Posted by: fattaff | 31 August, 2010

Rethinking Silbury


One of the advantages of living on the edge of a World Heritage Site, is that you occasionally get to see the latest activity and research in action.  Today, English Heritage invited locals to a site tour of the new excavations at Silbury Hill.

Most of us know Silbury as that ever-elusive prehistoric monument, but during the conservation works a couple of years ago, EH took the opportunity to do some geophysical prospection on the area south and east of the hill.  It has been long-known that there was Roman activity in the area, indeed the road passing alongside Silbury is the Roman road from Bath, but what astonished EH’s archaeologists was the extent of the activity revealed by the project.

Silbury Hill Wiltshire, - Location of Magnetic Surveys S of the A4 October 2006 - February 2008 (English Heritage)

Silbury Hill Wiltshire, - Location of Magnetic Surveys S of the A4 October 2006 - February 2008 (English Heritage)

This now shows that Roman activity was far more extensive than previously thought, and seems to have formed something between a large village or small town. The settlement seems to be predominantly rural in character, with a lane running north – south, but one structure seemed immediately interesting to me (perhaps because my PhD work was on Roman temples!), that at grid ref 100,682 in the above map, which seems to show what to me looks like a religious temenos, with perhaps a temple building pushed up against the back wall.

Sadly, this structure wasn’t on the radar (!) for the current programme of work, which instead is focussed on evaluating the condition of the surviving archaeology and the relationship between it and any later agricultural activity.  The land is in part low-lying and a bit marshy, so it should come as no surprise that the first couple of trenches at the east end of the site appear to be related to drainage.

Drainage channels

Drainage channels

On higher ground to the west of the site, trenches have been sunk across some of the enclosure features shown in the geophysics and show clean, pretty deep ditches, though with no clear evidence of buildings, though these may have been ploughed away by later agricultural activity.

Double enclosure ditch with Silbury Hill in the background

Double enclosure ditch with Silbury Hill in the background

Elsewhere, the trackway which led south from the Roman Road (the modern A4) was clearly visible, and also a large, circular feature, which may have been either a well, or a large ditch for burying those pesky sarsen stones which keep cropping up all over the place!

Trench with well-like feature in the foreground (quartered for excavation) and the dark grey line of the flanking ditch of the trackway at the far end of the trench

Trench with well-like feature in the foreground (quartered for excavation) and the dark grey line of the flanking ditch of the trackway at the far end of the trench

In summary, it looks like Silbury Hill has a much more appreciable Roman history than we might have otherwise thought, and this should make us think about such issues as Roman attitudes towards pre-existing ancient monuments.

What was particularly pleasing though was that EH had bothered to reach out the local community at all!  So often these kind of projects are conducted in a vacuum and the locals never get involved at all, and for this EH must be congratulated, though it might have been a bit better organised (I for one, would have appreciated a ‘tour starts here’ sign, which would have saved me traipsing back and forth between the site and car-park). The very strong turnout (possibly helped by the lovely weather) must demonstrate to EH that these sort of little tours are well worth conducting, and I for one was very impressed by the level of archaeological literacy amongst those present on the tour – even the numerous dogs seemed keen to get involved!

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Responses

  1. Hello

    This looks like a fabulous and informative open day, but I must say I’m disappointed that it was only advertised to “locals”.

    I live just an hour’s drive away, and would have loved to have had the opportunity to come along!

    As you mentioned, it is a World Heritage site, and therefore of a much wider interest than to just “locals”. How local do you need to be to be considered local? Half an hour’s drive? 15 minutes’ drive?

    I don’t mean to cause trouble, or diminish the good work that you’re doing, but hope to see a similar “non-locals”(obviously locals would be welcome too!) event.

    Thank you
    Jeff

  2. I do apologise. Upon further reading I realise that you were a spectator and not an organiser. I will contact English Heritage directly regarding this matter.

    Thank you
    Jeff


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