Books, Prehistory, Royal Archaeological Institute, Report of the Examination of Silbury Hill by C Tucker

Report of the Examination of Silbury Hill by C Tucker is in Royal Archaeological Institute.

1849. Report of the Examination of Silbury Hill [Map] by C Tucker 1849.

As soon as it became generally known in Wiltshire that the capital of that county had been selected for the seat of the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute for the year 1849, the central Committee received from many quarters most urgent requests that they would turn their attention to the remarkable tumulus known as Silbury Hill [Map], and that a systematic examination of the hill should take place, by means of careful and scientific excavations into the centre of the vast mound, in order to discover, if possible, any objects or remains which could lead to the formation of just conclusions as to its origin, and a probably correct knowledge of the use or purpose for which it had been constructed.

The only recorded notice of any previous examination is that mentioned by Douglas in his Nenia Britannica, page 161, as follows:

"The great hill of Silbury, generally considered as a barrow, was opened under the direction of the late Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Drax, under the supposition of its being a place of sepulture. Miners from Cornwall were employed, and great labour bestowed upon it. The only relic found at the bottom, and which Colonel Drax shewed me, was a thin slip of oak wood ; by burning the end of it in a wax taper, we proved it not to be whale-bone, which had been so reported ; the smell of vegetable substance soon convinced the Colonel of his mistake. He had a fancy that this hill was raised over a Druid oak, and he thought the remains of it were discovered in the excavation: there was, however, no reason for considering it to have been a place of sepulture by the digging into it. The bit of a bridle discovered by Stukeley, and his assertion of a monarch being buried there, has only the pleasure of conception to recommend it; it is not likely the monarch would have been buried near its surface, when such an immense mound of earth had been raised for the purpose ; and the time in raising of it would not agree with the nature of a funeral obsequy, which must require a greater degree of expedition."

Douglas adds:

"These very large hills I have oftentimes considered as temples to the Sun, by a people the descendants of the Scythse, wnose religious rites are very similar to those of the Gentiles contemporary with the Patriarchs in Holy Writ, They are found near, and sometimes within, the circle of our ancient castles. That at Canterbury, called the Donjon Hill, evidently preceded the Roman station, the Roman wall passing over a part of its base."

As Douglas refers to Stukeley, it may be useful to give here an extract from Stukeley's account of Abury, published in 1743, in which he refers to Silbury Hill, at pages 41 and 42. [See Stukeley's Avebury Chapter 9]

"In the month of March 1723, Mr. Halford ordered some trees to be planted on the top of Silbury Hill, in the area of the plain 60 cubits in diameter.

"The workmen dug up the body of the great king there buried in the centre, very little below the surface ; the bones were extremely rotten, so that they crumbled to pieces with the fingers ; the soil was altogether chalk.

"Some weeks after, I (Stukeley) came to rescue a great curiosity, which they took up ; I bought it of John Fowler, one of the workmen; it was the bridle, buried also with the monarch, and was one mass of rust, which I cleaned off with limner's oil. A sketch is given in Pl. xxxvi. There were also deer's horns, an iron knife with bone handle, all excessively rotten."

If the drawing of the bridle given in the plate is correct, it appears certain that Stukeley's opinion as to its antiquity was quite erroneous, and that there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be either British or Roman, as it clearly belongs to a period some centuries later ; indeed there is no evidence at all that it was found in the hill ; and the more probable version is, that the credulous antiquary was imposed upon by the cunning John Fowler. The romantic theory of the great king and his war-chariot has no better foundation.

