The Story of Silbury Hill


I can first remember visiting Silbury Hill in the 1970s and it has featured on many a journey. I have just finished reading The Story of Silbury Hill by Jim Leary and David Field (Swindon: English Heritage, 2010) [ISBN 978-1-848020-46-7]. Cost £14.99.

I was so attracted by the story of a monument in its wider landscape. There are nine main chapters, each with beautiful photographs and illustrations. Those who are interested in the History of Archaeology (and Antiquarianism) will find much in chapter 2, ‘Kings, Druids and early investigations’. John Aubrey’s sketch of the hill captures its essence. William Stukeley’s series of drawings were made in 1723 and 1724. There is a review of the opening of a shaft in 1776, and the cutting of the Royal Archaeological Institute’s tunnel in 1849. The Hill was purchased by Sir John Lubbock in 1873.

Chapter 3, ‘Into the 20th century: Petrie, Atkinson and the BBC’, considers the impact of television coverage of archaeological excavations and the exploration by Richard Atkinson in 1967. The antiquarian searches and archaeological excavations caused instability in the mound and this is covered by chapter 4, ‘What do you mean, there’s a hole on the top of Silbury?’ There are some interesting comments about press coverage and ttransparency

All this work, as well as the urgent need to stabilise the mound, provided valuable information about how the mound was created (chapter 5). There are important comments about the prehistoric landscape as well as the insects and plants. This leads to ‘Making sense of the mound’ (chapter 6). Silbury is then considered in the wider and evolving landscape, ‘Land, stones and the development of monuments’ (chapter 7).

One of the unexpected chapters was a consideration of the Roman settlement that grew up at the foot of the hill (‘From small town to Sele-burh’, chapter 8). The Hill lies adjacent to the main Roman road running from London towards Bath. How would this prehistoric monument have been preceived by Roman viewers?

The final chapter, ‘The timekeeper’ (chapter 9), looks at the modern reception of the Hill. There is the observation, ‘The monuments serve a social and spiritual need’. Yet there are comments about the impact of heritage tourism on a Wiltshire village that nestles around and among these prehistoric monuments.

The mound incorporates the activities, the behaviour and performance of people, the building of banks, ditches and mounds; basketful after basketful of actions that provide a biography of the local inhabitants. It is as good as any family tree. We are all a part of that dialogue, and our actions form part of the same story.

This is a book that covers so many aspects of the recording, conserving, preserving, and interpreting of a major heritage site.

Author: David Gill

David Gill is Honorary Professor in the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent, and Honorary Research Fellow in the School of History and an Academic Associate in SISJAC at UEA; Professor of Archaeological Heritage.

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