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Durham University

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Building Silbury Hill - where did the antler picks come from?

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

Recent conservation works at Silbury Hill (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/research/archaeology/silbury/) and subsequent analysis, has demonstrated that the monument was constructed over a period of around a century (Leary and Field 2010). This timescale suggests an intense demand for antler tools at the site. The antler material recovered from Silbury Hill, and other contemporary assemblages, indicates that the naturally shed antlers of red deer (Cervus elaphus) were collected seasonally to supply this demand. As only adult stags bear suitable antlers, it is not known whether local deer herds would be capable of providing sufficient material alone, or whether antlers were sourced from further afield, perhaps as traded goods or with a mobile or migrating workforce. This question is not unique to Silbury Hill, as other dating programmes have revealed the short construction history of numerous Neolithic monuments throughout southern Britain (Whittle et al. 2011)

The purpose of this study was to determine whether strontium isotope analysis can be used to investigate the origins of the Neolithic antler picks discarded by the builders of Silbury Hill and, by extension, other ancient chalk-built monuments within the region. As the regional chalk rock formations, and the environment that they support are well characterised isotopically, Silbury Hill provided a useful test bed where both the burial conditions and the local biosphere range of strontium isotope values are constrained. This is important because, as well as containing strontium that was deposited during life, bony tissues – such as antler – are known to take up strontium from their burial environments. This study, therefore, has two objectives:

1. To establish growth profiles and isotopic time-lines within the shed antlers of modern deer of known origins

2. To seek evidence for the presence or absence of ante-mortem strontium in Neolithic antler from Silbury Hill.

The results of the first stage of this project were presented at the Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference, Plymouth in April 2011. The project is being undertaken by Dr. Joseph Warham at the British Geological Survey and collaborators at English Heritage (Dr. Fay Worley) and Professor Jane Evans (NIGL) and is directed by Dr. Janet Montgomery. The work was funded through a British Academy Small Grant (SG101852) and is being carried out in collaboration with English Heritage.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology