Into Silbury Hill

I saw it once by moonlight. Returning on the Marlborough Road, in the dark, surrounded by the silver-washed, gently curving chalkland. Then dreaming..forgetting…and a little before the Avebury turning… it reared up from the right, huge and impossible. Surely too big to be made, a conical flat-topped mass. A passing Neolithic shock.

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I remembered 1968, my mum calling me to the TV. Live archaeology and Professor Atkinson driving his tunnel to the centre. I had no idea what Silbury was then. I never saw it until I was 18.

Then in the 90s, after moving to Wiltshire, sitting in Devizes Museum at the WAC meeting. At the end, we drank coffee and Gill and Andrew said: ‘yes, we were there with Atkinson.We walked with him to the centre’. Wow! What a thing!

The National Trust have never owned Silbury but have managed it as part of their Avebury Estate.

In May 2000, we were excavating the Lacock Rockworks. Rosie, the Avebury archaeologist ranger, arrived late. She had been called to the top of Silbury with Chris, the NT property manager. ‘There’s a hole!’ she said, ‘a vertical shaft right down to the centre of Silbury’.

English Heritage fenced it off and considered the options. The Hill was not as stable as might be imagined.

For many generations visitors had wondered. Was this the tomb of a great king? Something so huge had surely been raised in honour of someone exceptional and his grave must be furnished with fabulous treasure. So, in 1776, Edward Drax, with some support from Hugh Percy duke of Northumberland, directed a group of miners to sink a vertical shaft to the centre. They were disappointed, no tomb was found. Silbury was further disturbed in 1849, by Rev John Merewether, who organised the digging of a new horizontal tunnel, no finds for him either except his report of preserved organic remains near the centre. Then a pause for a century plus and Professor Atkinson, famed for his work at Stonehenge, directed the campaign I had seen on TV as a child. Another horizontal tunnel with branches.

The experts shook their heads. Something must be done. A conference was called and the players assembled at Devizes Corn Exchange. I sat and heard the debate and remembered Professor Bradley strongly advocating the solution. Reopen Atkinson’s shaft, assemble a crack team and employ the very best archaeological techniques that the 21st century can offer. Create a new exceptional record and then backfill with packed chalk…and seal for all time.

And so it came to pass. The tunnel was opened, the section through the hill was scanned, drawn and photographed in great detail. Samples were taken and analysed…..and then, the invitations went out.

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In the autumn of 2007, we assembled at the portacabins for the health and safety talk. David Attenborough, almost 40 years later, had just returned again from the centre… and now it was our turn.

Along a track…Silbury looming over us…we circled the perimeter of the artificial mountain, to arrive at a concrete portal at its base. The worn green door had a futuristic S on the front, not superman.. Silbury of course, and above it on the lintel ..1968.

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Jim Leary, the English Heritage site director, gave an introductory talk on the threshold,…then the door was opened and we were allowed to enter. ‘we few, we happy few’.

A line of steel ‘U’ frames ran into the distance illuminated by rigged strip lights a network of wires and ribbed ventilation tubing but amongst it all and between the frames the stratigraphy of the mound. ‘Here is the trampled chalk’ Jim pointed. The ancients had worked here compressing the chalk rubble with their feet as they built their mountain.

Further in and the frames were bent and twisted. The torch illuminated a void sloping upwards. Was this where Professor Atkinson cut Rev Merewether’s tunnel?

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Deep below the mound and far from the entrance, the white chalk walls turned brown. We had crossed the inner ditch and here were the beginnings of the construction. Silbury had been built in successive phases but the C14 dates tell us that all the work took place over a short period, c.2400-2300 BC. They started small, heaping gravel from the nearby river and then cutting the turf and topsoil and heaping it into a mound.

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We reached the far end and here was the treasure where we stopped. The famous turf stack where the 1960s diggers had told their stories of green grass and beetles’ wings. Extraordinary environmental survival, sealed within the earth. Many more samples were taken and the list of plants and invertebrates grew and told of a landscape of chalkland pasture. Though we do not know the exact year, the insects tell us that this organised and presumably vast community of farmers cut this turf in the summer. Some of the creatures that were found, only emerge from their larvae in August.