The Committee were aware, that to investigate thoroughly so large an earth-work would involve the necessity of a more considerable expenditure than they felt authorised to charge on the funds of the Institute. A number of the individual members of the Committee commenced a subscription among themselves, and this being shortly afterwards liberally contributed to by others, the Committee, without loss of time, adopted active measures, and, with the assistance of Mr. Richard Falkner of Devizes, and Mr. Henry Blandford of Rowde, near that town, civil engineer, the first preliminary examination of the hill took place on the Ist June, with the full concurrence of Mr. Jones, the owner of the hill, and the hearty aid and cordial assent of Mr. Kemm of Kennett, the occupier of the farm on which the hill stands. Subsequently some spots on different sides were opened, to ascertain the respective levels of the natural and artificial soil, and other examinations were made ; and on the 25th of June, Mr. Blandford forwarded to the Committee a plan of the meadow, a plan and section of the hill, and a report as to the practicability of driving a tunnel into the centre of the hill at its base, and excavating a chamber within, pointing out at the same time what appeared to him to be the most advisable spot for commencing the tunnel, in order to carry the level as nearly as possible along the original surface of the natural soil of the meadow at the junction with the artificial mound. The plan and section and report were accompanied by an offer, on Mr. Blandford's part, to undertake the necessary work for driving the tunnel to the centre of Silbury Hill, 6 feet 6 inches high by 3 feet wide, on the level of the natural base (and to replace the earth if required), by the 24th day of July then next, at a cost not exceeding 30l., provided the Committee of the Institute would undertake the responsibility as to damages for injury to the land or otherwise, and put him in possession by the 27th June. Mr. Blandford also most liberally placed his own time and superintendence gratuitously at the service of the Institute during the time the works would occupy.

It appeared to the Committee that this was a most desirable way of accomplishing the object in view ; and Mr. Blandford being a man of great experience in earth-works connected with railways, and having much of the requisite materiel at his command, they decided on accepting Mr. Blandford's offer, and requested Mr. Falkner to continue his assistance, and from time to time report on the progress of the work.

04 Jul 1849. On the 4th July the Secretary of the Institute visited Silbury, and in conjunction with Mr. Blandford and Mr. Falkner decided on the spot at which the opening should be made. On the 9th July the turf was stripped from that part of the meadow where the spoil from the tunnel was to be laid ; and on Tuesday the 10th July the excavation of the gallery was commenced. From this time gangs of workmen succeeded each other at stated intervals, so that the work proceeded day and night without interruption. By Friday evening the 13th, the tunnel had extended to 94 feet from the entrance, about one-third of the whole intended length, by which it was calculated the centre of the hill would be attained. The work thus far was carried through the natural soil, a vein of hard undisturbed chalk, and proceeded in an upward direction, at an inclination of 1 in 28: the artificial soil was cut into at 33 yards from the entrance; the work was then carried on through 18 inches of the artificial earth and 5 feet of the original soil, presuming that by this means any sepulchral remains must be discovered if they existed. The excavation was carried in this way 54* yards, at which distance, according to the survey made, the original centre of construction, or true centre of the hill would be attained. The tunnel, however, did not strike the shaft sunk by the Duke of Northumberland, although, as it afterwards appeared, it was within 4 inches of it. The next step taken was to make several lateral excavations to the east and west near the end of the tunnel. On the 24th July the works were suspended ; the Dean of Hereford and other members of the Institute, who had been aiding the examination, then departing to attend the meeting at Salisbury.

31 Jul 1849. On the 31st July a very numerous party visited the hill and examined the excavations, and so much interest was excited, that a very general desire was expressed that further diggings should be made within the hill, so as to satisfy the most sceptical that it had been thoroughly examined. Means were then taken to raise an additional subscription, and Mr. Bathurst Dean circulated a printed address, with a plan shewing the situation of the hill with reference to the Great Temple at Abury, and stating that the works already executed had exhausted the sums previously subscribed.

04 Aug 1849. On the 4th August some sarsen stones were found in one of the lateral excavations on the east side ; they were much worn, and similar to those found in the surrounding fields.

On the 6th August the workmen cut into the nucleus of the mound, where the sods of turf and moss in layers appeared to be of the greatest thickness ; and, on further examination, it was satisfactorily shewn, by the curving layers of turf lying one over the other, that the mound was commenced by that process. The turf was quite black, as was also the undecayed moss and grass which formed the surface of each layer, and amongst it were the dead shells, &c., such as may still be found in the adjoining country. The Dean of Hereford, who for some days after the visit of the members of the Institute had been directing further excavations to the east and west of the tunnel, on the 4th of August strongly urged the necessity of making a still further search, and proposed a cut from the chamber on the west side in a diagonal direction towards the centre; it was in making this cut that the workmen came upon the shaft formerly sunk by the Duke of Northumberland, and the soil being very loose, the prosecution of the work in that direction became dangerous.

