F Rosa Rubicondior: Old Dead Gods - Lessons from Silbury Hill

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Old Dead Gods - Lessons from Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill, the largest Neolithic earthwork in Europe
Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire, UK, is the largest Neolithic man-made earthwork in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It was made about 4,750 years ago, would have taken about 18 million man-hours of labour or 500 men working for 15 years to construct - and nobody knows why it as built or what it was for.

It seems highly likely that religion was a factor if not the entire reason for its construction. Let's see what we can learn from it.

Composed mainly of chalk and clay excavated from the surrounding area, the mound stands 40 metres (131 ft) high and covers about 5 acres (2 ha). It is a display of immense technical skill and prolonged control over labour and resources. Archaeologists calculate that Silbury Hill was built about 4,750 years ago and that it took 18 million man-hours, or 500 men working for 15 years (Atkinson 1974:128) to deposit and shape 248,000 cubic metres (324,000 cu yd) of earth and fill on top of a natural hill. Euan W. Mackie asserts that no simple late Neolithic tribal structure as usually imagined could have sustained this and similar projects, and envisages an authoritarian theocratic power elite with broad-ranging control across southern Britain.

Silbury Hill, seen from West Kennet Long Barrow
The hill has been there so long that we need to add another 9 metres to it's height to allow for the now silted up ditch that surrounded it. It takes an awful lot of rain and frost to move that volume of earth through natural erosion.

Because of its construction and because it, almost uniquely, has a 360 degree aspect at the same angle to the ground, not only does it have a rich flora but offers a unique natural laboratory for examining how plants grow in different light conditions. For this reason alone, Silbury Hill is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has a large population of a rare parasitic plant which grows on the roots of the upright brome (Bromopsis erecta) grass that grows on it - knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior).

A short walk up a nearby hill is another spectacular Neolithic construction - West Kennet Long Barrow, a chambered burial mound, again, one of the largest of it's kind at 100 metres long and about 2.5 - 3 metres high. It is constructed from huge stone slabs or 'sarsens' covered with soil and chalk rubble. Construction of this structure started in about 5,600 BCE and would have required a mere 15,700 man-hours to construct, though it's not clear if that included the time and manpower needed to bring the sarsens from the surrounding area to the top of a hill.

West Kennet Long Barrow. Four burial chambers are off the main passage with one at the far end.
Incidentally, the word 'sarsen' for the large stones that were used to construct so many of these monuments derives from the Wiltshire dialect pronunciation of 'Saracen' which was what Muslims were called. To the limited imagination of local people hundreds of years ago, the world was divided between Saracens and Christians. The stone circles were obviously not Christian so must have been Saracen and therefore Satanic. For this reason a local vicar (probably Thomas Mayn between 1298 and 1319 or John de Hoby between 1319 and 1324) led the villagers of Avebury in acts of vandalism to topple and destroy the stones forming a massive stone circle around the village, until one fell on a man and killed him. This, and the Black Death which hit the village soon after, seems to have saved the remaining stones.

The construction of the West Kennet Long Barrow commenced about 3600 BC, which is some 400 years before the first stage of Stonehenge, and it was in use until around 2500 BC. The mound has been damaged by indiscriminate digging, but archaeological excavations in 1859 and 1955-56 found at least 46 burials, ranging from babies to elderly persons. The bones were disarticulated with some of the skulls and long bones missing. It has been suggested that the bones were removed periodically for display or transported elsewhere with the blocking facade being removed and replaced each time. Recent re-analysis of the dating evidence suggests that the 46 people all died within 20 - 30 years of each other, and that the tomb was open for 1,000 years.

The latest excavations also revealed that the side chambers occur inside an exact isosceles triangle, whose height is twice the length of its base. Artefacts associated with the burials include Neolithic Grooved ware similar to that found at nearby Windmill Hill.

It is thought that this tomb was in use for as long as 1,000 years and at the end of this period the passage and chamber were filled to the roof by the Beaker people with earth and stones, among which were found pieces of Grooved ware, Peterborough ware and Beaker pottery, charcoal, bone tools, and beads. Stuart Piggott, who excavated this mixture of secondary material, suggested that it had been collected from a nearby 'mortuary enclosure' showing that the site had been used for ritual activity long after it was used for burial.

