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The Silbury Monument 2019 pt1
'The Silbury Treasure' (1976) and 'The Avebury Cycle' (1977) were first published to great acclaim more than forty years ago. In this extended essay their author, Michael Dames, revisits them and summarises and recontextualises their content.
In 2018 I saw a notice board suspended over the west end of Silbury Hill’s moat. It had been erected by the National Trust. It described the failure of the Dean of Hereford’s 1859 dig into the monument, in his search for a royal tomb. After reading this information I wondered, can the National Trust get no nearer than that, to interpreting Europe’s tallest prehistoric edifice? Surely, at this critical juncture, when mechanised ‘progress’ is putting the entire world at risk, the Trust might remind us that Silbury was built to celebrate Britain within a planet regarded as a sacred, organic entity, a divine being, even a goddess. Although more than 4,000 years old, Silbury continues to display a sacred image of an earth and water union. Our world badly needs her synthesising outlook again.
Over the years, teams of archaeologists have confirmed that the only treasure lying under the tallest artificial hill in Europe is a mixed deposit of river valley silt, clay, gravel and sub-soil, combined with some charcoal, turves of grass, and a few lumps of local sarsen rock, plus some red deer tines and a ox bones. These ingredients were gathered together from the hill’s immediate surroundings and were then protected beneath a 130 feet tall tower of local chalk. So enclosed, these superficial resources, drawn from the immediate vicinity of the Hill’s river valley location, included some freshwater shells, and a few twigs of mistletoe, oak and hazel, together with some red deer antler picks and a few ox bones. These ingredients were gathered into Silbury’s 5-metre high flat-topped primary mound, the size and shape of which was echoed by that of the chalk hill’s summit. (1)
At Silbury’s core the builders intended to ‘bring their landscape into the construction, so creating a microcosm of their world in one place’. (2) That was J. Leary’s thoughtful assessment of the original intention, following his 2007 exploration of the primary mound. Yet Leary concludes that Silbury monument’s purpose ‘cannot be known’. (3) Yet the heap of organic matter, lying at Silbury’s core, was of prime importance to the earth-worshipping community of our early farmers, (4) to whom nothing was of greater value than the soil which covered their land along with much of the world’s surface. Such soil continues to give its name to planet earth, and in common with the people who built Silbury, more than 4,000 years ago, we would soon starve to death without a share of common earth. Silbury provides every era with a timelessly relevant message.
On tunnelling into the centre of the Silbury in 1977-8, Atkinson was awestruck by the ‘enormously complicated and highly coloured layer cake displayed by that monument’s primary mound’s materials’. He had also marvelled at the apparent freshness to be found at this core, where the prehistoric vegetation was ’so well preserved that every species of green grass, moss and weeds could be identified, among which dead ants and beetles seemed that they might scuttle off at any moment’. (5)
In fact, one of these ants, which had sprouted its August wings, was posted to America for radio-carbon dating. The unexpected and shocking news soon came back that the insect had been born early in the third millennium BC. Thanks to that insect, the entire Silbury monument had to be transported backwards by 1,000 years into the Late Neolithic era. (6) It could no longer be, (as had been assumed by experts and by the general public), an individual Bronze Age warrior’s tomb. Silbury predated the Bronze Age. Whereupon BBC TV lost interest and withdrew its financial support for the dig. The entire Silbury edifice belonged to the Neolithic alias the New Stone Age era. It was the work of a pre-warrior culture, in which collective burial and a non-individualistic outlook had prevailed. Such a peaceful age was quite distinct from both the Bronze Age and our own times. However, we continue to rely upon a number of Neolithic innovations and achievements, for it was between 5,000 and 2,000BC that agriculture and the domestication of animals were introduced into Britain, and that pottery making skill and the ability to spin and weave textiles arrived on our shores. (7) The 30 Radio-Carbon dates now available suggest that the primary mound may have been raised between 2,415 and 2,190 BC, and that the Hill had achieved its final form by c. 2,000BC, following a construction period of more than 300 years, involving several generations. (8)
