Glastonbury Tor is a striking hill rising from the plain near Somerset, England. Evidence of occupation in the area dates back as far as 300 BC. For as long as there have been people in the area, Glastonbury Tor and its spring at Chalice Hill have had spiritual significance.
The Celtic word “tor” means “conical hill”, an apt description. Glastonbury Tor rises from the Summerland Meadows, a plain that was once swampy fenland. Today, the River Brue runs around three sides.
The site has been known for millennia. Neolithic civilizations left flint tools near the top. In the later Dark Ages, there were more signs of habitation: two hearths, one with a blacksmith’s forge; fragments of Mediterranean amphorae dating back to the 6th century; two bodies, buried with a north-south orientation (and therefore probably not Christian); and several postholes, indicating buildings. Traces of a fort dating back to the 5th century have been discovered.
In medieval times, St. Michael’s church replaced the earlier fort. Most of the church was destroyed in an earthquake on 11 September 1275. The earthquake was so powerful that it was felt as far away as London, Canterbury, and Wales.
In the 1360s, another church was built. Sadly, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 led to the church being abandoned, its abbot Richard Whyting hanged at the site.
The Tor has seven deep terraces, all roughly symmetrical. Several theories have been put forth to explain them. Farmers in the Middle Ages knew how to terrace hills, making it easier to plow the land; however, they terraced the south-facing slopes to take advantage of maximum sunshine. The Tor is evenly terraced, even on the north side, and other areas which would have been more profitable have been ignored. Some have suggested the terraces are defensive ramparts; however, they bear no resemblance to the bank-and-ditch defenses used at the time. Livestock grazing on hills can cause terracing over a number of years, but the terraces at Glastonbury Tor are too large and steep for animals.
Perhaps the most interesting explanation for the terraces comes from Geoffrey Russell, backed by Professor Rahtz. The terraces may even be the remains of a labyrinth, a design well-known to Neolithic cultures. By overlaying the design of the labyrinth, one could follow it to the top. Did a Neolithic civilization create the terraces? Later civilizations, farmers, and monks have made many changes to the site through the years. Until more evidence is found, the terraces will remain a mystery.
Chalice Hill is a spring that flows from an artesian well on Glastonbury Tor. The waters are rich in iron, which is easily absorbed into the sandstone of the Tor. This hardens the stone. Meanwhile, the soft sandstone surrounding the Tor is gradually eroding away. As the softer stone erodes, Glastonbury Tor is revealed.