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They didn’t stop. They kept building. What drove them on? They dug deep into the chalk creating a massive moat that  still fills with water after heavy rain in winter. They heaped the chalk higher and higher. A monument to the very end of the Neolithic..as if to say. ‘See! This is what we can do with bone and wood and stone’. That was before the strangers came with their clever rocks from far away. Rocks that could be melted and mixed and beaten to create sharp blades and shiny ornaments.

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Nancy and I retraced our steps, back down the tunnel and out into the light. Best to go to the Avebury Henge, to walk beside the megaliths and then to take tea in the Stones restaurant beside the tithe barn.

To savour the electricity of the moment.

Archaeology SW Day 2014: Hambledon Sunset

This is the time to review the year and say thank you. The Christmas Archaeology Day is a good time to meet up, celebrate and share SW conservation work and discoveries.

We met at our new office at Tisbury.

The tithe barn at Court Place Farm beside the new NT office at Tisbury.

The tithe barn at Court Place Farm beside the new NT office at Tisbury.

Nancy organised lunch and talked about two Gloucestershire sites. Crickley Hill, which has had its archive and finds assessed this year (Crickley is a hillfort overlying a causewayed enclosure excavated 1969-93) and Chedworth Villa (analysis of the finds from the museum have highlighted some important new information about its Roman owners.. watch this space).

Nick (see FragmeNTs) talked of developments at Stonehenge and Avebury. Results from geophysical survey beside the great Avebury henge indicate an early settlement there and she also gave the latest on the plans for a dual carriageway tunnel under the line of the present A303 beside Stonehenge.

Jim brought a ‘Jamaica Inn’ style atmosphere to the room as he spoke of the wreck of the frigate’Royal Anne’ on Stag Rocks south of the Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula. In 1721, a naval ship, bound for Barbados was driven onto the rocks during a storm. The locals picked over the remains to remove valuables. The bodies of the crew are thought to lie in a narrow valley above the cliffs known as Pistol Meadow. Bournemouth University have geophysed the field and a scatter of trench and pit-like anomalies suggest the locations of mass graves.

Mid afternoon and we piled into cars and headed for Hambledon.

Last year we went to Whitesheet Hill on the Stourhead Estate, it rained hard and we got soaked but a good experience. The year before, a windswept bitter day. Cley Hill near Warminster circled by a war of showers, rumbles and shafts of sunlight. This year looked very promising.

The view of Hambledon from the Childe Okeford road. It looks a bit like a great green whale.

The view of Hambledon from the Childe Okeford road. It looks a bit like a great green whale.

We set out late. A squadron of 5 cars. The route rather convoluted between Tisbury & Childe Okeford. Out of the Nadder valley, over NT’s Win Green Hill, along the brink of the chalkland valley bordering the NT Fontmell and Melbury Estate and down into the Blackmore Vale. 3 cars made it to the lay-by. A phone call spoke of a traffic jam at Fontmell Magna so we climbed the hill. Meg who’d completed the Hidcote Estate Archaeological Survey this year, Carol researcher of Westbury College Gatehouse, Alice fellow Chedworth archaeologist and an astrophysicist from English Heritage.

Friday's sunset through the SW gateway into Hambledon Hill. The photo is taken from a large oval terrace cut into the slope of the hill. This was the site of a significant round house in the Iron Age.  This thatched timber framed building would have been the most prominent structure if you were to enter the hillfort over 2000 years ago. The entrance track splits in two in front of the building. The way forward either NW or SE of it. You would have entered the fortified settlement through double-leaved timber gates. Now the gateway is a grassy gap between banks as shown in the picture.

Friday’s sunset through the SW gateway into Hambledon Hill. The photo is taken from a large oval terrace cut into the slope of the hill. This was the site of a significant round house in the Iron Age. This thatched timber framed building would have been the most prominent structure if you were to enter the hillfort over 2000 years ago. The entrance track splits in two in front of the building. The way forward either NW or SE of it. You would have entered the fortified settlement through double-leaved timber gates. Now the gateway is a grassy gap between banks as shown in the picture.