Given the toil involved in farming and other tasks, undertaken often by women using primitive tools, what could have led these hardworking people to undertake the construction of the tallest monument in prehistoric Europe? The labour probably involved hundreds of families. As members of our own predominantly secular society, we are bound to regard their Silbury-building commitment as an incomprehensible mystery. Why was it built? Our archaeologists don’t know, and no longer expect to find out. More than a century has elapsed since Nietzche declared that our own ‘god is dead’, (9) while the notion that life as a whole is a sacred gift, requiring active communal recognition, has long since faded away. We are permanently cut off from the heart and soul of the Neolithic era by our materialistic scepticism and by our enslavement to the analytical method of research. (10) We are consequently unable to comprehend the synthesis, which enabled that community to draw human, animal and vegetable life together, unified within an all-enveloping sacred essence, recognised and enhanced at sacred sites that were re-activated during seasonal festivals. There the arts of architecture, music and dance combined with the elements and with economic need, into a synthesis that was established as the procured norm. (11)
One archaeologist who has recently attempted to account for the Silbury enterprise is A. Whittle. He sees the monument as ‘the expression of a cosmology or world view, involving spiritual dimensions, linked to the notion of a ritual cycle, sacred realms, the past, and the beginning of the world.’ After waving this extensive menu, but he makes no explicit choices and does not elaborate., (12) but at least he has progressed beyond quantifying the hours, years and number of people involved in the project, a type of Silbury guesswork to which his colleagues largely confine themselves. (13)
In searching for an effort comparable to that made at Silbury, we might look towards any medieval cathedral, as it rises against the pull of gravity towards a presumed transcendental heaven. (14) Yet this is misleading comparison, since in addressing the sun and moon Silbury sought no such escape, but instead intended to celebrate an earth-bound immediacy, climaxing in a repeatable harvest festival, housed within a gigantic image of Mother Earth, their own Great Goddess. Known across Eurasia from end to end, (15) she was locally revealed here in Wiltshire, where her water bodily image was rendered on a scale big enough to accommodate the whole community during their festival, held within and around her recumbent form.
In many of the worlds creation myths, the ‘Primal Waters’ are viewed as the chaotic base from where material creation springs.(16) Such waters are said to give birth to the first solid form, often envisaged in the shape of a mountain, or a hillock, (17) as seen here as Silbury Hill, with the surrounding waters regarded as analogous to the waters of a mother’s womb, in which every mammalian offspring floats prior to birth. (18)
To match every farmer’s experience, their goddess image brought water, soil, and the solid ground’s underlying rock, into a living, working truth. Have we now become so estranged from our own planet that our pioneer farmers’ deity has become totally invisible to us? If so, we might blame the silt which now somewhat clogs her ditch image,(19) even if the water level often still rises above that of the silt. Another blockage is now provided by the habitual silence of modern archaeologists who, when faced by any religious question, ‘tend to take refuge in silence’, as Professor Atkinson, who tunnelled under the monument during his 1967-8 excavation honestly confessed. (20) Likewise his colleague, Professor Glyn Daniel of Cambridge university, reminded the public that ’The history of ideas begins with writing; there is not and never can be a history of prehistoric thought’. (21) (And by definition, his History of unique moments was linear, quite unlike the cyclical, repeatable prehistoric attitude to time.) Daniel’s appraisal was echoed in 1989, by the curator of Avebury’s museum who stated that ‘It seems more than likely that there will never be an archaeological breakthrough which can tell us why this site (Silbury) was built’. (22) Meanwhile Tom Quinn classifies Silbury hill as ‘one of the strangest structures in the world’, then adding blankly ‘we do not understand its purpose’. (23)
Although our prevailing method of enquiry debars us from access into the Neolithic mind, does it follow that preliterate people were incapable of thought? Might we consider the alternative ways available to them, when attempting to convey their ideas, other than by writing? For example, they might use visual symbols, including some delivered on an architectural scale. (24) But rather than ‘deviate’ into, what to them, is an unfamiliar sphere, most British experts in Prehistory prefer to sit within the confines of their own science-based ‘discipline’, while regarding the solid images that they encounter of whatever size, as dumb ‘things’, rather than as recognisable visual expressions of the community’s main ideas.
Such visual illiteracy is particularly hard to justify, given the wealth of supplementary modes of studying the past that are currently available, (25) including those provided by Anthropology, The History of Religions, the Visual Arts, and our nation’s Folklore, (which still contains many long entrenched agrarian habits). In addition, Classical Studies, offer many instances where prehistoric attitudes have clearly overlapped into, and influenced, periods equipped with literacy. How can one account for the failure of British Archaeology to avail itself of these opportunities provided by many neighbouring fields of study? Some determined cross-referencing is badly needed.
