Silbury Hill Solved?

by Dennis on May 16, 2008

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Those of you with a general interest in what’s generally going on at Stonehenge and at Silbury Hill will doubtless be very pleased indeed at the extensive coverage both sites have received recently – indeed, there’s been such a deluge of “information” that I’ve found it impossible to keep up, although you can rest assured that I’ll get around to covering each and every piece that’s come out over the last month or so.

Anyway, it’s all nice, comforting stuff and better still, it’s vouched for by a plethora of experts. As we’re soon to discover from a BBC Timewatch programme, Stonehenge wasn’t a nasty place of death, sacrifice, ghosts and barbaric, lethal rituals, but a healing place, a hospital or some other form of therapeutic sanctuary, to which our ancestors hobbled from miles around and became cured of their various ills. In fact, the last time I went there, I could’ve sworn I heard the plaintive cry “Penny for an ex-leper?” melting on the wind, but perhaps it was my imagination.

As for Silbury Hill, it too was quite a nice place where the unique architecture was a complete irrelevance, because we learn from this article in The Guardian that whatever mystery there may once have been at Silbury Hill has now been as good as solved. As you can see for yourselves, there’s quite a lot of detail in Maev Kennedy’s piece, so I won’t bother repeating it here, but I have it on good authority that the experts have collated a fascinating array of times, dates, phases of construction and so on, and this scenario is currently doing the rounds by being formally presented to the Royal Society of Antiquaries and other such worthy bodies. Jolly good show.

Now, I didn’t spend a year digging inside Silbury Hill, so I’m ill-qualified to pass any kind of judgement on the highly original notion that it came into being as a by-product of our ancestors dancing energetically and working in a communal kind of a way to express themselves through shovelling tons of chalk into a variety of impressive shapes. This is the sincerely held opinion of the archaeologists who spent a year or so digging there, if not of the miners and engineers who worked for Skanska who spent even longer inside the huge mound. It just so happens that I am of a different opinion to the archaeologists, so until such time as highly persuasive evidence comes to light to prove the matter one way or another, the question of why it was built will have to remain a matter of opinion, informed or otherwise.

Be all that as it may, there was a clear factual error in the Guardian piece, so as I’ve got nothing better to do with my time, we might as well look into it, although I’m sure it will come as a major disappointment to anyone expecting a profound insight into why the hill was built and what went on there in prehistoric times. In the Guardian piece, under the heading “Silbury Hill gives up its final secret”, we read “Jim Leary, the archaeological director for English Heritage throughout the work, thinks he has solved a riddle which archaeologists have fretted over for centuries…”

Now, this is very odd indeed, because at the start of the excavations, Pete Glastonbury distinctly remembers meeting a gentleman named Fachtna McAvoy who was the Chief Archaeologist at Silbury Hill. I personally never spoke to or communicated with Fachtna McAvoy, but Pete Glastonbury did on several occasions and found him to be approachable, pleasant, helpful, enthusiastic and very well informed on all matters concerning Silbury Hill. This doesn’t come as a surprise, because if you enter his name on a search engine, you’ll find it attached to all manner of archaeological studies and specifically to studies of Silbury Hill, including pieces in British Archaeology and the like, where all the intriguing facets of Silbury Hill were discussed, including the moat, cisterns and so forth that were mysteriously left out of the recent BBC 4 documentary.

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If any further proof were needed, Pete Glastonbury took a photo (above) of Fachtna when he visited the site offices, so it is simply wrong to say that Jim Leary was “the archaeological director for English Heritage throughout the work”. Fachtna McAvoy was there for the first five weeks or so, but then he ceased to be there – why this should be, I do not have the faintest idea.

Otherwise, I mention purely in passing that prior to the excavations at Silbury Hill, the Silbury Hill Steering Committee were asked what would happen in the event of a disaster inside the hill, and the reply came back that an emergency finds release would be posted up on the English Heritage Site as an update to divert public attention away from whatever had happened. If we examine these updates, then we immediately see that such an update was indeed published, amazingly enough during Week Five of the excavations! Good Lord – what a coincidence!

