Silbury Hill: Burial ground for Neolithic 'souls'

Last updated at 11:52 25 October 2007

Europe's tallest man-made mound, Silbury Hill, may have been a tomb for the souls of dead Neolithic men, according to archaeologists.

English Heritage (EH) began a £1million conservation project to save Silbury Hill in Wiltshire from collapse in May following a three year extensive dig. It is riddled with tunnels from past excavations to discover why it was built.

Archaeologists discovered Neolithic builders introduced hundreds of sarsen stones into the hill, which they believe were considered sacred by humans of the period.

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Silbury Hill

English Heritage archaeologist and prehistorian Jim Leary said, "The new information we are obtaining from inside Silbury Hill is transforming our understanding of the site.

"The discovery of sarsen stones inside the final phase of the monument has also been a surprise. Given the almost certainly religious and ceremonial nature of Silbury, it is likely that these stones had some symbolic importance, potentially representing the spirits of dead ancestors."

Leary believes that Silbury, and monuments such as nearby Stonehenge and the stones at Avebury, were built in response to a period of great change in Britain, which at the time was being influenced by an influx of European cultures.

It does not appear anyone lived there in the Neolithic period, perhaps because it was too sacred.

Mr Leary said: "I personally feel that this monument is bound up with Swallowhead Springs, head of the Kennet River. The gravel core of the hill looks like river gravel and a lot of the mud looks like it came from the river.

"If this is a burial site, the burial is off-centre, as is often the case, and we will have missed it."

Terry Dobney, Arch Druid for the Avebury area, which includes Silbury, agrees. "It's a sacred mound, an effigy to the element of water," he said.

"Swallowhead Springs is a tremendous source of water."

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Silbury Hill excavation

Newly-discovered holes in the top of the monument indicate it may have been modified to house a military base in the 11th century, archaeologists said today.

Archaeologist working on the site have discovered a number of medieval postholes on the top of the hill, suggesting a large military fortress was built there in the Norman or Saxon periods.

It is believed they flattened its once dome-shaped summit to house the structure, built between 2400 BC and 2000 BC. Two iron arrow heads have been discovered on the hill, adding weight to the theory.

"We believe the top of the hill was literally lopped off around the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066), or even earlier when the Danes attacked in 1006, to create flat land for use as a military base," said Leary.

As well as establishing evidence of this possible episode of Saxon or Norman vandalism, experts have managed to re-date the third and final phase of the hill's construction to around 2000 BC, later than previously thought. The first phase was built around 2400 BC.

The current excavation has also allowed Jill Campbell, an EH archaeo-botanist, to uncover what she claims is the first fully preserved mature chalk grassland complete with seeds, ants, moss, beetles and grass, which still looks green under the microscope.

This was preserved on sections of turf at the very centre of the mound, laid over a core of gravel.

"The preservation conditions are unique," she said.

"We can tell it was grazed chalk land. It is evidence that the Neolithic people here managed and farmed this landscape.

"It is probably the first example of mature chalk grassland that we have found."

Trying to find out why the 130ft high chalk mound was constructed has puzzled historians throughout the centuries and has led to Silbury suffering serious structural damage.

Heavy rains in 2000 led to the collapse of a top-to-bottom excavation shaft commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland in 1776. As a temporary fix, EH plugged the hole in 2001 with polystyrene to stave off further sinkage.

More shafts were dug into the hill, weakening it further, in the 1800s and in 1968, Professor Richard Atkinson undertook an excavation of the site which was shown on the BBC.

EH experts, aided by civil engineering firm Skanska, have reopened and bolstered Atkinson's tunnelling to the centre of the hill.

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Silbury Hill excavation

Later this year they will begin removing all steel work from inside the mound before in-filling all the crumbling internal cavities with chalk - 1,000 tonnes lie crushed and ready to be pumped in when the time comes.

The aim is to seal it up by Christmas forever so no further damage is done. In the meanwhile, archaeologists have a limited time to scour the inside of the mound.