Of many possible reasons that might account for Archaeologists reluctance to become so engaged, one could list: (a) Pride in departmental isolation. (b) The 18th century’s Enlightenment’s legacy of insistence on a method of Scientific Objectivity. (c) 2,000 years of Christian monotheism, which renders the merest hint of pagan deities suspect, and prevents their proper study. (d) 500 years of Protestant iconoclasm, that has devalued religious imagery, and has incidentally produced a profound reluctance to address the visual aspects of culture amongst many academics. (e) A pronounced orientation towards the values of a male-centred patriarchy, in funding research initiatives.(f) An unwillingness to admit that truths can be found in contradictions and in parallel realities, such as are embedded in metaphor i.e. there may be an institutionalised deafness to the poetic realities of past cultures.(g) An urban-based severance from rurally grounded experience. Far less than 1% of our adult population is now engaged in agriculture (a mere 126,000 farmers among 65 million urbanites.)
To approach Neolithic reality, one must get down to earth, including its dirt, or filth, and the dung of cattle, usually mixed with decomposing vegetable matter. Likewise, mud may lack immediate appeal for us. Mud is soft, wet soil, mire or sludge, a mixture of soil and water, which, according to the English Dictionary is something ‘regarded as worthless and polluting, the lowest and worst part of anything, alias the dregs, or foulness’.(26) Perhaps we should blame Eve for this low estimate, for after succumbing to the Devil’s temptation, and biting into an apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge, her single disobedient act cast the whole world into a state of original sin, a deeply soiled condition. But even if the Neolithic predated or was unaware of the Biblical Genesis, (27) people of Judeo-Christendom persuasion, have somehow to see the earth afresh, and bring Silbury back from its present day expulsion into non-meaning. To achieve this, we have to climb over the obstacles erected by our own culture.
Atkinson, Leary and others have caught a glimpse of Neolithic earth, without dwelling on its preciousness to the Neolithic community, to whom it was undoubtedly sacred. Like the Christian host, offered during the Catholic mass, the common soil, carefully sited beneath Silbury, stood for the essence of their goddess. Silbury’s earth achieved a religious dimension, as confirmed by the monument’s summit, originally perhaps domed, (28) which conspicuously still repeats the diameter of the hidden primary mound. This summit raises the hidden inner-most mound sky-high, to provide the ‘special field’ on which the first fruits of the next harvest could rise and ripen towards a ritually garnered maturity. (29)
Academic secularism, (for so long the hallmark of scholarly respectability,) discourages a fall into the murky subjectivity that characterises religion. No wonder that so few consent to call on theology. Their reputations might never recover if they did. So, along with Atkinson, ‘In matters of faith and religion the Pre-historian is inclined to take refuge in silence’. Alarm bells ring out with particular strength whenever the figure of a female deity, a possible goddess, comes into view. (She might be Eve, cunningly disguised.) Thus, as if threatened by the very possibility, the pre-historian Andrew Fleming cries out ’Let us disengage ourselves from the Goddess’ embrace’, (30) while with evident satisfaction the historian R. Hutton, summarises the beneficial effect of the analytical approach to the goddess, favoured by pre-historians: ‘She has been blown to pieces for ever by them. There is no possible answer to their analysis.’ (31) Analysis again!
With the triumph of such misapplied instrumentalism complete, there is no further need to look at the evidence on the ground. Instead, blatant falsehoods can be circulated to discredit anyone who is unwise enough to scrutinise the remains at first hand. For example, in the official National Trust booklet on the area, K. Malone, curator of Avebury’s museum, declared that the Silbury effigy is only discernable from the air, (32) implying that its surrounding moat image was therefore unreadable and inconceivable to a prehistoric population who lacked aircraft. Yet as a plain matter of fact, the figure outlined by the Neolithic water body, that still surrounds Silbury can be clearly seen today from ground level, and read throughout its sinuous course from ground level, and also of course from the hill’s summit. (33) (Wiltshire’s recently discovered Neolithic house ground-plan, shaped anthropomorphically, brings the same revered goddess image into their domestic interior.) (34) Meanwhile Malone states that no Neolithic goddess figurines have been found in Britain; yet such figurines have been found and recognised as such, in Norfolk,(35) Somerset, (36) Dorset, (37) and within a mile from Silbury on Windmill Hill, Wiltshire. (38) To complete her task of professional rebuttal Malone goes on to move the entire Silbury monument forward by at least a thousand years, and then to drop it, back into the Bronze Age, where she declares that it served to mark a battle site, or that it as a chieftain’s territorial marker, (39) two supposed roles quite out of keeping with the monument’s life-enhancing Neolithic purpose. It seems that for some ‘experts’, warrior culture provides the only conceivable cultural reality.
