Silbury Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire, is the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe. It was created around 2660 BC and stands 130 feet high, but its purpose is unknown. Despite centuries of study and excavation, it remains one of the most enigmatic of British prehistoric sites.
History of Silbury Hill
Radiocarbon dating indicates that the earliest phase of construction on Silbury Hill began about 2660 BC. It has been estimated that 18 million man-hours went into the building of Silbury Hill, which is the equivalent of 700 men working for 10 years.
Recent excavations (1968-69) have revealed three phrases of construction. Unlike at Stonehenge, these phases occurred relatively close together. Thanks to ancient ants trapped in the lowest level of turf, archaeologists know that the mound was started in late July or August, perhaps after the harvest. "Silbury 1" was a small mound made of layers of muddy gravel and dark layers of turf and soil. The turf layer was held in place with wooden stakes and covered with four layers of soil. This first mound was 120 feet (37 m) in diameter and 18 feet (5 m) high.
Silbury 2 was built soon after, over the first mound. It was made of chalk rubble dug from a ditch around the mound and arranged in a complex series of reinforced walls. This mound was 50 feet (17 m) high, 350 ft (110 m) in diameter, and incorporated 1 million feet (28,325 cubic meters) of chalk and soil.
During the third and final phase, "Silbury 3," the first ditch was filled in and a new one was constructed, enclosing a further 2.5 acres. The chalk was again built up in a precise manner, with six horizontal steps to maintain the 60-degree slope of the pyramidal structure. Only the top step was not filled, which can still be clealry seen today. Overall, Silbury Hill is notable for its advanced design — the prehistoric builders had excellent knowledge of soil mechanics.
In later times, Silbury Hill was used by the Romans and Saxons as a military lookout and possibly for burial. Related artifacts have been found dug into the surface of the mound. The hill was also used for fortification in the 11th and 12th centuries, which is when the terrace near the top of the hill was created.
Over the years, many legends have developed concerning the purpose and contents of the mysterious ancient mound. The most well-known legend, dating from at least the 17th century, is that it is the final resting place of King Sil, who was buried here on horseback.
By the 18th century, the legend had been embellished and the king and his horse were said to have become life-size figures of solid gold. A further tradition has it that the Devil was carrying an apron of soil to drop on the inhabitants of Malborough, but was prevented by priests at Avebury and he dropped it here instead.
What to See at Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill is a large and grassy conical hill with a flat top. It can no longer be climbed due to the erosion and damage it causes, and there is a fence around its perimeter. You can view the mound from quite close by, though, at a small parking lot along the highway.
Paths running to the top and the medieval terrace near the top can still be seen. From an aerial view, you can see a white chalk area on the top where the grass has been worn down by visitors. (See the satellite map at right for a clear view.)
Silbury Hill can be reached on foot from Avebury (about 1/2 mile). From the Avebury parking lot, look for a footpath on the other side of the A4361 that leads south towards Silbury Hill.
By car, you can park at a small parking area (free) along the A4. It is signposted as a Silbury Hill Viewing Area and is on the left side as you head east on the A4 from Avebury.
Quick Facts on Silbury Hill
|Categories:||earthworks; mounds; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.415703° N, 1.857505° W|
|Address:||A4 between Beckhampton and West Kennet|
|Phone:||01672/539250 (National Trust at Avebury)|
|Hours:||Viewing area always open|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Silbury Hill|
Map of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
Below is a location map and aerial view of Silbury Hill. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.