Silbury Hill – David Attenborough’s big dig

26 10 2010

Silbury Hill is as ancient and enigmatic as Stonehenge. David Attenborough tells us why he set out to crack it

Tomb or temple? ... Silbury Hill, Wiltshire.

Tomb or temple? ... Silbury Hill, Wiltshire.


The past,” says David Attenborough, “is a haunting and fascinating place.” The great naturalist is revealing a little-known side of himself: his love of archaeology – and his fascination with Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. The tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, Silbury Hill rises to a height of 37 metres, making it comparable with the Egyptian pyramids and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.

In a new English Heritage book about the hill, Attenborough tells how, in 1968 as controller of BBC2, he commissioned a programme that involved tunnelling into its depths to discover why it was there. At the time, the programme was judged a flop, since it found no treasure, no tomb, no real answers at all.



Attenborough is now seeking to set the record straight. He argues that, far from failing, TV’s first live dig triggered an unlikely chain of events that recently led to the tunnel being reopened and re-examined, using modern techniques. “They did not unearth any material treasure either,” he writes, but instead “added more details to our knowledge and understanding.” And this, you could say, is the true purpose of archaeology. In fact, the reopening of the tunnel vindicated the project Attenborough is so proud of: it revealed perhaps as much as will ever be known about this most mysterious of ancient monuments.

Silbury Hill is near Avebury, a quaint English village set inside a prehistoric stone circle. The village is part of a world heritage site that takes in Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. Raised in the same era as the mighty Stonehenge, and just as much of an enigma, the hill boasts chalk sides covered with grass. Construction of the vast, flat-topped cone would have required hundreds of workers and taken an age, but the people who built it left no records as to why.

BBC2 was a new channel in the 60s, with a brief to experiment. “We were going to do new television,” says Attenborough. “Everything we did would be in some way identifiable as new. With archaeology we thought, ‘Why can’t we do a live excavation?’ We would have cameras there so, if necessary, we could interrupt other programmes.”

The plan was to dig a tunnel into the heart of the hill. Professor Richard Atkinson, who led the dig, had interesting ideas about what might be in there. “Richard was the first to notice Mycenean daggers on Stonehenge,” says Attenborough. These made Atkinson believe Stonehenge was built by a culture in contact with ancient Greece, whose chief wanted a dramatic tomb.

This was TV as real adventure, and it captured the public imagination. Some saw it as a treasure hunt; others as a mix of horror and science-fiction. “Atkinson,” says Attenborough, “didn’t necessarily think there was going to be a burial [site]. The press said, ‘This is a treasure hunt, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘No, it’s about little bits of mud.'”

As the tunnel took shape, with news reported continually, nothing much emerged. “People kept saying, ‘It’s a failure,'” says Attenborough. “But we did discover how it was made.” Some people maintained the dig was actually harmful. “Since then, if there have been slumps in the top, people have said, ‘Ah ha, it’s the BBC’s tunnel.’ ”

In 2000, not just a slump but a hole appeared. Was the tunnel collapsing? No: this was caused by an 18th-century shaft, but archaeologists were still worried. They decided to reopen the BBC tunnel, deploying the latest tools and tests, and then seal it forever.

The new dig suggested that the hill was not a tomb, but a temple – perhaps the greatest in Europe 4,000 years ago. It also showed the hill started as a sacred site, where people came bearing stones; they may have believed they possessed healing powers. Certainly, stones are embedded in the structure and are thought to be highly meaningful by archaeologists. It is like Britain’s later cathedrals, which rose up over shrines. Sun worship flourished in prehistoric Britain, so perhaps this was – like those ancient ziggurats – a stairway to heaven to let priests get closer to the sun.

Atkinson’s tunnel is now sealed, but its creation marked a time when TV set out to bring drama and glamour to archaeology. As Attenborough says: “Anybody would be thrilled to find a Roman coin in their garden. I know I would.”

Visit Silbury Hill, Stonehenge and Avebury in a small group day tour – The Stonehenge Tour Company are the only operators who offer such a trip.  Histouries UK based in nearby Salisbury and Bath also bespoke private guided tours of the region.  You can look at more discounted tour operators here

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website



One response

26 10 2010

Appreciate you recommending our tours Merlin. Was up at West Kennet Long Barrow yesterday with a group – the best views of Silbury Hill, especially this time of year. Great blog and love your tweets by the way, keep um coming!
Stonehenge Tour Guide – Histouries UK

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