stonehenge.

A new archaeological survey, from May 2007 to Spring 2008, using the latest techniques has produced more precise dating of the materials found inside the hill, with some surprising results. Rather than the hill’s construction being the result of concerted effort over a relatively short time span in the manner that the Egyptian pyramids are thought to have been built, Silbury Hill was constructed in 15 separate phases over a period of 100 years or so from 2400 to 2300BC. It was also confirmed that the flat top and terracing on the sides of the hill were the result of fortifications during Anglo-Saxon times and later, and were not part of the original design. Antler picks, stoned gravel and chalk were consistently used in each phase but in different configurations to create discrete patterns with different textures and colours. The mound was not originally covered in turf but would have risen stark white from the landscape, a backdrop for the patterns being created.

It has also recently been discovered that Merlin’s Mound, in the grounds of Marlborough College, also dates from 2400 BC and is a smaller version of Silbury Hill. The findings refute the tenacious legend that Merlin’s Mound was the site of Merlin the Magician’s grave. The mound must now be considered as having a strong connection to its sister, Silbury Hill.

A new theory on the origin of Silbury Hill

These findings have given rise to a new theory, proposed in a new book, The Story of Silbury Hill by Jim Leary and David Field, published by English Heritage. Here it is suggested that the mound reached its present size by a process of accretion rather than initial design. Jim Leary, one of the co-authors, stated that “our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument – to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It’s as if the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important.”

Silbury Hill still leaves many unanswered questions

While interesting of itself, the new theory raises new questions and leaves others unanswered. If the mound grew from successive additions over several generations, why did its builders suddenly stop adding to it? Was there some sudden social or religious change or an invasion as yet undiscovered?

It could be that, rather than as the result of ‘compulsive tweaking’ the mound grew as the result of an event or ceremony held every seven years or so and that the different configurations symbolized the prayers and aspirations at that time or for the period until the next event or ceremony. Or a new phase may have been added on the accession of a new chief. If it was simply a matter of tweaking, would rearranging the existing surface elements not have served this purpose?

It could also be that the mound was envisaged at its present height right from the start but only built in stages every ‘jubilee’ year or as a multi-generational endeavour because of limited manpower.

The mound appears to have been built around a totem pole or sacred oak so perhaps its purpose was religious. Until new evidence can be found shedding more light on its actual original purpose, however, the new findings leave more questions unanswered than they have resolved.

How to Get to Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill lies close to the must-see site of Avebury. The various excavations over time have left the mound in a fragile state so for its own protection, physical access to the mound is now barred. It can be viewed, however.

There is a footpath from Avebury’s main car park leading south for half a mile on the far side of the A4361.

To reach Silbury Hill by car, head east from Avebury on the A4 until you reach a small, free of charge parking area, signposted as ‘Silbury Hill Viewing Area’.


Avebury, Britains Pyramid, Largest Chalk Mound In Europe, Marlborough, Merlins Mound, Neolithic Sites, Recent Finding On Silbury Hill, Silbury Hill

Meet the author

author avatar martin cross
I am a technical translator and writer, a former chef and marketeer, currently disabled. I write articles on food,, travel, politics, religion and technology among other topics.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
3rd Oct 2011 (#)

This is great information on the ancient site of Silbury Hill. I would love to see this historical site.

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