From the start of their work on the monument,
the builders wished to emphasise a land-water connection. Hence they dug
a narrow, 6 metre deep ditch to closely encircle their primary mound,
(1) realising that without water, earth soon turns into desert dust.
This primary ditch is now completely buried under the chalk hill.
Her squatting body stretches 1,109 feet due east-west, (4) an orientation that matches every spring and autumn equinoctial sun rise and sun set, as if to balance herself perfectly across the year’s gifts of warmth and light, essential to encourage her next harvest. As for her moat torso, it is now generally recognised, that Silbury Hill was ‘built to be permanently surrounded by water’. (5)
Designed on an architectural scale big enough to accommodate a large celebratory harvest gathering, involving thousands of people, Silbury’s earth-rock and water effigy could have been modelled on any pregnant woman from the community, when planning the moat’s superhuman female shape. Moreover, since every human body is filled with 60% water, (6) a water-lady, or a lady of the lake, (7) would be perfectly matched by any human prototype. Silbury’s ‘religion’ fully engaged with ordinary life. It was not a thing apart. ‘Beliefs were lived out, rather than thought out.’ (8) Nor was this typical Neolithic deity a simple fertility sign. Rather, as commentators such as O. G. S. Crawford have established, (9) she was a multi-dimensional being. Accordingly, when viewed from the west end of her moat, her .womb-hill can equally be reads as a massive chalk ‘eye ball’, whose outwardly-radiating chalk walls can address every onlooker. (10) Silbury apparently combined her raw matter with far-reaching intelligence.
In order to ensure the watery aspect of their figure, the architects decided to construct the entire monument on the floor of the Kennet valley, close to its Winterbourne and Beckhampton tributary streams, and within sight of the river Kennet’s Swallowhead source. A survey by two Oxford geographers has recently confirmed that the level of the Neolithic water table was substantially higher in this vicinity than it is today. There was plenty of water available in 2,500BC. (11)
Recent observations by Steve Marshall have proved that the layer of plenus marl clay that causes the Kennet’s Swallowhead spring to emerge, also feeds at least 82 little springs that run directly into the Silbury moat. In January, 2017, he saw them ‘bubbling beautifully’ as they emerged at 10 degrees centigrade, to feed into the Silbury moat, from their tiny underground channels. Being notably warmer than winter’s rainfall, he noted that this underground supply of moisture produced a metre-wide strip of vibrant emerald green grass, immediately fringing the moat’s outline, so delivering a sign of verdant fertility even in the depths of winter. (12) The moat deity did not just lie there passively. Rather, her waters actively led the way towards vegetation’s renewal.
Marshall invited the archaeologists Leary and Field to join him in recording these feeder springs, and they found seven more, around the lake figure’s eastern thigh. (13) With regard to both earth and water, the Silbury giantess understood and benefited from local opportunities. Despite the 5 metres of silt that have accumulated in the ditch during 4,000 years, and despite a recent fall in the underground water-table, the Silbury water figure continues to appear almost as wet as her creators intended, through many months each year. As regards the ditch’s supernatural function, a contributor to the journal British Archaeology proposed in 2003 that it was to keep evil spirits at bay, a suggestion that fits another Christian folk belief that the entire monument had been accidentally dropped at its present site by the Devil. He had intended to demolish the town of Marlborough beneath its mass.
