The Examination Of Silbury Hill, In July And August 1849

The Examination Of Silbury Hill, In July And August 1849 is in Diary of a Dean by John Merewether.

1849. The Examination Of Silbury Hill, In July And August 1849

Avebury, Silbury Hill [Map], Wansdyke, and their adjacent downs, studded with tumuli and cairns and earthworks of endless variety and surpassing interest, were known to me from my earliest youth; and so intimately associated in my memory have they been with those happy days, and the pleasure of then contemplating and investigating them, that it required no greater inducement than the intimation that I might be useful in examining the progress of the excavations at Silbury, on my way to Salisbury, to attend the meeting of the Archaeological Institute, to determine me at once to set off for that purpose. Accordingly, on the evening of July the 18th, I found myself safely deposited at the Waggon and Horses [Map] Inn at Beckhampton; whence, having deposited my luggage and secured a resting-place within sight of Silbury [Map], I proceeded without delay to inspect the progress already made in its examination, which had commenced on the 10th of July. Although, during my sojourn here, my attention was devoted at intervals to the antiquities of the neighbourhood, and not without success, during such times as the workmen were engaged in the tunnel, in which there was barely room for two persons to pass, I purpose to confine my remarks in this communication to Silbury alone, and to reserve my other discoveries for a subsequent paper. Before I enter into the hill itself, I will venture to detail some few particulars which, although perhaps already known to many, may yet serve to make this record of what I observed (and in some respects I alone) more intelligible.

1849. The tumulus [Map] was originally formed upon the gradual slope of a hill, rising from north to south at an angle of about four degrees from its point of section with the horizontal base-line of the natural hill. The circumference of the tumulus, after the removal for its formation of the before-mentioned natural hill on the east, north, and west sides to a very considerable extent, is 1550 feet; and it is remarkable, although I have not seen it noticed by former writers, that the verge of the base is set round with sarsen1 stones, 3 or 4 feet in diameter, and at intervals of about 18 feet; of these, however, only eight are now visible, although others may be covered with the detritus of the sloping sides of the tumulus, and overgrown with turf. The tumulus rises at an angle of 32 degrees, is in its vertical measurement 125 feet high, and has on its summit a level area of about 100 feet in diameter, in which are still observable the remains of the shaft worked in 1777 by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Drax, and the mounds of earth which the excavators had not taken the trouble to throw in. It is much to be regretted that no detailed account of these operations is upon record, and it is hardly credible that they could have been completed without some account of their progress and the discoveries effected, and perhaps even yet such documents may come to light2 On the south the original constructors of this stupendous mound left two narrow isthmuses of earth, connecting it with the original hill, about 20 feet below its summit, on the north side of the London and Bath road, and about 19 feet above the (geometrical) base of the tumulus. From the western isthmus the tunnel was commenced. The first 75 feet were cut through the natural and compact bed of chalk—the structure of the original hill; but at that distance the upper line of the tunnel cut into the surface of the original hill, which was clearly marked by the vegetable mould, and upon that by a layer of bluish clay about 2 inches thick, very soft and tenacious, which represented evidently the decayed and compressed turf and grass on the former surface of the hill; above this was the brownish earthy, chalky rubble, the artificial components of the mound differing from that nearer to the centre, as that was piled up from a moist, this from a higher and drier situation. The workmen were continually progressing day and night, as each of the three gangs worked eight hours, three men only at a time having room to excavate, fill and wheel the barrows. From the points of junction of the tunnel in the natural chalk with the line of the surface of the original hill, they followed that line as their guide, keeping it about 2 feet below the ceiling of the tunnel; inasmuch as there could be little doubt that whatever deposit might be found would be either on the surface of the original ground near the centre, or in a cist formed immediately below that line.

