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Thursday, April 15, 2010
A place of mystery for centuries, the true nature of Grime’s Graves has slowly revealed itself.
It may not have been a graveyard, and it certainly didnt belong to anyone called Grime that name came much later. This odd Breckland landscape, today surrounded by the timber of Thetford Forest, is probably East Anglia's oldest industrial estate. As much as 5,000 years ago, probably pre-dating Stonehenge, Neolithic families made a living mining for flint.
In the pre-Bronze and Iron Age it was used for everyday tools such as knives and axes, as well as weapons. Flint, one of the hardest rocks, was prized for its fine flaking qualities. The first evidence of flint mining in this country comes from the South Downs, where it dates from about 4,500BC. Only 10 mines have been identified in England, and Grimes Graves is the only one open to the public. Work started there in about 3,000BC, when people first discovered underground layers of high-quality flint. The Neolithic period was one of change, when previously mobile hunter-gatherers began leading a more settled life, clearing forests for agriculture. All of this needed specialist tools so mining began. New pits continued to be dug for about a thousand years on the site. Following excavations early last century a total of 433 mine shafts covering 7.6 hectares have been identified. The original miners filled them in after use, giving the site its curious, almost lunar, pockmarked appearance.
Although surface deposits were lying around, the miners went deep. Probably the better-quality rock needed to produce large tools like axes could only be found at a lower level. One pit is now open to visitors, and you can descend by means of a ladder to the mine worked thousands of years ago. Excavated in 1914, three flint layers were found, the lowest going down to a depth of 9m (nearly 30ft). At the base of the shaft, six galleries were dug allowing miners working on their knees to dig out the flint seams hard, physical work in damp conditions. A red deer antler has been found nearby, and this was most likely what they used as a pick. Miners would have built timber platforms at each level, and got up and down by means of ladders. Finds on the site indicate materials extracted may have been pulled to the surface by means of rope-hauled baskets. Not all the pits were so deep; others on the site go down only about 8ft.
We know little about these prehistoric people, and a great deal of educated guesswork is called for. From analysis of pits, quarries and spoil dumps it seems likely it was a family affair. Women and children would have worked alongside the men, the children being small and nimble could get in the most inaccessible places. In fact, at a site in southern Britain the skeletons of two girls have been found in a flint mine. The flint was knapped into rough shapes on the surface. The job may have been a privileged one; after all, the skill of producing tools and weapons must have been highly prized, the artisans holding high status. On the other hand, miners would have been covered in white clay dust, giving them an outlandish appearance. There is also evidence that working in such conditions led to terrible respiratory illness, so perhaps the caste of miners were a people apart, living short lives and shunned by their neighbours. We really dont know. Archaeologists suggest they would only have worked during the summer, when light conditions were adequate, and eked out an existence farming at other times. Although we know little about the miners lives, historians think the many hearths found in the infilled pits were part of fires lit as a ritual to close the pit. In another pit a series of vertical incised lines that catch the suns rays at noon have been interpreted as a sundial. Certainly, these were inventive, creative people.
From about 2,300BC people began using bronze, and flint tools went out of fashion. Little happened at Grimes Graves during this time, though there is some scanty evidence of settlement and burials during the later Iron Age. By the time the Anglo Saxons had settled in East Anglia the sites original use had been forgotten. They thought it was the work of the pagan god Woden, or Grim, and named it after him. By the time the Christians came along, it was considered the work of the devil. In the 17th and 18th centuries, antiquarians speculated the undulations caused by the infilled pits were ancient fortifications or Viking encampments. It was not until the late 19th century that the first excavations were carried out, Canon Greenwell leading the way in 1868-70. In 1939 archaeologist Leslie Armstrong sparked controversy when he dug up what he declared was the statue of a Palaeolithic goddess, suggesting the history of mining went back even further than thought; this is now considered unlikely.
Flint from the Brandon area was used extensively for flintlock muskets during the Napoleonic Wars, creating a major industry making more than one million gunflints per month by 1815.
The site is in the care of English Heritage. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, it also hosts many varieties of wildlife, from warrens of rabbits (originally introduced as luxury food in the Middle Ages) to lizards, along with an array of wild plants. Kestrels roam the skies, while sheep and the rabbits graze the land, maintaining the heath. This is significant as little original Breckland heath survives, much of the area having been planted for forest after the first world war. Its another twist in the strange story of Grimes Graves.
Grimes Graves is seven miles northwest of Thetford off the A134.
Telephone 01842 810656.