As the subterranean springs dotted around her margin showed, the Silbury monument was expected to engage with the underworld in her search for new life. This subterranean connection was emphasised by an 18th century local folk belief recorded by Col. Drax that a tunnel ran from the centre of Silbury Hill’s base to the nearby West Kennet long barrow. At the bottom of Col. Drax’ shaft, dug into Silbury Hill in 1776, four of his Cornish miners discovered ‘a perpendicular cavity in the bedrock that yet appears bottomless’. He described it as ‘a mere 6 inches in diameter, and added that ‘we have followed it already 20 feet downwards, and can plumb it eleven feet more’, but loose chalk having fallen in, they could penetrate no further. Drax added that ‘a wind, strong enough to blow out a candle, came from this hole’. (In 2017, (14) J. Cleary discovered a pit dug into the summit of Silbury’s primary mound which supported Drax’s account of his search for a central shaft.) (15) In geological terms, such vertical pipes in chalk are typically worn by the acidity in rain water. (16)
According to folk belief, a similar hole was said to lie under the West Kennet long barrow.(17) That the hope for new life should be sought in the underworld is the theme of the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who was obliged to live for part of the year below ground with Hades. (18) So also was the Roman corn goddess, Ceres daughter, Proserpine. (19)
Another link between Silbury and the West Kennet barrow was discovered in 1966, when S. Piggott discovered that layers of soil, chalk rubble, containing the fossils of long dead sea creatures, all mixed with charcoal and pot fragments, and deposited, c.2,400 BC, over the long-buried skeletal remains in each of that tomb’s four side chambers. (20) This modification was carried out during the period of Silbury’s construction, as if to emphasise that an extra covering of soil might bring renewed life to the districts long buried ancestors. Perhaps their bones were to be regarded as another version of the earth’s ‘seed-corn’. At the same period, a megalithic bull-shaped figure was set up across the same barrow’s forecourt, perhaps to honour agriculture’s dependence upon draught animals. (21) If such was the intention, it implies that Silbury, the pregnant goddess, as cultivator, also had a tomb aspect. She served as the protective mother of the dead, with her hollow stone head and four ‘limb’ side chambers, viewed together, depicting her lying flat on her back, to offer shelter to the West Kennet dead. Indeed the superhuman configuration made by this group of chambers was recognised long ago by Mrs Vatcher, a previous curator of Avebury’s museum, who told me in 1972, that the tomb’s outline was her ‘little old man’. (22) Of either sex, the West Kennet tomb is inter-visible with Silbury.
Silbury was not intended as a ‘thing’, but as a supernatural character, employed in one stage of a repeatable divine narrative which involved her engagement with the much older long barrow, that had been modified during Silbury’s construction period,, to fit in with the Avebury henge and several other ‘monuments’ grouped in the immediate area, many of which stand within sight of one other. (23) They served as appropriately shaped stages, each one matching both the quality of a specific seasonal festival and the corresponding phase in the human life cycle. Archaeologists are now willing to say ‘that ‘It looks increasingly likely that the construction phases of all these Avebury monuments fall into exactly the same time horizon, and that they are of contemporary, interlinked in use’. (24) As a group, they were each involved in a ‘double act’ at each stage of their cycle, so that both the agrarian and humanity’s life stages could be unified into a double-stranded ring, of clearly displayed double significance, and containing many emotional and intuitive factors, amounting to a communal realisation rather than an instrumental doctrine. Here religion was an integral part of a way of life, thoroughly intertwined with the social fabric. (25)
Who, or what, could be trusted to undertake a programme of such fundamental importance to the whole population, if not that versatile being, she, who every Neolithic community considered the source of all life, their one and only versatile Great Goddess, (26) by whatever name she was locally known. (In fact, her unified presence may be found in the Ann Hill fairground, a site which crowns the ridge of the Marlborough Downs, and overlooks all the Avebury monuments. It was used annually, by August gatherings of shepherds who annually drove their flocks to that remote summit, (27) until, following a 1932 rainstorm, which prevented the new-fangled lorry transport of livestock from reaching Ann’s summit, after which the site was abandoned. A prehistoric goddess named Ann is well known in Ireland, (28) while a St Anne was much later named as mother of the Virgin Mary.
