Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

The chalk mound

There's something about the mysterious that invites attention.  Curiosity is built into the human mind; it's just not in us to say "we don't know what this is, and probably never will," and forthwith let the matter go. 

Our deep and abiding fascination with the unexplained has its positive aspects, of course.  It's largely what drives science.  On the other hand, it can sometimes impel wild speculation -- and the less hard evidence there is, the broader the field is for fancy to take hold.

Take, for example, Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire, England.  The area has been occupied for a very long time.  If you're an archaeology buff, you undoubtedly know about the Avebury Ring, a stone circle a little like Stonehenge that appears to have been built for some unknown purpose on the order of five thousand years ago.  Like the other stone circles in England, Scotland, Ireland, and northern France, the Avebury Ring is surmised to have had some sort of ceremonial purpose, but what exactly that might have been is a matter of conjecture.

Silbury Hill, though, is even more puzzling.  It's a forty-meter-tall conical chalk mound, a little less than one hundred and seventy meters in diameter at the base, making it similar in volume to the Egyptian pyramids (which were built around the same time).  It has been the subject of repeated archaeological investigations since the seventeenth century, with shafts drilled down into it vertically from the top and horizontally into the side, and what's been brought up is nothing more than the chalky local soil and fragments of branches from native plants like oak, hazel, and mistletoe.  The few bones found there were from oxen and deer, and date from about 4,500 years ago, so about the same general era as the Avebury Ring was built.

Other than that, and a handful of tiny artifacts of uncertain provenance... nothing.

It does really appear to be just a gigantic mound of clay and chalk.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Photograph by Greg O'Beirne, SilburyHill gobeirne, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Why would people build something like this?  Whatever the reason, it must have been important to them; a 1974 study estimated that constructing it -- moving and shaping the 250,000 cubic meters of heavy soil that composes it -- would have taken eighteen million person-hours.  Put another way, it would take five hundred strong individuals, working eight hours a day, fifteen years to create something like Silbury.

Naturally enough, the oddity of the structure, and its lack of any obvious purpose, has led to some bizarre speculation.  In the sixteenth century, the locals believed it had been created when the Devil brought a gigantic bag of dirt with which he intended to smother the town of Avebury, but the priest of Avebury prayed to God to intercede.  God forced Satan to drop his burden prematurely, creating Silbury.  Another legend is that a monarch named King Sil is buried inside the mound, his skeleton riding a gigantic statue of a horse made of solid gold -- but needless to say, no evidence of that has been forthcoming.  (As far as King Sil, he probably didn't exist in any case; the name Silbury seems to come from the Old English selebeorg, meaning "barrow hall.")

Even later investigators weren't immune to attributing Silbury to wild legends; eighteenth-century amateur archaeologists William Stukeley and Edward Drax thought the mound was connected to the Greek myth of the god Apollo killing the monster Python and burying him under a mountain.

Needless to say, no evil dragons were found by the excavations, either.

In the end, we're left with a mystery.  Silbury Hill was built by some extremely dedicated Neolithic Britons, but toward what end, we have no idea.  It's certainly curious, rising above the flat Wiltshire plains like the cone of a small volcano, and to this day it attracts tourists.

We are drawn to puzzles -- even if in this case, it's very likely one we'll never be able to solve.


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