It was next suggested, that, as all the previous points tried had produced no remains of any kind, a gallery in a circular direction, on a more extended radius, should be made, by which means eveiry part of the centre of the hill, where it was at all probable that any cist or other construction would have existed, supposing the earth-work to have been raised over an interment. These excavations continued under the Dean's superintendence until the 14th August, and subsequently under the guidance of Mr. Bathurst Dean until the 20th, and afterwards by Mr. Blandford until the 30th August. During all these lateral and additional works, as well as in the main tunnel, from the spot where the artificial soil was first entered, it became necessary, for the safety of the workmen, to prop up, to prevent the superincumbent soil from falling in. Nothing extraneous was found, except a few fragments of antlers and animal bones, and which may have been thrown up with the earth from the meadow below when the hill was formed. The dark streak in the soil, marking the vegetation of the original surface, was found in every direction taken by the excavators, thus indicating that the ground had never been disturbed.

Sep 1849. In the month of September it became necessary to close the tunnel ; the props that could be got out with safety were then withdrawn, a brick wall was built up across the tunnel, at some distance within the mouth ; the earth was then replaced, so as to make good the form of the hill at the aperture, and it was turfed over and completed by the end of September.

Mr. Falkner had previously taken the precaution, in order to record the examination, in case any future archaeologists should think fit to explore, to deposit a stoneware vessel, impervious to moisture and hermetically sealed, at the extreme end of the excavation, close under the side of the circular gallery, and in the vessel he placed a leaden plate, on which is engraved the following inscription:

"The Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland caused this tunnel to be excavated, a.d. 1849.

A shaft from the summit to the base had been sunk about 75 years previously by other parties.

On neither occasion was any thing discovered indicative of the purpose for which the hill was raised."

On the back of this plate is a plan of the excavations.

Mr. Falkner also placed within the vessel a slip of plate glass, on which was written with a diamond point: " Silbury Hill was opened in July 1849 by the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland;" and this was covered with another piece of plate-glass cemented to it at the edges. A printed programme issued by the Institute, dated 28th July, 1849, preparatory to the Salisbury meeting, and the more detailed programme of the proceedings of the week. The circular address dated from Abury, and having the plan of the temple, &c. on it. An almanac of the year 1849; a Devizes newspaper of the 20th September, containing notes of the proceedings at the hill; extracts from Stukeley's Abury, from Douglas's Nenia Brit., and Hoare's Wiltshire, relating to Silbury; a sheet of the National Encyclopædia, containing an article on Abury, with plans, sections, &c. of the temple; a copy of Mr. Blandford's survey, sections, &c.

A second similar vessel was also placed just within the entrance, where the roof appeared to be very secure ; and in it Mr. Falkner deposited another leaden plate, with inscription, a rubbing of the plate first mentioned, and a memorandum, stating that a more detailed report of the operations is to be found in the urn deposited in the centre.

Mr. Blandford reported to the Committee, that the making the tunnel and other excavations proved satisfactorily to him that the purpose of the hill was not sepulchral; and it further proved, that the hill had been raised before the construction by the Eomans of the "Via Badonica," or Roman road from Bath to Speen. This road, as may be seen in the map of the Ordnance Survey, takes a direction leading through the centre of Silbury Hill; and although from the fact of the land in the immediate neighbourhood being converted into arable, its traces are less distinct, had Silbury been a subsequent construction, the cross section of the road and ditches must have been discovered. This was not the case, and therefore Mr. Blandford inferred that the road was carried round the base of the tumulus to avoid it, and was thereby diverted from its otherwise direct course.

A plan and section of the hill, and a plan of the excavations are subjoined.

The sepulchral theory being thus exploded, that which supposes Silbury Hill to have had some connexion with the great Temple of Abury, either for the assembling of the people, or for religious purposes, seems to have a better foundation.

C Tucker