14th and 15th July 2007, a unique experiment took place at Silbury
Hill, in Wiltshire, England.
Silbury Hill was built in the Neolithic period or 'late stone age'
- some 4600 years ago. It is an enormous structure - a conical,
flat-topped hill 130 feet high and 550 feet in diameter. Its construction
was an amazing feat of skill and organization that would be difficult
even today. The people who built Silbury used only human labour;
with no tools other than antler picks and baskets, and no draught
animals. With an inner structure of chalk blocks covered with rubble
and earth, the work involved its construction is difficult to comprehend:
the labour has been estimated at 4 million man-hours.
why did the builders go to so much trouble?
The true purpose of Silbury Hill is still a mystery. Several hundred
years of investigation by treasure-hunters and archaeologists has
resulted in nothing except a weakening of the structure, which is
riddled with tunnels and in danger of collapsing. Under the direction
of English Heritage, work has finally begun on conducting a full
survey of the hill and the surrounding area; then back-filling the
old tunnels with chalk. The work seems frought with difficulties
though and unusually wet weather has brought extra problems.
the work was finally completed in 2008)
A superb Avebury website: Avebury
is a very new way of considering our past, but English Heritage
archaeologists have been investigating the acoustics of archaeological
sites and attempting to discover features that might point to their
function as perfomance spaces. The Acoustic Silbury event was a
part of that work.
Ancient music specialists Simon & Maria O'Dwyer played a selection
of replica instruments (dating from the stone age to the iron age)
from the top of the hill, in five performances over the course of
Members of the public were invited to help by listening in various
positions around the hill and noting what could be heard. I was
one of them, and managed to also make binaural recordings of the
performances from three different positions around Silbury - one
of them half a mile away, on Waden Hill.
Some of the results can be heard here as mp3s.
My final recording was of the 11am Sunday performance and brought
some unexpected and very exciting results. From a position close
to the hill, on its north side (photo above) I recorded some very
spectacular repeat echoes, of about half a second in length, coming
from the surrounding hills. I have spent a lot of time around Silbury,
but was previously unaware of any echoes. The effect is very dramatic
and may have been a factor in the siting of the hill.
in a pair of headphones and listen for yourself...
Hill is just one element of an ancient and greater 'ritual landscape'
known as the Avebury Complex. The monuments in the surrounding area
were built over a period of several thousand years. To the northwest
is Windmill Hill - site of a community that thrived around 3500
BC. A mile to the north of Silbury is the great Avebury stone circle
and its avenue of standing stones, dating from 3000 BC. To the southeast
is the West Kennet long barrow - used for burials for several hundred
years and sealed shut around 3300 BC. The whole area around Avebury
is littered with later monuments, such as the round barrows of the