To summarize, the Avebury deity’s transformations involved a change from her pregnant state at the start of harvest in August, to her dead-protecting, flat earth winter hag shape, as displayed at the long barrow. From there she bestirred herself into a labyrinthine revival. The figure of a maze was frequently employed in prehistory to suggest the first stirrings of revival. (28) The Sanctuary’s labyrinthine rings of wood and stone ground plan reflect the dimensions of Silbury’s core. In addition as Piggott found, some artefacts from the long barrow had also been stored therein. (29) The Sanctuary offered an inter-seasonal staging post from where the vigorous serpent of renewal would then emerge in the form of the West Kennet Avenue. Issuing directly from the Sanctuary, 100 pairs of stones ran for more than a mile, to Avebury. (30) This snaky avenue was equalled by its now demolished partner, the correspondingly long Beckhampton Avenue. (31)
Together, this ‘serpentine’ pair epitomised renewal as they entered the goddess’ Avebury henge ring, for May-Day wedding ceremonies, that marked the start of the summer half of the year. (32) There the ancestors had gathered, as depicted by the rings of upright stone megaliths, which intermingled with throngs of the living. To foster their hopes of fruitful corn crops and of fertile conjugal unions of young people, the long axis of the Avebury henge interior was made exactly equal to the length of Silbury’s water goddess, at 1,105 feet.(33) In terms of a vertical connection Silbury’s summit is clearly visible from the henge south circle.(34)
In short, the Silbury figure is plainly one aspect of a triple goddess, whose triple forms were later represented by the European and by Britain’s Celtic triple matres deity, whose powers over birth marriage and death were likewise spread across the year’s span. (35) Welcome to the Avebury group of working goddess temple-images, in which May-Eve, Marriage, and Motherhood and funeral ceremonies were annually integrated and which meant that Silbury’s height was probably influenced if not determined by the need for its summit to be visible from within the henge, A continuous Cyclical Progress, running from death, infancy, marriage and motherhood, and accompanied by the corresponding stages in the agrarian cycle, was the priority. The community was involved in a religion for real life. (36)
By following the pattern set by their farming, the Avebury cycle was designed to go round and around forever. But if the Avebury ensemble, which was so clearly in touch with the local landscape, and provides a glorious statement of the obvious, why do we now find it so puzzling, or hard to understand and enjoy on its own terms? Is it partly because we have lost contact with the earth, as understood in Neolithic era? Yes, we surely have. As substantial research conducted across several disciplines and on every continent except Antarctica has shown that throughout the Neolithic world the fertile earth was the primordial mother, directly responsible for motherhood among every species of plant and animal. (37) Thus each human child started out as a miniature fetus, generated within the earth’s fabric, from where its future human mother adopted it, (directly from rock, or earth, or from ground water), into her own womb, where she enabled this earthling larva to acquire a specifically human form. Thus in a reversed ‘Right of passage’ the new born infant was placed directly on the ground, in confirmation of its first mother’s role.(38) Consequently, her offspring were literally people of their native land. (In modern Lithuania, for example, the earth mother Zemnya, operating in the 19th century AD, was alone responsible for creating new beings.) (39)
Accordingly, as young women approached the Avebury monument via the West Kennet avenue, they were then lowered into its deep surrounding, embryo-filled ditch, or they walked into the ditch down the carved steps to its flooded base, that were cut close to the monument’s southern entrance. (40) In addition they were required to sit in what Christianity would rename The Devil’s Chair which was a natural niche provided within the henge south portal megalith that was used during May-Eve ceremonies. (41) A trace of this tradition involving young women, survived into the twentieth century AD. During the Neolithic, those who sat there might receive a germ of new life directly from the ancestral rock, and thereby merge previous generations with those as yet unborn. The subterranean womb, whether of rock, water or earth supplied the true fons et origo of all life forms, just as seeds of grain, set into the ground produced new crops of wheat or barley. The dew that fell on May eve was considered sacred, and a cure for many ailments, as our folklore continued to declare, (42) while the May Doll, as a reminder of the divine image of returning summer, was taken from house to house in villages such as Bampton in Oxfordshire. (43)
In order to affirm their motherly partnership with the earth, at the moment of giving birth, human mothers tended to squat directly onto the ground, (44) just as the prototypical maternal image, depicted at Silbury displays. Likewise, as in Roman practice, the new-born child was usually placed directly on the earth, (45) thereby incidentally emphasising its close connection with all other forms of new life. This soil-engrossed all-life perspective gives extra weight to the earth gathered within Silbury’s primary mound, over whose 130 feet-high monumental summit the first cut of the wheat harvest was made, a mere three months after the gathering at the henge had taken place. (46)
The Silbury harvest event eventually acquired a ‘Lammas’ title from a superimposed Christian ‘loaf mass’ term, (47) linked to Christ’s Last Supper, which merged into the pagan First Fruits gathering. In Welsh the start of harvest rite was termed Gwyl Awst, ‘August Vigil’. (48) It was held on the night of the full moon nearest the solar quarter day, at the start of August. Because the moon’s full shape suggested maximum fertility, a full moon’s assistance shining over the harvest birth event was highly valued. (49) The night-long vigil undertaken by the participants, matched the darkness of the earth from which the new crop was about to emerge fully ripe. Around the Silbury image, the rising full moon, (as a sky-high emblem of plenitude) would first illuminate the squatting goddess’s water filled vulva and ‘thigh’, (50) before moving south to align with the only dry section of her ‘moat’ image, which was set between the two causeways that gave access to the hill. (51) There a newborn harvest child of wheat, along with a newborn human baby might safely be cradled together. The dry cradle is attached directly to Silbury Hill’s side (to some observers this cradle doubles as a male penis and so gives an androgynous quality to the monument). (52) It aligns due south to the Swallowhead spring, which spurts forth one of nature’s pure streams from her underworld, and gives birth to the river Kennet .(53) (A bucketful of this water was ceremonially carried onto Silbury’s summit and drunk there, once a year, until c.1850AD. (54) The interplay with the landscape was understood and long valued.)