The sun was setting as we neared the summit. The sky cloudless and clear. The SW entrance was protected by a funneled corridor approach between banks. There was a gap between the ramparts which once held massive double-leaved gates. We passed through.. and in front of us was a raised platform cut into the slope. We stood on it and looked back towards the sun. This terrace must once have held a large timber round house and as we continued up hill, smaller hollows and platforms could be seen all around us. There had been 100s of buildings here over 2000 years ago.

At the top of Hambledon’s chalk ridge we found the remains of a Bronze Age burial mound.The low winter sunlight was showing up the faint earthworks beautifully and traces of narrow ridge and furrow here were evidence that the summit had been ploughed briefly during the Napoleonic wars. Now the long concentric circuits of massive ramparts and ditches could be better appreciated.

The view south from the southern rampart across the hillfort interior. Middle top left is the SE entrance. It is thought that it was here that a charge by Cromwell's cavalry was driven back by musket fire from the Dorset Clubmen who had occupied the hillfort in 1645. Top left is the central dome of the hill which is the site of the causewayed enclosure dated c.3600 BC.

The view south from the southern rampart across the hillfort interior. Middle top left is the SE entrance. It is thought that it was here that a charge by Cromwell’s cavalry was driven back by musket fire from the Dorset Clubmen who had occupied the hillfort in 1645. Top left is the central dome of the hill which is the site of the causewayed enclosure dated c.3600 BC.

We walked north towards the middle. Here, a cross rampart blocked our way. We climbed it and looked back. The inturned SE entrance was clear and beyond it the dome of the hill top where the great causewayed enclosure had been excavated in the 1970s. Dated to c.3600 BC, the people of Hambledon hillfort lay mid-way in time between us and them…. but in 1645 Oliver Cromwell fought the clubman here. Back then, a mere 370 years ago. Volleys of musket fire from the Dorset ‘clubmen’ (who supported neither King nor Parliament) drove back a cavalry charge from Cromwell’s besieging forces.

The Wiltshire rangers arrived from Fontmell. Ben, who has recently led the repair of erosion scars at Figsbury Ring and Cley and Mike who’s formidable work on the Stonehenge Estate has led the conservation of the earthworks on the World Heritage Site.

We continued to the long barrow and wondered what this long ridge on the summit was. A 5,500 year old communal burial place or something else? It had been dug into in two places. Perhaps the work of Edward Cunnington who excavated here before 1894.

Two more silhouettes approached. Dave and Gill had found us at last. Dave had geophys mapped the whole of Hambledon and nearby Hod Hill. Gill monitors and records the Brownsea industrial archaeology as the sea gradually erodes the island’s shoreline.

One more stop at the northern cross-ditch. Some think the hillfort developed over time. First the northern third, then the middle section including the long mound.. and then the southern third was finally enclosed. The pottery from the northern ditch is Early Iron Age.. All Cannings about 500 BC.

A plan of Hambledon. The top northern part of the hill probably contains the earliest part of the hillfort. The remains of its southern limit can be seen as a cross-rampart just north of the narrow neck of the hillfort. Later, this neck was included within the defences and a second east-west rampart was constructed on its south side. This new area included the long barrow aligned north to south on the summit of the neck. It is thought that the southern part of the hillfort with its SW and SE entrances was the last part of the hillfort to be enclosed.

A plan of Hambledon. The top northern part of the hill probably contains the earliest part of the hillfort. The remains of its southern limit can be seen as a cross-rampart just north of the narrow neck of the hillfort. Later, this neck was included within the defences and a second east-west rampart was constructed on its south side. This new area included the long barrow aligned north to south on the summit of the neck. It is thought that the southern part of the hillfort with its SW and SE entrances was the last part of the hillfort to be enclosed.

“Look!” said the astrophysicist, ‘the last before solstice’ and as small dots on the whale-back of Hambledon, we felt the ancient world turn. We watched… and the bright full moon erupted from Melbury Beacon as the vivid orange sun plunged below the Childe Okeford horizon at our backs.

Horton Court..NT’s oldest house ?

We had a ‘Top Trumps’ situation recently. The NT North East archaeologist received an early 13th century tree-ring date back from a roof timber in one of the medieval buildings ‘up north’. Was this the oldest occupied building owned by the National Trust? Good try… no it’s Horton Court.