That's 46 people who died in the space of a single generation but whose grave was left open for 1000 years, and it seems that the bones were removed periodically, possibly to be put on display! What power were these bones believed to have had? Who were these people in life that they commanded such reverence? Whatever it was, the cult seems to have lasted for 1000 years. And then they were sealed in by new-comers - the Beaker People.

The last time, until last weekend, that I went to West Kennet Long Barrow was almost 50 years, ago on a school trip - more than half a life-time and yet a mere tick of the clock in the timescale over which West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, Avebury Circle, and the plethora of other Neolithic earthworks and burial mounds to be found within a few square miles of Silbury Hill, have existed and were in use. Yet I still remember that strange feeling of connectedness I felt as I stood outside the Barrow looking over to Silbury Hill. I could almost imagine myself as an ancient Briton looking over at the construction going up in the valley below.

Is this why Silbury Hill and the barrow were constructed there, so some assumed spirit of the dead could watch over the people below? Or was Silbury Hill built to put some important ritual on display, visible to people on the surrounding hills? Or maybe to elevate someone to the same height as the 'magic' bones in the barrow. Were the bones themselves taken there to be used in a ritual or to help spread their magic? There is no evidence of any significant construction on top of the hill and no evidence that the hill is a burial mound. The sad fact is that we simply do not know why it was built or what its purpose was and a televised excavation in the 1970s served only to do serious damage to the interior of the hill.

But we can make some fairly good guesses about the society that constructed them and the other monuments in the area.

To command a labour force sufficient to undertake these massive works tells us the society was far from being the hunter-gatherer or subsistence farming societies we normally think of as Neolithic or early Bronze/Iron age societies. The construction workers need feeding and clothing because they couldn't both be digging chalk and soil and piling it up or dragging huge sarsens up hills, and growing their own food. This was an advanced economy with a stratified society able to tax the people and use the taxes to pay for engineering projects on a grand scale. Taxation, of course, doesn't require money but can consist of taking a share of the produce.

Neolithic hut such as would be used by the builders of Silbury Hill
This was a command economy, and also a productive one, producing enough surplus wealth to pay for these works. As such it would have been politically organised with a leadership hierarchy and almost certainly a priesthood and one which, judging by the elaborate burials complete with grave goods, a religious society which believed in some sort of afterlife. That 18 million man-hours of labour probably needed 30 or 40 million man-hours or more of additional labour to support them. By no means a small, scattered or disunited population.

Judging by the death-cult nature of most of their surviving constructions it's safe to assume that religion was a major part of their life and this implies a powerful priest class. Was it the priests who were the real power-brokers in this society, sanctioning the rule of tribal leaders or where they priest-kings in their own right?

The fact again, here in pre-Celtic Neolithic Britain as in the Celtic pre-Roman Britain I wrote about recently, is that we simply do not know what their religion was, what gods they had, what those gods were believed to do, good, bad or indifferent, or how they tried to interact with and influence these gods or nature spirits nor how strongly they claimed to have felt their presence.

These gods too are long-gone, existing, like all gods only in the minds of their believers, and yet these gods, or rather the belief in them, and probably fear of what they held in store for people after death, motivated an entire culture to obey the commands of its leaders and to toil to construct these monuments or to support the workforce in their labours.

Just like the Ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids, temples and tombs, the Greeks who built the Parthenon, the Incas, Aztecs, Toltecs and Olmecs who built their ceremonial centres, the Chinese who made and buried the Terracotta Warriors and the Romans who built temples all over Europe, and just like the Christians and Muslims who for the last couple of thousand years have built their churches, cathedrals and mosques, this was all for gods who existed only in their minds. When their believers were dead and gone, their gods died with them.

The power of gods is directly proportional to the number of their believers. When the number of their believers reaches zero, gods disappear without trace - and nobody notices that they've gone. And we will not notice when the currently fashionable clutch of imaginary gods are gone either. Life will continue without them just as it always has.

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