I’m not suggesting for a moment, of course, that Fachtna McAvoy lies buried within the hill as a result of some collapse or other mishap, but I do have a very large degree of sympathy with someone working as an archaeologist who suddenly vanishes from public view, and it has to be said that this is certainly not the only such high profile instance I’m aware of. For many years, Clews Everard was the Director of Stonehenge for English Heritage and I found her to be exceptionally pleasant and helpful on every occasion that I spoke to her or met her – she assisted me when I made a ten minute film on Stonehenge for ITV West back in 1998 and good naturedly put up with my rather ill-informed questions, she always answered any queries I had about the monument and she was helpful in many other ways as well. Some time ago, for reasons I know nothing whatsoever about, Clews ceased to work at Stonehenge, and then there was someone called Dennis Price who worked in the original incarnation of the Communications Department at Wessex Archaeology, as well as teaching the sizeable work experience intake there..Gone, gone and never called me mother.

So, is there anything untoward about the clear error of fact in the Guardian piece? No, I don’t think so, because mistakes happen and the public are hungry for explanations to the mysteries of Silbury Hill and Stonehenge. They’re not interested in the various changes in personnel, and journalists can’t be expected to write about these things in the Procrustean format in which they’re obliged to write, whereas I have the luxury of being able to write what I want when I want.

I’m not usually of a suspicious nature and I’m doubtless as gullible as the next person, but when I consider the Matter of the Sede Vacante at Silbury, then add it to the many omissions in the recent BBC 4 documentary on Silbury Hill, I start to have my doubts. Then I think of the recent Newsnight piece on Silbury Hill, which was rather out of character for a programme otherwise renowned for its independent and fearless investigation.

And then I think of how Stonehenge is being mysteriously transformed into a nice, cheerful, restful, healing, curative shrine, or a latter-day Lourdes, when all the evidence I’ve seen clearly points towards it being a place of repeated violent death, dark gods, grim funerary rites, looming shadows, primaeval rituals and stars reeling in their courses as the builders fervently strove to commune with entities not of this earth. And it makes me wonder.

Ah well, the media and the various thrilling archaeological forums are perfectly free to adopt and perpetuate these new, sanitized views of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, so I wish the very best of luck and contentment to everyone concerned. If there’s one single thing we try to do here at Eternal Idol, it’s to do our level best to see these monuments through the eyes of the astonishing people who originally built them, our flesh and blood ancestors who doubtless experienced hope, yearning, sorrow and loss every bit as keenly as we do and whose imagination, ingenuity and sheer bloody-minded persistence leaves ours at the starting post. With all this in mind, I could be studying completely different monuments to the ones being discussed, so we’ll look more closely at this matter of perception in the next post.

As one of the purposes of this site is to encourage credible thinking about Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, perhaps you might like to ponder the matter for yourselves in advance. For centuries, Inigo Jones has been laughed out of court for his preposterous idea that Stonehenge was a Roman temple dedicated to the Sky God Coelus, but then we read this piece in Current Archaeology, which puts rather a different slant on things, I’d say.

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Words by Dennis Price.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr Dan H. May 19, 2008 at 12:29 pm

I think most of the problem with Stonehenge and Silbury is that the two monuments are completely unique, so you cannot sort out a general idea of what they were for from looking at lots of different sites.

Stone circles in general are a rather better proposition, especially in the light of the geophys results from Stanton Drew and the distribution of henges versus henge-less stone circles.

Generally speaking, henges are big lowland earthworks and stone circles are upland monuments, usually on plateaus near but never at the top of hills. In stone circles, sightlines seem to have been important, and when excavated the bulk of the found objects are on the south-east sides.

Pretty much the same culture was making both sorts of monument, but down in the lowlands the plant life was generally scrubby hazel, some forest and some open farmed areas; might a henge bank not be a simple if labour-intensive way to make your own artificial horizon that isn’t cluttered with tree cover? If this is the case, then the culture looks to be a sun/moon cult of some sort which built temples differently according to where they were situated.

Stanton Drew is interesting in that it is a complex of stone circles which seem to have had big upstanding timbers in them as well when in use. Geophysical and excavation around Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and Avebury all seem to show that the people who were building henges, stone circles and the like were also absolutely besotted with standing very big timbers up in holes to make huge enclosures, and huge circular wooden temples, in addition to shifting stones about the place.

This leads to an interesting speculation over Stonehenge. We know people don’t usually think up big unique things and build them without some practice beforehand, and indeed Stonehenge started out as a henge, then acquired bluestones and finally got the big shaped Sarsens. The henge is a known form, the bluestones are a known sort of monument (although that amount of transport is a bit extravagant) but the shaped Sarsens are unique.

What if things like Stonehenge were actually quite commonplace, but all the other ones were made of wood? All the others would’ve rotted and gone but the “Let’s make a wooden temple but do it in stone instead” one would still be here and through being unique and present for a long time would attract a lot more later attention.

