Silbury Hill to get stuffed

This blog (as a collective being) loves megalithic structures and sites.

So, it was interesting to read on clioaudio‘s excellent blog and in an English Heritage press release that Silbury Hill is being excavated.

Ironically,the half-arsed attempts to nose around in Silbury Hill were what is putting it at risk, after about 4000 years of being pretty solid. It’s a pyramid shaped man-made hill so it was inherently steady.

It was dug into by the Duke of Northumberland, in 1777, and by a Professor Atkinson, in the 1960s. The shafts they dug have made the monument unstable. Hence English Heritage is going in to shore it up with concrete. Hmm.

It appears from the discussion on sites such as clioaudio’s and eternalidol that the previous excavations were hardly productive in terms of knowledge gained.

The motivations behind excavations can have a destructive impact on what happens to the sites. This is true of any exploratory scientific work, of course, but archaeology is almost always in the position of destroying what it investigates. Any scientists have preconceived ideas about what they investigate. Archaeology is such an interpretative science that archaeologists’ preconceptions can be particularly devastating in their impact.

When treasure was the objective monuments were looted for treasure. Now, when it is somehow assumed that all sites are “ritual”, a fair amount of evidence about everyday living is invisible and ignored.

Prof Atkinson was apparently mainly interested in finding a burial chamber for a tv programme. He didn’t find one. Hence, the site was of no interest, was abandoned and filled in, in an unsafe way. It’s pretty much a given that there will be objects there and clues about the construction that we don’t currently have the knowledge to even see.

One of my favourite memories was of being in the Roman forum watching a few teenagers digging and sifting earth near the Vestal Virgins’ house, on some sort of school archaeology project I guess. They were being supervised by an archaeologist. As I watched, one girl had unearthed a pot shard (of a size that the Time team would have constructed a whole conceptual dinner service from.) She looked with momentary interest at it then, apparently mentally cataloguing it (accurately) as a just a piece of broken pottery, she pulled it out of the sieve and tossed it away as trash.

This was an instance of how one person’s values are not necessarily the best way to approach archaeological enquiry – or one generation of archaeologists either.

Most neolithic barrows or mounds that held “treasure” were looted long ago. Avebury and Stonehenge have been damaged and reconstructed so much that most of the experince of visiting them is really an experience of visiting some old antiquarian’s vision of what they should have loooked like.

I really really hope Silbury Hill dosn’t end up as Disneyworld style reconstruction. Stonehenge and Avebury are already heading in that direction, with the plans to up English Heritage visitor numbers by creating a more meaningful “visitor experience.”

More personal stuff… the first time I saw Stonehenge, it was owned by a farmer who was still working the fields around it. It didn’t have barriers between people and the stones, after you’d paid your entrance fee at an unimpressive booth. Any car parking facilities were minimal. It was genuinely a great natural experience. It brought the distant past to life in a subtle but immediate way.

Now Stonehenge is like a megalithic zoo in a car park. Ugly and absurd “reconstruction” sketches line the tunnel. You walk around the caged stones as part of a long and slow-moving queue of people taking pictures. The projected “improvements” sound even more dire. For example, the unfailingly moving FREE sight of Stonehenge that you get from the main road when you crest a slight hill will be gone. There will be more people and more cars and less reality and less identification with our ancestors. Avebury is still a bit too big for this heritage stuff to go full throttle but, give its caretakers time.

It’s obviously necessary to patch up Silbury Hill to stop it collapsing. It’s pretty good that archaeologists will get the opportunity to look at what’s inside it again. But, please just leave it alone after that…

TW has lots of Avebury & Silbury Hill pictures. There are a fair few on flickr and we’ll get some on here, asap.