If the purpose of the Avebury stone circle is mysterious, nearby Silbury Hill is inscrutably enigmatic. It is a 4400 year-old artificial mound, 130 ft tall with a circular base, and is so large that it likely required 500 men working for 15 years to move and shape its 300,000+ cubic yards of chalk and clay.
Which means that Silbury was not built on a whim. But various archaeological digs into the mound have come up empty, finding very few artifacts and no burial chambers or contemporaneous human remains. So why was it built?
When I was young and living in England with my family we took a trip to Silbury Hill. At that time there were no fences around ancient monuments in Britain, so my Mom and I climbed up the hill and log-rolled all the way down. It was great fun and after recovering the ability to stand upright, I remember looking up at the hill and wondering about those who had built it. I decided it had been made for exactly the use to which we had just put it.
A short distance from Silbury is the West Kennet Long Barrow. A barrow is a burial mound, so we’d finally found an ancient site whose original purpose was understood, except in some ways it was more mysterious than the last two we’d seen. West Kennet is 5600 years old, making it one of the oldest sites in Britain. It’s difficult to know what was important to a citizen of that era, but it’s estimated the barrow took 15,000 man hours to build, meaning this was not a casual undertaking (so to speak). When it was first discovered, the remains of 46 individuals were found inside, ranging from babies to elderly men. It is tempting to see this as the mark of an egalitarian society, but the effort required to build the barrow raises the question of who did the work. Were there people whose entire lives were devoted to preparing for other people’s death? And why aren’t there any enclosed structures for the living that have survived as well as this burial chamber? As is so often the case with ancient cultures, it’s easy to think they were obsessed with death.