"Waiting For The Stars To Align" ~ lyric by Vitalic
Introduction - What Struck Me About My Photo (Above)
I've never photographed Silbury Hill against a setting Orion before, but having done so I may now be able to explain the monument's distinctive flat topped shape. In my photo above Orion is sinking down towards its eventual setting in the west - a striking feature of the spring sky. Looking at the photo I can't help thinking that there must be a vantage point from which (during spring nights) the westering stars of Orion's Belt appear to hover just above the flat top of Silbury Hill, before plunging dramatically down behind it. If I am right, Silbury's architects would have pre-visualised these highly theatrical and symbolic moments and designed the hilltop deliberately to accommodate them. The intention would have been to showcase and glorify the famous Belt, probably as the centerpiece of a lost ceremony (the vernal equinox would appear to be a logical time to stage this).
I Am Encouraged In This Speculation By Noticing That:
A. The apparent width of the Belt stars, when viewed from the locally dominating Waden Hill area, appears very similar to the apparent width of Silbury's flat top <1>, as if this enigmatic platform was exactly designed to reflect and "receive" them.
B. Neolithic people in Britain did demonstrably have an interest in the three stars of Orion's Belt. For example, the three henges at Thornborough are laid out in the characteristic pattern of three, with the center henge slightly offset. There is even a suggestion that Avebury might have once been intended to have three rings lined up on the same axis (see Burl, page 185).
C. Our neolithic predecessors were obsessed with the number three, for example they buried three ox skulls "tidily spaced along the axis" of the Beckhampton Barrow (Burl page 123), another example might be three skulls lined up in the south-west chamber of West Kennet Long Barrow (Burl page 278) or the fact that Coves were made from three monoliths. The number three can be see as corresponding with the triple nature of the neolithic Goddess <2>. As Professor Meaden explains on page 4 of his "The Secrets Of The Avebury Stones", neolithic people saw her as having "three ages of maiden, mother and wise woman." That is why I think they may have regarded the three Belt stars as sacred, one star for each of the Goddess' three ages, to be symbolically united with the peak of Silbury Hill.
D. Working out how the ancient stars were placed in the sky is problematic unless you take polar precession into account. This is because the earth's axis slowly and majestically describes a giant circle in the sky which appears to alter the position of constellations over very large amounts of time. To test whether my hypothesis is possible, and to take into account this precession, I configured Stellarium software to show the Avebury sky for 2700 BC (which is the date I am assuming for Silbury's construction - see Burl page 172 <3>.) to see if the setting Belt stars would have been visible as a horizontal asterism. I had to judge this from my computer screen, so my results are rough, but I was delighted to find the hoped for ancient horizontal Belt alignment at an approximate (and definitely visible) altitude of 20 degrees, and an azimuth of around 210 degrees. This means that when, viewed from the north north-east, it was possible for the Belt to have presented as a horizontal and ceremonially satisfying line of three stars hovering just above the top of the Silbury.
Therefore, assuming my schoolboy geometry is up to it, if you stand on the top of Silbury (which you shouldn't because of erosion issues) and look roughly in the direction of azimuth [210 minus 180 =] 30 degrees, you would be looking at the expanse of flat plain where hundreds of worshippers would have gathered to watch the celestial ceremony. Such a location would not require a formal platform or other official monument to view the show.
The Lost Ceremony And The Transference Of The Goddess (lots of speculation here!)
The question therefore arises why it was important for the 3 Belt stars to unite with the top of Silbury Hill, I mean what goal could have been so monumentally crucial as to require the enormous construction effort needed to make a flat topped Silbury? I think the answer may clearer if we assume that during the darker, colder months the Great Goddess was believed to have left the earth and taken the form of the "Winter Hag" amongst the stars we call Orion.
I suggest that the problem for the neolithic worshippers was how to propiatiate the Goddess, encourage her to leave the winter stars behind, and then reinhabit the earth to bring back spring and warmth. This is the purpose of Silbury's design with its flat top, it provided a transfer point enabling the Great Goddess to symbolically "convert" from her winter star incarnation and to resume her earthly presence as the Maiden of Spring, who in turn would become the Mature Woman of Summer. This divine transfer from sky to earth would have been ceremonially accomplished by the three Belt stars being subsumed into the flat top of Silbury at the time of the Vernal Equinox. The newly incarnated Spring Goddess would then be free to apply her creative energies to reinvigorating the world, possibly living in Silbury Hill itself [see footnote <1> IV b below].
