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.
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.
Words by Dennis Price.