On Silbury Hill, by Adam Thorpe, is another fascinating addition to the Little Toller Monograph series (I have previously reviewed Snow, Landfill, Eagle Country, and Limestone Country – all these books are also worth reading). Thorpe first became interested in Silbury – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe – while he was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, an exclusive public school where he boarded during the 1970s while his parents lived abroad due to his father’s work. As well as providing the reader with information about the enigmatic hill and the varying theories about its original purpose, Thorpe writes of his time in Wiltshire as a schoolboy, and later in life when he would return to visit. Like many who are drawn to the area – I have lived nearby for over three decades – he finds something elemental in his reaction to the location and its ancient artefacts.
Silbury Hill was built, probably over several generations, more than 4000 years ago. She is around 130 feet high – the equivalent of a 13 storey building – and has a base covering around 5 acres. Nobody knows why she was created although there are many theories. Archaeologists have drilled down into her, dug tunnels through her and taken away samples to try to work out her purpose. She is neither a burial mound nor a treasure trove. There are few clues as to what she may have been used for.
What is known is that she was one of three man made mounds in an area that also includes the Avebury stone circles and its associated avenues. Nearby are several large barrows that exist to house the dead. There is evidence of massive gatherings in ancient times suggesting significant rituals were enacted. Today, gatherings are of tourists or those who claim a religious link.
“Sometimes I think that invasive archaeology is a metaphor for our whole current situation: the process of discovery necessitates destruction.”
What we know about Silbury Hill is due to the investigations that broke her open and allowed modern man in. These were halted earlier this century and repairs made to the damaging invasions. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the location must now be protected. Visitors are no longer granted access to the hill.
Thorpe writes of his time at boarding school and also of the visits he made at that time to his family in Cameroon. He found an appeal in what he perceived as the simpler, less materialistic lifestyle of certain Africans and compares this to what is known of Britons in Neolithic times. The latter, of course, had short life expectancy and high death rates. Their bones show signs of painful afflictions – it was hardly an ideal way of living.
At the time of Silbury Hill’s construction, much of the country was still wooded and large predators roamed free within their dark canopy. Man was transitioning from hunter gatherer to farmer but would still be reliant on the small community he lived within and contributed to.
“the examination of period burials reveals not only a ghastly catalogue of ways to suffer and die (plenty of fractures and wounds, severe arthritis, tooth abscesses, gum disease, rickets, polio, spina bifida, tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, malaria), but the likelihood that ‘four people in ten died before they were twenty’ – not including the 50 per cent who didn’t make it past their third year.”
As a schoolboy, Thorpe visited East Kennet Long Barrow – 5000 years old and the longest in Europe – and ‘had an extraordinary sense of my own mortality’.
“I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by this earthwork, and those stretching out onto the future.”
The ancients were closer to death and, perhaps therefore, revered the ancestors. Rituals would reflect this and their reliance on nature for survival.
“death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands in a colossally evident way.”
“Alternatively, Silbury might have been a brilliant means to unite a people with a common project that gave their brief lives a meaning.”
Perhaps the hill draws so much interest because its purpose remains unknown. It has existed through several rounds of climate change – warming and cooling, with associated changes in water levels – and multiple ages as man’s habits and beliefs have endlessly shifted. She has been probed and speculated over. Her surroundings have been desecrated and rebuilt. It is her age and continuing existence – from such ancient times through to now – that demands pause for contemplation.
“So frail the summer,
I would like to plait it
like grass, and keep my place
in the book of my life
forever, now, here.
I’ve noticed this is not possible.
Something is always ushering us.”
The author writes in a personal and compelling style that pulls the reader in. He weaves the memoir elements with a wider history of the area and how these have contributed to shaping his own development. In a time when man has all but detached himself from his surroundings – the cars on the busy A4, that runs adjacent to the hill, whizzing by in too much of a hurry to pause at the millennia old wonder they may glimpse as they pass – it is good to consider how transient our existence, inventions and prideful acquisitions will be. Silbury Hill remains a mystery – just one facet of its allure – but stands as a monument to that which can endure, and the value of reflection.
On Silbury Hill is published by Little Toller Books.