Before dawn, the Lammas full moon has swung further west before setting over the goddess effigy’s exposed water-defined breast. (According to 18th century folklore the entire monument was built ‘while a posset of milk was seething’. (55) Hot milk coming from a living mother, was plainly meant to feed the new-born ‘child’, who combined vegetable crops and animal-human traits in its wide-ranging personality.
Using wheat stalks, a miniature ‘mother earth’
corn dolly figure would then be plaited and she would eventually lead in
the harvest-home rites, as she continued to do until the verge of modern
times. The Neolithic Silbury ceremonies probably involved communal
bathing within the ‘moat’ figure. Chalk steps were provided, leading
into the water from her breast. A chain dance, perhaps encompassing the
entire Silbury figure, and including everyone present, is easy to
imagine, since this water-lady belonged to everyone. Her hospitality
also reached out to the local dead, who were believed to hungrily return
to the surface for their share of the new plenty. (56)
When extolling the Silbury achievement, we should bring to mind some of the many comparable goddess-worshipping communities to be found across the Neolithic world. They are often complex deities, (1) yet their connection with the fertile earth that connects fertile woman and ploughed earth is a central feature of these cultivator’s religions. (2) Such beliefs are especially important in the Wheat zone, which stretches across Europe to China, where women were in charge of domesticated plants. In ancient Greece, the goddess Gaia, whose name means ‘Earth’, pulls the world out of Chaos, prior to establishing her control over agriculture. (3) Also in Greece, the earth goddess Demeter rose to a prominence that she retained well into the historic era. Her daughter Persephone, alias Kore, ‘maiden’ is obliged to spend part of the year in the underworld, but she returns to the surface, bringing spring flowers, whereupon her mother allowed the grain crops to flourish. During her Mysteries, held at Eleusis every year, from the 8th century BC onwards, several thousand initiates crowded into the main hall at night, to await the moment when a huge fire burst forth and they then all shouted ‘The mistress has given birth to a sacred child’, who was shown as an ear of wheat. (4)
Demeter’s Roman equivalent was the corn deity Ceres, who was particularly beloved by women and the rural labourers. Ceres was worshipped in her temple on the Aventine hill in Rome. She was responsible for the entire land’s fertility and was credited with teaching humanity how to grow and to store grain, (5) along with her companion harvest deities, Bona Dea (6) and Ops Consiva. (7) Ceres is often depicted wearing a garland made from ears of corn. She nurtured all motherly relationships. The recently discovered Roman settlement at the foot of Silbury may have been inspired by the recognition of ‘Ceres’ adopted presence there. (7) The connection of the Neolithic deity to the wilderness was reaffirmed when Cybele arrived in Rome, accompanied by her two lions and musicians, and by Attis, her male consort. Cybele was called Magna Mater, ‘Great Mother of the gods’. (8)
In Asia Minor, the Neolithic goddesses found at Catal Huyuk, were linked to pregnancy, birth, and to the bull, and to other wild animals. Here also, the goddess could manifest as a bird or a snake deity. (9)
In the transition from small-scale social units to major civilisations, goddesses played major roles in China, Japan and India, where they were linked to both the fertility of crops and the protection of urban ceremonial centres. (10) Numerous mother goddess figurines have been found associated with the Indus valley culture that flourished from 2,500-1,500 BC, contemporary with Silbury. (11)
Some commentators emphasise the continuity of outlook between Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic cultures, where lunar mythology, and linear designs similar to those that decorate many Neolithic female figurines, are found. (12)
In both North and South America, expressions of devotion and reverence for the earth as a sacred gift are widespread. Among many tribes, to live on earth is seen as a religious condition. Earth is recognised as the source of life from the beginning of time, the image of the earth as the primal mother is beloved, and for her role as the locus of regenerative life. In the name of common humanity, how can the National Trust in the offshore island of Britain turn its back on this positive world-wide legacy? For our National Trust’s sake, I now turn to some Mother Earth’s closer to home. For instance, in Germanic religion, Jord (Earth) was also known as Fjorgyn, ‘Goddess of the furrow’, (13) while in Germanic folklore, Erd mutter, is a symbol of the earth. (14) As Tacitus discovered, along the Baltic shore the earth goddess Nerthus, emerged annually. Even during the violent Iron Age, she bought an interlude of peace, during which all weapons were hidden away. (15)
Amongst The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, who arrived here from the 4th century AD onwards, their principal goddess was Freyja, alias the bejewelled and beautiful ‘Lady’, (16) who has much in common with the loving Frigg, (who has given her name to our Friday’s day of the week) and with Nerthus. Freyja’s association with the wild boar gives her an additional route to fecundity, (17) her basic quality and gift to the world.