Note 1. 'Sarsen' is the name given by the inhabitants of this district to the fine compact white sandstones of which Avebury Temple, Stonehenge, the Cromlech [Map] at Clatford, and the Grey Wethers, are composed; and of which there are tens of thousands still scattered over these hills and their valleys; some having evidently formed cistvaens, with the gallery of approach to the chamber, some cromlechs, some avenues of approach to consecrated spots, some circles round the sepulchral deposits, some lines of demarcation, few of which are known as they deserve to be, and all, alas, are annually reduced in their number by the appropriation of them to the purposes of building. The stone for the new railway-bridge at Windsor is taken from Clatford Bottom [Map]. The cromlech [Map] there I recollect when it stood in the midst of the Valley of Stones; now it is surrounded by a field of turnips.

Note 2. The following are statements made by two old men as to the former examination of Silbury Hill:

Richard Maskelyn, of Beckhampton, aged eighty, has often heard his father tell of the miners out of Cornwall that cut in to Silbury Hill; they went, as he heard, down to the bottom, and they found "a man."

John Blake, of Avebury, aged ninety-five years, states that he recollects when the miners from Cornwall dug into Silbury Hill; it was when he was keeping company with his first wife, and was about twenty years of age. He went with her to see the place, and they cut her gown. They went down to the bottom, and found a man — i. e. a skeleton, in the phraseology of the Wiltshire Downs, where the flint-diggers are constantly in the habit of finding skeletons, both in the barrows and frequently on the verge or slope of them, as well as in the plain down, unmarked by any irregularity of surface. These two old men, therefore, may have been led to infer what was expected, and to declare that "a man" was found; though such assertion indicates rather what they would deem likely than the positive fact.

I subjoin the only record of this operation known, extracted from Douglas's Nenia Britannica, 1793, p. 161:

"The great hill of Silbury, generally considered as a barrow, was opened by 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 whalebone, 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 it would not agree with the nature of a funeral obsequy, which must require a greater degree of expedition."

On my first visit they had advanced about 40 yards; when at 30 yards, they found in the artificial rubble, immediately above the ground-line, a portion of the tine of a stag's antler of the red deer species. Very little difference in the appearance of the walls of the tunnel had as yet been discernible, when the time came (on Monday evening the 23d) for me to proceed to Salisbury. Having taken a last inspection on my way, I suggested that it would be desirable that the workmen should stop when they reached within two yards of the centre, under the apprehension that in case they should break into a cist, or discover any deposit, there might be no person present to describe and record the particulars. Whilst at Salisbury the specimens of new features in the component parts of the tumulus were sent for inspection. The thin compressed line of clay, formerly grass, could be traced continuously throughout the tunnel, and the vegetable mould below it varying in its depth occasionally, and sometimes considerably; but at about 30 or 40 feet from the centre a very marked difference appeared. Instead of the rubbly chalk forming the artificial substance of the hill, the thin grass-line was covered with a black peaty substance, composed of sods of turf piled together, containing great quantities of moss still in a state of comparative freshness, and which had evidently been taken from the excavated area on the east, west, and north sides of the tumulus, on the borders of which a small rivulet runs—a tributary to the Kennett, — which I have myself seen overflowing almost the whole of the excavated area at the back of the hill, and which probably was wont to do so before that work was effected; not, of course, to so great extent, but sufficiently to produce the moss now perceptible in the sods derived from that locality, still retaining its colour and texture, and to deposit amongst them the freshwater shells which were interspersed on its surface, and are still preserved in most remarkable freshness and transparency. Above and about this layer was a dense accumulation of black earth, emitting a peculiar smell, in which were embedded fragments of small branches of bushes, which in many instances, retaining their shape, had been transformed into a substance of beautiful cobalt-coloured blue, which was also in great quantity dispersed in small knobs throughout the layer of this black substance. At about this spot caudal vertebrae of the ox, or perhaps red deer, and a very large tooth of the same animal, were carried out in the wheelbarrows, so that the exact spots in which they had rested were not known. The following general analysis of these substances was obtained by the kindness of a young gentleman at Mr. Squarey's of Salisbury, and may serve to shew their chemical character:—1st. The substance nearest the line of original surface of the hill; iron, sulphuric acid, lime, carbonates, earthy and organic matters, alumina. 2d. That somewhat higher up in position and of compact black texture: Iron, carbonic acid, lime, sulphates, alumina, phosphates. Over these the artificial rubble of the hill had assumed a darker colour, and contained on analysis much the same components as No. 2; as well as those portions below, from the percolation of water saturated with the qualities of the substance above. I must not omit to state that in many places within this range from the centre, on the surface of the original hill, were found fragments of a sort of string, of two strands, each twisted, composed of (as it seemed) grass, and about the size of whipcord. Insects, especially beetles, and fragments of charcoal, were constantly observable.