JohnWitts May 19, 2008 at 8:03 pm

What is disappointing is that nothing much seems to have been discovered about the mound apart from the fact it was not circular but each level was a polyhedron (no height given) with a number of straight sides. That would surely dismiss any apparent resemblance to a pregnant Earth Mother and the like?

My recollection is that the hill can hardly be seen from Avebury and, perhaps when the bank was at its full height at the henge, not at all? This does, as David Field suggests, mean the site was important in its own right with perhaps the surrounding water and its mirror like qualities also significant?

On reading about ‘practice’ it brought to mind an article by Mike Pitts on the Sanctuary. There he found that that pits were dug and refilled in rapid succession, “the posts had to be removed and the pit filled” (thereby eliminating the idea of a roofed building) He puts forward the idea that the Sanctuary “was not a monument at all – it was a process” (and that seems familiar regarding Silbury) and ceremonial. However far from being ceremonial I think the process is far more likely to have been training in handling and erection of large objects. After all that isn’t that a young mans game?

What is clear is that a considerable amount of labour was required to construct the Neolithic earthworks and megalithic structures and that was not a random operation (and far from it if Professor Thom is to believed). So would that labour not have been gathered in one place to be trained and organised into teams for the seasons work?

Could Durrington Walls have become a sort of barracks where people stayed primarily to learn and/or work on Stonehenge. That may also explain the untidiness? They did not care enough about that accommodation to be tidy – they were transient!

Dennis May 19, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Very interesting indeed, so thanks very much for writing in and sharing your thoughts, Dr Dan. When you spoke about artificial horizons, I don’t know if you were referring to the counterscarp at Stonehenge? I seem to remember reading in Stonehenge in its Landscape that there were thought to be postholes beneath the internal bank that predated the entire monument, so these may have been the first structures on the site.

Otherwise, the earliest structure there was the counterscarp, and while I can see it as an artificial horizon on account of the series of interlinked pits that went on to comprise the ditch, I can’t help thinking that it served some other purpose. I’m not sure what that purpose was, but if the counterscarp’s made up of turf from the top of what would become the ditch, then the builders obviously had a clear idea in mind for this structure that was separate from the later internal bank. It’s arguably the most minor and insignificant structure at Stonehenge, but something about it mesmerises me and I can’t help thinking that we’re all missing something extremely significant.

Other than that, I can’t fault your logic about Stonehenge’s likely predecessors in wood, but it still raises more questions than it answers. Assuming that there are or were no other Stonehenges in Britain, why was this the only one? Why is this astonishing accomplishment in stone, with all the sophisticated joints and other architectural features, the only one of its kind? I’m personally inclined to think that the builders expected something back from the effort they put into making the monument and that whatever this something was, it worked to their entire satisfaction and there was no need to ever build another of its kind.

The transition from wood to stone makes sense, inasmuch as the builders clearly had practise with curves and joints, but the sheer effort that must have gone into building Stonehenge is many orders of magnitude beyond building a comparable monument in wood. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the “wood for the living, stone for the dead” argument, just because of sheer effort involved in transporting, dressing and erecting all the stones. Again, I can’t help thinking that if the stone monument was intended for the dead in some way, then the builders must have been rewarded with some thing that proved beyond doubt to them that their efforts were worthwhile.

I’d also be inclined to think along similar lines for Silbury Hill, if only on account of the uniqueness of the architecture. There’s also the matter that I’ve not properly explored, mainly because of a lack of diagrams to illustrate my point, that the first earthwork stage of Stonehenge is more causewayed enclosure than it is henge. This was briefly mulled over in Stonehenge in its Landscape and if I remember correctly, the view was that causewayed enclosures were dying out and that Stonehenge contained the fading remnants of such an idea.

I’m inclined to think exactly the opposite, however, and I can’t help seeing Stonehenge as the greatest and ultimate expression of a causewayed enclosure. These structures clearly worked to the satisfaction of our ancestors, so Stonehenge strikes me as the final word in causewayed enclosure building that was tweaked a little and which produced something that the builders regarded as perfection, and by this, I mean perfection in terms of functionality.

Anyway, thanks again for writing in and sharing your ideas, as they give us all food for thought – any others are welcome too.

Best wishes from

Dennis

Dennis May 19, 2008 at 10:50 pm

John,

I’m certain that a very great deal has been discovered about Silbury during the course of the last year, but when it’ll see the light of day is another matter entirely. If you look on the various archaeological forums, you’ll see a great deal of bitching about how archaeologists don’t share information with each other, so the likelihood of it being presented to the Great Unwashed any time soon is pretty remote.