With this inheritance, it should come as no surprise to learn that for many centuries after the British population adopted Christianity, our peasantry continues to appeal to their ever-young earth mother, as Anglo-Saxon charms written down around 1,000 AD make plain. Chanting: ‘Erce, eorth modor Let a man drive forth the plough, and as the first furrow cuts, say then: whole may ye be, earth, mother of men, May ye be growing in god’s embrace. With food filled, for the needs of men’. (18)
A 12th century English herbal appeals to ‘Earth, divine goddess, Mother Nature who generates all things, and brings forth anew the sun and guardian of the sky, you are the queen of the gods, without you nothing can be born’. (20) The earth provided a cosmic solidarity, shared by all kinds of life. Being united on the biological plane, all species enjoy intertwined fates. (This experienced union was challenged and put at risk by the Judeo-Christian insistence that the human species was quite distinct from all others, for only it had a soul and a possible link to god.) (21)
A 7th century old English formula recommends that ‘Four sods should be taken from a field at night and that they be soaked in the milk of every animal that is to be kept in that field. Then the four sods should be returned to that field. The farmer must then obtain seed from beggars, and pays them generously, before putting those seeds into his first furrow’ (22). Thus the Aecer bot (the ‘field’s wellbeing’) will be preserved, in a relationship involving a deliberate process of give and take.
So, in a recognised two-way partnership, the earth’s innate generosity was for long recognised and sustained. (23) Given this English background, I hope that modern Silbury does not feel isolated by the recent blanket of non-meaning flung over her ever-living flanks.
Yet bearing in mind David Attenborough’s repeated assertion that humanity has carried every kind of life on earth to the brink of extinction due to our mechanised lifestyle, and the global warming that it has undoubtedly produced, it could be argued that the last thing we need today is a gigantic image, in female human shape, set onto planet earth. From our recent perspective, the time for Mother Silbury’s display of a superhuman maternal influence is now surely over. Instead, a distinctly nonhuman symbol is urgently needed to legitimately embody hopes for, and delivery from the human species misplaced sense of superiority. In the urgent search for the world’s recovery, we might do every other species a favour, if it were to retire from the scene. We have had our chance to fairly organise the planet, and have unintentionally failed. Perhaps we should move aside and leave the world’s future to the ants.
The human species is no more necessary to the earth than were the dinosaurs, which unlike us, did the planet no harm. Or if we continue to exist, perhaps the example offered by the Neolithic might persuade us to modify our current belief in the neccesity for linear progress and rediscover the benefits of cyclical time. If, however, as a species we disappear entirely, planet earth may eventually cool down and recover much of its pre-Neolithic primary forest cover. In any event, we should convey our best wishes to this our long-suffering, marvel filled world, in the belief (or at least the hope) that it may enjoy some kind of, as yet unknowable, happy future.
But is this a fair assessment? Though figured in superhuman shape, the Silbury mother always intended to concern herself equally with all kinds of animal and vegetable life on earth. Her builders depicted the human presence with a reassuringly broad life-giving purpose. Her intention was to protect and deliver the world as a dynamic multi-species endlessly repeatable life- event, which is exactly what we are belatedly seeking again.. As things have turned out, we need Silbury’s example more than ever. So, old monument please may we reiterate your outlook and meaning in a clear manner, and bring another bucket of Kennet spring water to your disturbed summit?