31 Aug 1849. On Tuesday morning, the 31st, having reached Marlborough from Salisbury on the Monday night, I returned to Silbury, visiting on our way the Cromlech [Map] at Clatford Bottom, the Roman road on Overton Hill, and the termination (that which had been) of the South-eastern Avenue of Avebury, on Hacpen Hill, with its neighbouring tumuli, and then the eight remaining detached stones of the avenue on the road from Kennett to Avebury, where I remember six to have stood in their relative positions opposite to each other.

One line I must devote to the memory of one of the most agreeable weeks I ever recollect to have spent. The little party of good and approved archaeologists who did me the honour to allow me to rank as their comrade will, I am sure, bear testimony to the description I have given of that happy week; and I shall never forget the manifest indications of regret when the time came for us to part— I confess by none felt more acutely than myself, the one left behind.

On our arrival at Silbury, which my companions had not before seen,—after due admiration of its imposing and mysterious grandeur,—we inspected the interior, when it appeared that the workmen had penetrated to the extent of 88 yards, in effect 16 yards beyond the centre of the tumulus. Nothing had been discovered, excepting the peculiar condition of the material of which the hill was composed about its centre, or the nucleus from which its fabricators first commenced the piling of it up. This day was greatly occupied by the numerous visitors who flocked from Salisbury and other quarters; and as we could do little at Silbury, we betook ourselves to inspect Avebury, and subsequently to open some neighbouring barrows. There was, however, one very remarkable circumstance which the workmen related, namely, that when they were digging and picking, at about 72 yards in, the earth above their heads sounded very hollow, almost like a drum; and on experimenting the effect of vigorous blows of the pick-axe at that spot, it was impossible not to be impressed with the idea that there must be a cavity above. It was therefore resolved that the men should cut down the roof from some 8 or 10 yards back, so as to raise the roof of the tunnel at the centre 6 or 8 feet or more, the earth cut from the roof forming the floor on an inclined plane. Great was our disappointment, when we reached the point where our grand discovery was expected, to find that our operations had completely silenced the delusive sound, and that all was dense and compact as below. There was, however, a very important feature brought to view in this excavation, namely, a succession of layers of the earth one above the other at the end of the tunnel, and slightly curved downwards at each side. This operation had brought us to Saturday night; and on that day our most agreeable party had taken their leave, whilst I was left alone, with the responsibility of observing the works, still with some hope that even yet discoveries might be made which would help to clear up the mystery in which this noble monument of our early ancestors is shrouded.

I have omitted to state, what really deserves to be recorded, that on the Wednesday in this memorable week a very large assemblage of the neighbouring gentry were seen congregated on the embankment to the east of Silbury Hill, where they listened with much interest and attention to such comments as I was able to make on the early history and usages of the Britons, especially as to their sepulchral remains in that neighbourhood; and subsequently were instructed and highly gratified by an address, in his usual style of elegance and perspicuity, on the subsequent history and usages of the Anglo-Saxons, whose adopted work of Wansdyke was within their sight, by Mr. Kemble. The information conveyed this day to those who possess in their hills and on their estates the precious and most interesting relics of bygone times in this singularly curious neighbourhood will, I believe, be not a little influential in promoting and directing a juster appreciation and stricter guardianship of the treasures which so frequently are brought to light by the employ of the gentlemen who farm this county of antiquities, and who are not less remarkable for their high respectability and intelligence, than they are, as I can testify, for their exceeding kindness.