Horton's old hall. The north and south doorways forming a cross passage from the manor courtyard to the church date to the 1160s and are very similar to a doorway in Avebury church. The old hall may once have been the church as the present church has nothing as old as this.

Horton’s old hall. The north and south doorways, forming a cross passage from the manor courtyard to the church, date to the 1160s and are very similar to a doorway in Avebury church. The old hall may once have been the church as the present church has nothing as old as this.

Horton’s an obscure place. In the old Wessex NT Region it was the furthest north I went. Up through Dorset and Wiltshire, beyond Bath and across the M4, driving along the Cotswold escarpment towards Stroud. Then a tiny sign directed me down a few miles of narrow wiggly road to the edge of the Severn flood plain .. and there, eventually, beside a stream issuing from the hillslope.. was Horton Court.

Horton Court beside the parish church on a spring line at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment. An ancient settlement location, the Iron Age Horton Camp hillfort lies on the ridge top behind the camera location. The Tudor loggia can be seen on the left with the terraces of the Tudor garden stepping down to the stream and the line of medieval fishponds beside the house.

Horton Court beside the parish church on a spring line at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment. An ancient settlement location, the Iron Age Horton Camp hillfort lies on the ridge top behind the camera location. The Tudor loggia can be seen on the left with the terraces of the Tudor garden stepping down to the stream and the line of medieval fishponds beside the house.

The first time I went there I met a volunteer who opened the old hall a couple of afternoons a week. She was reading a book. ‘Do many people come here’ I asked. ‘Not many, perhaps 4 or 5 visitors a week in the summer’. I looked at the round headed decorated stone arch. I felt like a visitor from the ‘new world’ commenting on something impossibly old. ‘I guess that’s a copy’ (well, so much medieval architecture was copied in the 19th century). ‘No, it’s dated to c.1160, one of a pair forming a cross-passage leading to the church.’.. That’s the top trump.. oldest occupied building in NT ownership.

This is a very old place, located at the spring-line. Horton Camp Iron Age hillfort looks down on it from the hill top but this is where people would have lived in times of peace. People are proud if their places are first mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) but Horton was given to Pershore Abbey by King Edgar in 972. Tucked away in this idyllic location are the earthworks of the village, the enclosure bank that surrounded the medieval deer park, the lynchets from open fields, a string of medieval fishponds and the rectangular earthworks built to keep rabbits. A nice archaeological grouping.

One of the medieval pillow mounds in the fields beside Horton Court constructed in the medieval period to keep rabbits. Horton had its own warren, deer park and chain of fish ponds to enable the lord to have fresh meat and fish whenever he needed it.

One of the medieval pillow mounds in the fields beside Horton Court constructed in the medieval period to keep rabbits. Horton had its own warren, deer park and chain of fish ponds to enable the lord to have fresh meat and fish whenever he needed it.

It was given to the National Trust by Miss Hilda Wills as a memorial to her nephew who died in the Second World War and from 1949 it was let on a long lease. The tenants gave up the lease in 2007 and there was a chance to understand the place and look for resources to repair and open it up to visitors.

We asked historic building specialists Jane and Tony to survey the many structural clues hidden in the house and delve into its history to find out how important it was and what the conservation needs of the place were. Their conservation management plan was excellent and highlighted its significance.

So many generations had lived there and there were some remarkable stories. However, Horton’s particular significance is its role in international history. (really?) It is true. Horton can make that claim. From 1125, the Bellafagos, a Norman family granted Horton by William I, gave Horton and its land to Old Sarum cathedral (replaced by Salisbury in the 13th century). For 427 years it was a prebendary manor, providing an income for bishops or important members of cathedral staff.

This doorway c.1521 contains very early renaissance carvings. Nothing much like this in the rest of England. It indicates William Knight's education in Italy and his close interest  in architectural developments there.

This doorway c.1521 contains very early renaissance carvings. Nothing much like this in the rest of England. It indicates William Knight’s education in Italy and his close interest in architectural developments there.


In 1517, it was granted to William Knight who had been educated in Florence. He rebuilt Horton in the renaissance style using cutting edge architecture copied from his travels in Italy. He even created a garden for his new courtyard house and included a Florentine-style loggia within it. Tree ring analysis of the house and loggia roofs gave precise dates from sap wood placing their construction between 1517-21. The loggia is a unique building with a group of four stone roundels built into its back wall, each representing a figure from Roman history. Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Nero and Atila. A curious group chosen for a reason that has been lost to us.