You could also look at the negligible content of the recent BBC4 specialist factual commission on Silbury Hill, which left none of us a great deal the wiser despite supposed unfettered access, co-operation between organisations and all the other euphemisms that are routinely employed to describe such an utterly miserable presentation.

By way of stark contrast, the National Geographic are broadcasting a 2 hour docu-drama special on Stonehenge and the findings of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, but I’ll post up more information when I get it.

As for this business of a pregnant Earth Mother, words fail me, but the continued popularity of this book demonstrates the intense interest in the hill and it’s something that the powers that be could learn a great deal from.

As for the other matters you wrote about, then I’ll give the proponents of these theories the benefit of the doubt and accept that they’re sincerely held views arrived at after a great deal of study and thought. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and I’ve heard this theory about giving idle hands something to do applied to Stonehenge before now.

However, and I’m serious about this, I would far more readily believe that Merlin magically wafted the stones across Salisbury Plain or that aliens had something to do with the construction of Stonehenge than I would this idea that the process was more important than the end result, either at Stonehenge or Silbury Hill. If the builders had merely heaped up huge piles of stone, wood, shells or whatever on a given site, or deposited them in a vast hole in the ground, then I might be inclined to think otherwise.

As it is, I think that to write off two unique examples of design on a massive scale, and designs that have furthermore defied analysis so far, does no credit to the imaginations, ingenuity and persistence of our ancestors and it hardly reflects favourably on the acumen and diligence of those who put forward these ideas.

JohnWitts May 20, 2008 at 6:40 am

I fully agree that a certain amount of “dumbing down” for Stonehenge and Silbury appears to be an “Establishment” line. Big names seem intent on promoting theories which write down its importance.

Stonehenge is now considered part of a ceremony in which Woodhenge is given a more or less equal status which seems to deny the “facts” evident in the geography of the area.

It is clear other monuments around Stonehenge (with perhaps the exception is the Cursus) are subsidiary to it. The immediate area around Stonehenge seems so sacred that other monuments are located at a respectful distance Virtually nothing abuts Stonehenge.

Silbury is also unique. It does not seem concerned with burial and its later building may be part of the development of a different way of doing things?. It is contemporary with Stonehenge phase iii (about 2500 BC) and is it a coincidence this about the date “The Sentinel” was buried in the ditch at Stonehenge?

Dennis May 20, 2008 at 3:32 pm

I don’t think the term “dumbing down” adequately conveys the full horror of this process, but “dumber and dumberer” springs to mind, along with some other expressions at the edge of legality.

I see what you mean about other monuments being at a respectful distance from Stonehenge, but I’m 100% sold on the idea of a journey down the river that links Durrington Walls and Woodhenge with the lower section of the Avenue leading to Stonehenge.

I think that the discovery of an avenue of sorts leading from the river to Durrington Walls is a major discovery as far as Stonehenge is concerned, but it’s not something I’ve been able to write about yet, partly because I feel hamstrung by being unable to provide graphic illustrations. No matter, I’ll do a piece on it at some point in the future.

JohnWitts May 21, 2008 at 6:54 am

Denis

Thanks for your reply. I look forward to your piece and I will enjoy researching this further.

Personally I can’t get 100% behind anything. Certainly I am wary about applying beliefs from other cultures to prehistory. I feel that it is a rather desperate, typically academic, attempt to give some credence to a hypothesis. It may be all there is (at the moment) to make sense of the mysteries of the past but then the danger is with so few other straws to grasp too much can be made of it?

One thing that does puzzle me is why does the Durrington avenue have to LEAD TO to the river? Is there not a case that it may have have been required to supply the site i.e it LEAD FROM from the river? Perhaps it was a logistical device to supply the “festivities” or whatever as the site in mid winter could have been very muddy and slippy on exposed chalk?

Dennis May 21, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Actually, there are quite a few things concerning Stonehenge that I’m 100% sold on, although I’m always prepared to be persuaded otherwise about anything. I think that the original builders had a belief in an afterlife, I think that the Druids knew a very great deal about its construction, I think it had nothing to do with healing, I think that the builders were actively rewarded in some way for what they did, I think the builders had an obsession with the stars, I think that the northwest direction from Stonehenge was of huge significance from the earliest stage, and so forth.