But to return to Silbury. Our statement has carried us down to the night of Saturday the 4th of August. On the following Monday morning I found that Mr. Blandford, the engineer who had directed the work, considering that he had accomplished all that he undertook in his contract with the Institute, had desired the men not to proceed further under his responsibility. I was therefore under the necessity of taking on myself to direct their progress, and they accordingly recommenced their labours the same day, whilst I communicated with the Institute on the present state of things. At all events, it was impossible to allow the investigation to stop short, when perhaps we were within a few feet of the objects of our search. Nothing could be more evident than the existence of the primary heaping up of the mound, through the centre of which, or very nearly so, the elevated tunnel was cut. At the floor of this was traceable the line of the original turf of the natural hill, and it was clear to demonstration that this had not been cut through. No cist, therefore, had been found below that line in any part yet examined. What might exist within the range of the conical heaping up of the earth, which was on all sides so distinctly marked, was yet to be proved. I therefore directed that a chamber should be cut at right angles with the tunnel on the right hand, following the dip of the primary heap. In this many sarsen stones were discovered, some of them placed with their concave surface downwards, favouring the line of the heap, as is frequently seen in small barrows, and casing, as it were, the mound. On the top of some of these were observed fragments of bone, and small sticks, as of bushes, and I am strongly disposed to think of mistletoe, and two or three pieces of the ribs either of the ox or red deer, in a sound and unusually compact state, and also the tine of a stag's antler in the same condition. This being the second instance in which this portion of the stag's horn has been found in these operations, it is not improbable that it may have been specially regarded. This first chamber having been excavated as far back as the line marking the conical heaping of the earth extended, a similar one was formed on the right-hand side of the tunnel nearer the entrance, leaving so much of the earth between as was necessary to support the roof, with similar results; and on the opposite side a passage was cut at right angles with the tunnel extending three yards, and this at the extremity was turned to the left, in consequence of the peculiar compactness and blackness of the earth, which also appeared to dip more than elsewhere towards the west. This having been worked as far as seemed necessary, another cutting was commenced on the opposite side northward, and following the curve of the heaping up of the central cone. In all of these the sarsen stones were similarly disposed; but after cutting in this direction about 3 yards, the workmen came to an upright seam in the hill, and found before them no longer the dense black concrete, but loose unconnected chalk, evidently the filling-in of the shaft, 5 feet wide by 4 feet 6, sunk from the summit of the hill in 1777.

After 15 Aug 1849. These operations had occupied until Wednesday the 15th of August, the last day of my most enjoyable sojourn in these mysterious regions, which I left with much regret. The subsequent investigations were carried on under the auspices of the Rev. J. Bathurst Deane; and it may, perhaps, be satisfactory to him to have found that Silbury Hill [Map], so far as is yet known, and as he had declared, was not a sepulchral tumulus. One thing is manifest, that the examiners of 1777 did not hit the actual centre of the tumulus, whilst we have excavated its very core. It is not likely, therefore, that the version given of their discoveries by the ancients Blake and Maskelyn, viz, that "they found a man," is correct. Whether the piling up of the sods, and the peculiar and marked effects with which that part of the hill is distinguished from the rest, and the layer of sarsen stones, should lead to any future inquiry,—for it is possible that this central and conical heap might have been the platform, as it were, on the apex of which the deposit was placed before the remainder of the hill was raised,—will much depend on the observations made subsequently to my departure. If nothing else has been achieved, a more general knowledge of these secluded but most magnificent national antiquities has been effected. Many have wondered at Avebury and Silbury—have seen for themselves the Roman road deflecting to the right to avoid Silbury—have observed the same road cutting down the high bank of the Wansdyke, and adopting its line, who before had no notion that England possessed such relics. But more than this, an anxious desire for further information, a sedulous care for the preservation of these and other antiquities of the neighbourhood, continually brought to light, has been implanted in the neighbourhood, in proprietors and occupiers, and even in the labourers and flint-diggers, the frequent discoverers of exquisite remains. And whilst my friend Mr. George Brown of Avebury has engaged that he will take care, and his sons after him, that not a stone at Avebury shall again be injured or removed, I feel confident that a general spirit of antiquarian conservatism has been widely and effectually instilled, from which the cause of archæology and our Institute will reap much advantage.

J. M.