The roof above the loggia. This was tree-ring dated along with the roof timbers in the main house to the period 1517-21.

The roof above the loggia. This was tree-ring dated along with the roof timbers in the main house to the period 1517-21.

Because of his diplomatic experience and knowledge of Italy, Henry VIII chose William to be his diplomat to negotiate with the Pope. He wanted the Pope to grant him a divorce that would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn. William went to Rome but the Pope refused his request so Henry married Anne anyway. He brought her to this part of South Gloucestershire and stayed in the local houses as he toured the south showing his new bride to the local clergy, gentry and nobility. Horton, newly rebuilt to the latest style, the home of his chief negotiator William Knight, should have been one of the stopping points of the tour.

William’s failed diplomacy led to the formation of the Church of England and the great religious turmoils of the 16th and 17th centuries.

What do William’s roundels mean ? Do they represent figures who challenged Rome and did her harm or are they people who ultimately failed in their objective? Was his heart for or against the King’s split with Rome..?

Inside William Knight's Loggia are four roundels depicting Hannibal of Carthage who crossed the alps in 216 BC and attacked Rome. Julius Caesar who in 49 BC started a Civil War that ended the Roman Republic. The Emperor Nero who is said to have ordered the burning of Rome in AD 64 and Atila the Hun who invaded Italy in AD 452. Why were these 4 figures chosen ?  Is there some secret code here? They were set up around the time that Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome and the Church of England was created. This enabled him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Inside William Knight’s Loggia are four roundels depicting Hannibal of Carthage who crossed the alps in 216 BC and attacked Rome. Julius Caesar who in 49 BC started a Civil War that ended the Roman Republic. The Emperor Nero who is said to have ordered the burning of Rome in AD 64 and Atila the Hun who invaded Italy in AD 452. Why were these 4 figures chosen ? Is there some secret code here? They were set up around the time that Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome and the Church of England was created. This enabled him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Whatever, this place is a joy to visit.

Avebury Buried Megaliths

The Resistivity Survey area placed on a map of the henge

The Resistivity Survey area placed on a map of the henge

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avebury geophysical survey

I always thought that somewhere as famous as the great henge and stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire would have been thoroughly studied over the years. It is the great thing about archaeology that there is so much potential for discovery and it is open to anyone to study the landscape, look at the records and find something new about things that are old and forgotten.

Avebury dates from about 2600-1800 BC and like a great cathedral has developed over time. It has a great earthen bank that surrounds a deep wide ditch and on the inner edge of the ditch were once over 100 massive stones, each about 10m from the next, many standing over 3m high. Most of these stones have gone now. Some were broken up for building stone 250-300 years ago but others were buried, mainly in the medieval period. Nobody really knows why.

The question was .. How many are left in their original positions? How many have been excavated? How many have been broken up? How many have been buried? The answer was….we don’t know because although the west side was excavated in the 1930s and the middle sections have been surveyed, the east part never has.

Our old resistivity meter in the foreground and using the magnetometer in the background.

Our old resistivity meter in the foreground and using the magnetometer in the background.

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Each of the black marks along the curving right edge is a megalith. Each up to 4m long and 2m wide

Each of the black marks along the curving right edge is a megalith. Each up to 4m long and 2m wide

Avebury SE Quadrant

So we took our old battered resistivity meter one dry autumn and stuck the probes in the ground. At first the readings were boring 50; 52; 50; 49 ..and then ..as we got to the ditch edge 50;100; 250; 600; 600; 280; 100; 50. We had found a buried stone. In fact a vast arc of them survived beneath the grass. How exciting! We also found the stone footings of buildings, part of the medieval village which still occupies part of the henge.

Our survey plot of the megaliths and remains of pre-18th century buildings at the top beside Green Street.

Our survey plot of the megaliths and remains of pre-18th century buildings at the top beside Green Street.

SE resistivity

When you visit, go on an autumn evening, when the ancient church bell tolls and the mist rises from the henge ditch, like an overflowing boiling cauldron, seeping and drifting between the megaliths.