David Attenborough's big dig

Quoting from a recent Guardian article, “Silbury Hill is as ancient and enigmatic as Stonehenge. David Attenborough tells Jonathan Jones why he set out to crack it.”*

Crack it? An unfortunate use of the word ‘crack’ in this context (though perhaps an unwittingly accurate one). And as much as I like and respect David Attenborough, the 1960s tunnel into Silbury should categorically never have been dug; it contravenes just about every conservation (and possibly archaeological) rule in the book. The 'dig' was a shambles from start to finish, with little respect for the integrity (archaeological, structural or otherwise) of the monument. The televised dig was a 1960s archaeological equivalent of Big Brother voyeurism, only in this case it was Silbury that was in the firing line and about to suffer the worst attack on its structural integrity in over 4,000 years.

Has anyone asked, for example, where all the 1960’s spoil from the Atkinson/BBC tunnel (an intrinsic part of the structure itself) was dumped? It’s gone, vanished, along with any archaeological evidence it may have contained. If stones from the Great Pyramid had been dug out and discarded in this way there would have been an international outcry. But not here. Silbury might not be as high, nor as old as the Pyramids, but treating it as it was treated by Atkinson and the BBC was cultural vandalism. Vandalism touched with egotism, and akin to scraping off a 13th century church mural in order to find out what a 12th century mural under it might look like. But that’s only part of the story; when Atkinson and the BBC crew left Silbury at the end of the 60s the tunnel was not even backfilled. Metal tunnel struts were never removed, just allowed to corrode, and all kinds of junk, including old car tyres, ended up in the monument’s interior. The whole project (if it can be called that) is hardly different to the barrow and tomb wreckers of slightly earlier centuries who had little more in mind than the possibility of finding buried treasure and didn’t care a jot for the structures they were damaging or, in some cases, totally destroying.

For David Attenborough to argue 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’ is surprisingly naive for a man of such distinction. Silbury very nearly collapsed at the beginning of this century; that collapse was partly due to rain seeping into the structure from the vertical shaft and weakening further the Atkinson/BBC tunnel. It’s a miracle the structure did survive (and is perhaps testimony to the genius of its builders that it did) but it now contains dozens of metal struts from the 1960’s ‘dig’ and hundreds of plastic sacks from English Heritage’s most recent ‘conservation’ project.

In the 18th century William Stukeley witnessed the almost complete destruction of many of the stones that went up to make the nearby Avebury Henge; he writes of that destruction, “And this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav'd the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, hath fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it.”

Likewise, if Silbury had been ‘left to itself’ it would not have come so perilously close to collapse, would not now be so riddled with hastily backfilled tunnels, a shaft and the detritus of recent ‘investigations’. And, if left to itself, it would, in time, undoubtedly have benefited from scientific and archaeological advances – advances which would almost certainly have given us an insight into its construction, use and meaning - without, it should be said, the use of the destructive and invasive ‘techniques’ which almost destroyed it.

* http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/oct/25/david-attenborough-silbury-hill-bbc

Silbury Hill 'not always a hill'

In an interview* with Evan Davis this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme, Jim Leary makes (and repeats several times) the extraordinary statement that, “The received wisdom that we had when we went into the tunnel in 2007, was that the hill was constructed as a single construct...”

What! A single construct! I’m no expert but anyone with even a passing interest in Silbury knows it was constructed in at least three phases. Perhaps Leary means he was surprised at how many phases it was constructed in, but that isn’t the impression he gives here. He's certainly keen to push his book though (see below) and the interview concludes with Leary urging millions of Radio 4 listeners to go out and buy a copy...

* http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9126000/9126720.stm

Observations on The Story of Silbury Hill

Below are observations, and some background information, by Fachtna McAvoy (formerly an archaeologist with English Heritage) for readers of the book, The Story of Silbury Hill: written by Jim Leary and David Field. The views below are those of Fachtna McAvoy and do not necessarily represent the views of this blog.

I was on the Board of the Silbury Hill Conservation Project since its inception and I managed and carried out archaeological excavation and recording at Silbury from 2000 until the 15th June 2007. This was the day that I was dismissed from the on-going conservation work and tunnel re-excavation and then replaced as ‘director of fieldwork’ by Jim Leary, hitherto a (relatively recently appointed) member of the project team. The manner of my removal and replacement was and remains controversial (described at http://sites.google.com/site/anotherstoryfromsilburyhill/ ).

In these circumstances, although I was kindly offered an opportunity to review this book here, I feel it would be more appropriate instead to simply make a few observations on the reporting of events during that part of the Conservation Project for which I had responsibility and have first-hand knowledge. There are a number of factual inconsistencies in the portrayal of these events in the book ie:


‘…. while Jim Leary directed the excavations in 2007 and 2008.’ (page xii).

The text quoted above gives the reader the impression that Jim Leary directed all of the excavations in 2007. This is incorrect as I directed the excavations at Silbury from 2000 onwards and in 2007 until the 15th June.


‘For archaeologists specialising in prehistory, any trepidation at being lowered into the hole was tempered by sheer excitement at the thought of seeing the interior of one of Europe’s most important prehistoric monuments.’ (page 70).

The text quoted above gives the reader the impression that archaeologists specialising in prehistory, like Mr Leary for example, were present at this very early stage in the project. This is an incorrect portrayal. I was one of the very few people who were lowered into the hole and none of us was a specialist in prehistory. On a slightly different tack the thing I found astonishing in this experience was not that the shaft was square but that people had been down the open shaft before us and had left offerings like tea-lights and a small model bull. I am surprised that the authors did not mention this to illustrate the compelling attraction of the monument. One of the things that I found most interesting was the evidence for differing stages in the construction of the mound which could be clearly seen in the walls of the shaft. Here distinctly differing types of mound deposits were separated by a white continuous band of crushed or trampled chalk.


‘On Friday 11 May 2007, the large green door that had been closed nearly 40 years previously was opened.’ (page 90).

The text quoted above gives the reader the impression that this was the first time that the tunnel door had been opened for nearly 40 years. This is incorrect and omits to mention that the tunnel door had been opened in the previous year (2006) by Skanska.


‘…. it could be seen that the tunnel had been filled with pink, Type 1 roadstone.’ (page 91).

The text quoted above reinforces the impression for the reader that this was the first time that this roadstone fill had been observed. This is incorrect. The fact that the tunnel had been filled with pink roadstone had been established in a partial re-exposure of the tunnel entrance by English Heritage in 2004.

The above passages seem to me to reveal a willingness by their author (Mr Leary I believe) to re-write and misrepresent facts from even very recent history. I recognise that this view is based upon a limited set of observations but there is very little other material in the book which refers to matters of which I have first-hand knowledge. I was forbidden to visit Silbury during the engineering and archaeological work which took place from mid-June 2007 onwards.

Fachtna McAvoy

25 October 2010