England: The Mystery of Silbury Hill, Avebury
Surely the most arrresting sight in southern England is not Stonehenge but the mysterious pyramid of Silbury Hill. This great earthen mound is completely unlike any of the other neolithic monuments of West Kennet, or indeed in all of Europe.
The hill, as seen from south, reminded me more of a pyramid than I expected, despite having seen many many images of it over the years. Believed to be contemporary with the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, the mound covers five acres and stands over 100 feet high.
Of course it must have gone through many changes in appearance and function over the millennia but Silbury’s basic form is not altogether different from that of a step pyramid. Perhaps its builders had traveled to Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East? The idea is not as far-fetched as we might think.
Today access is limited and the visitor cannot approach too closely. If you want to drive, as we did, there is a small parking lot not far away. From there fifteen minutes or so of walking will take you as close as is allowed. Or you can amble on foot from Avebury, a distance of around a mile.
Authorities are concerned that the ground under the hill may be subsiding and therefore endangering the structure. The theory holds that people should not be able clamber about Silbury Hill because this might further erode it.
Yet Silbury Hill is much more than a mound of dirt. The builders used alternating layers of clay, gravel, boulders, and sand to construct an artifact suitable for weathering many many centuries of erosive forces. It’;s impossible to fathom their purpose in expending such colossal person-hours (one estimate puts the total at 5 million) to build such an abstract edifice.
One of the pleasant workers at the principal Avebury parking lot suggested to us during our time in Avebury that under Silbury lies the remains of an entire Roman town but the notion is a fanciful one. We smiled politely and told him we found his idea, “Interesting.”
We likely will never understand the thinking that directed its construction. But perhaps the ancient inhabitants were celebrating their place in the divine scheme of the universe. Gazing at Silbury certainly can aid us in our own understanding, if we so allow.