After the transfer, the Orion stars would have been thought of as discarded like an old chrysalis, and left to "fall" into the western horizon and aestival oblivion, awaiting their reappearance later in the year to receive the Winter Goddess yet again.
It has been suggested that Silbury's "iconic flat-topped profile is probably a consequence of more
recent landscaping. The original neolithic summit appears to have been
truncated in the Saxon period, when an 11th-century fortification was
erected on the hill" (Link Here). Clearly, if the neolithic Silbury had a rounded, or pointy top then my Lost Ceremony theory becomes less likely. For me then the question arises "how can we be sure there was a plateau at the top of neolithic Silbury?"
I. Silbury's Interior Design Implies That It Was Intended To Support A Flat Top. The structure of Silbury is based on a stack of carefully engineered 5 metre high chalk cylinders. Each new cylinder had a smaller diameter than the one below, the stacking process ultimately producing the cone shape of the hill. The modern grassy plateau of the hill corresponds closely with the top of the highest cylinder which is what one would expect if it had been designed to do so by the neolithic architects.
(Schematic sketch showing internal chalk cylinders inside Silbury and their approximate relationship to the plateau)
If the plateau had been hacked out in much later times it would be reasonable to expect the cylinder to be roughly cut through, not daintily preserved. What we have today is too perfect to be accidental, not to be original.
Furthermore, Meaden points out (in "The Goddess Of The Stones", p166) that the hill " ... was raised with such precision that the centre of the flat summit lies vertically above the centre of the deeply-buried primary mound with its clay core. What is more, by virtue of the high-level terrace, otherwise difficult to understand, the shape of the summit echoes the size and circular shape of the primary mound hidden far below".
II. Silbury's Causeways Suggest People Were Climbing Up To Assemble On The Top. Silbury Hill is famously equipped with two causeways. These are clearly designed to bring pedestrians onto the hill, as Meaden puts it (in "Goddess" page 166) "Silbury was built to be climbed". It is clear these causeways were part of the neolithic scheme, not Anglo Saxon as they are made of solid chalk (per English Heritage "The Investigation and analytical survey of SILBURY HILL 2002" page 24, citing Flinders Petrie). Building causeways at Silbury without also building flat assembly areas on it for the people to actually stand on is about as logical as building a staircase in a bungalow. The causeways were clearly a route to and from some point on the steep hill, and a flat assembly area at the top (such as the modern plateau we see today) would be logical.
III. Roman Coins Found On The Summit Provide A Date Far Earlier Than The 11th Century. I notice that the English Heritage 2002 report (referred to above) tells us that "Stukeley mentions a Roman coin found on the summit" (page 28). Hard to explain why the floor of an Anglo Saxon fort, newly carved from a posited higher hilltop, would yield an artifact several hundred years older! Much more likely it was dropped by a Roman visitor on the pre-existing and flat neolithic platform!
Another English Heritage report furnishes an additional example of a Roman find on the summit, see page 9 of "Silbury Hill, Wiltshire – Roman Coins from the Silbury Region" (English Heritage Research Department Report Series, no. 102-2011). That report records a coin of Constantine I found at the summit of Silbury Hill in 2001.
IV. Silbury's Destinctive Shape With Its Flat Top May Have Been Modelled On A Neolithic Religious Meme Or Building Or Object.
b) Michael Dames, on page 77 of his "The Avebury Cycle", appears to link the final design of Silbury with that of neolithic circular huts. If I understand him correctly he sees the initial construction phases of Silbury as creating an earthen model of a sacred house, complete with wattle walls, now buried within the modern hill. The wattle wall of this house was approximately 20 metres across.
The provision of a divine house for the Goddess would have given the ancient worshippers a sense of her immediate presence, encouraging, I suspect, many to consult her via a human oracle or priest installed there. I wonder how many travellers arriving from the north on the Ridgeway would immediately have turned their steps west to pray to, and consult with, the living Goddess?
The resulting narrative of Silbury might have run like this:
V. Was The 11th Century Building Work Small Scale And Merely Opportunistic? As we have seen it has been suggested that the flat top was in fact constructed in Anglo Saxon times to enable the building of a defensive fort. If this were the case a circular cross section 30 metres across would have to have been carved out of the original and higher neolithic summit. In all probability this amount of labour would only have been reasonable if a correspondingly large fort were to be erected here, but it is far from clear that a large medieval building project actually took place. Perhaps this suggests rather that the remains actually found represented a small scale and opportunistic use of a far, far older neolithic plateau.
<2> Why Would The Orion Stars Have Been Worshipped As A Female Deity - A Trinity Of Threes
Images copyright David Baldwin Night Photography