While these and various others make sense in and of themselves, there are a great many other unanswered questions as far as I’m concerned, so it’s a matter of applying oneself and listening to the thoughts and suggestions of others in the hope that another tiny part of the jigsaw falls into place. On the basis of first principles, I think that the Mesolithic postholes and the counterscarp are central to understanding the minds of the builders, but yet again, I’m hamstrung as far as this is concerned through lack of graphics.

Otherwise, I don’t doubt that both Avenues worked in both directions for different purposes, but I still think that the river itself is a completely overlooked element of Stonehenge. It’s difficult to envisage it now, with the A303, bridges, roads and all the rest of it, but the presence of this broad, shallow and winding waterway going from Durrington Walls to Stonehenge is an incredibly evocative sight, to my eyes, while I’m sure that it played a pivotal road in a much more silent landscape of 4,000 years ago and one of these fine days, I’ll get around to writing precisely why I think this was the case.

JohnWitts May 22, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Dennis

If this site is anything to go by then there is a good book awaiting – do you have any plans in that respect?

Personally I am only learning as I go along which modifies my confidence. One day something seems perfectly plausible and the next I read something suggesting that it may not be such a good idea or worse the evidence just does not fit!

My one 100% conviction is that these guys were very very serious about what they did. What is easily explained away as primitive cult ritual has a lot more to do with the science of observation, planning and organisation without which nothing would have been achieved.

A strong feeling I have is that the “Druids” were the elite who managed these matters. They brought their knowledge through the age of the Celts to historical times (and then received bad press!)

If anywhere Ireland would seem a good place to look for “Druidism” and what the past beliefs could have been. Unlike France and Britain, the Romans had no influence there. Perhaps (and sorry to rattle the cage again) that study may be more applicable than findings in Madagascar (although a less inviting field trip)? It is certainly a line I intend to investigate.

Whatever it was they (the “Druids”) were in control of then it very much involved the dead (even if this was in the form of excarnated bones). It is also clear Solar and Lunar cycles were a fundamental concern and given the beauty of the night sky then why not the stars? Even if Hawkins couldn’t find evidence of stellar alignments at Stonehenge he did think astrology (which beget astronomy) would have been important.

I also believe that people then were no less intelligent than now – they just had different priorities which clearly did not involve “book learning”. However from it all there must have been a pay back which made life to easier if not practically (and why not given that Stonehenge was clearly a focus point for at least 2000 years) then at least spiritually and emotionally.

There was nothing to fear apart “from the sky crashing down or the sea bursting its limits” That sounds pretty good to me at a time when the frailties of the Capitalist system sees it destroying itself through its own greed.

And can explaining all this be left solely to the rigidity of Archaeology, a discipline bound by its own constraints? NO, but Archaeology’s failings to explain WHY has allowed pseudo scientists to cherry pick the facts (or make them up) that fit their ramblings whilst conveniently ignoring others which do not suit.

There has to be a middle way where all the evidence is prodded by logic, argument and reasoned speculation to arrive at a reasonable estimation of what the “Meaning of Life” (and death) was in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Eternal Idol seems a way of providing that ideal. Keep up the good work

Dennis May 24, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Hi John,

We’re all learning as we go along, that’s for sure. The more people that write in with their thoughts, the better for us all.

I don’t know a huge amount about the Druids in Ireland, but it certainly seems like a very profitable line of enquiry.

As for your idea of arriving at the “Meaning of Life” as far as our ancestors were concerned, I think it’s great and this is what I’m most interested in. Unless we accept certain things as immutable, such as our ancestors mourning their dead and wondering where their spirits went to, and their curiosity about heavenly bodies, then we’ll get nowhere. Otherwise, I don’t see any good reason why we can’t apply ourselves and try our level best to put ourselves in the position of our ancestors, but this involves considering a huge amount of factors or aspects of their lives, some of which we might think are unimportant. Still, I don’t think it’s impossible by any means and it’s by doing this that we might one day be able to view Stonehenge through their eyes.

Thanks also for the words of encouragement, as they’re always appreciated.

Best wishes from

Dennis

Michael Horsman June 6, 2009 at 1:01 am

Just a passing thought – I saw the recent Time Team special on Stonehenge. A theory was mooted at the end of the programme that a ruling dynasty originating in South Wales was behind the construction of Stone Henge – hence the blue stones from the Presceli mountains, could not Silbury Hill likewise be a symbolic expression of this dynasty’s Welsh homeland? An artificial mountain to please the ancestors?

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