RITUAL MYSTERIES IN A PREHISTORIC FLINT MINE

What finds at Grime’s Graves in Norfolk reveal about the significance of mining, and the value of flint, to Neolithic communities.

Reconstruction drawing of a mine abandonment ceremony at Grime’s Graves

Reconstruction drawing of a mine abandonment ceremony at Grime’s Graves © Historic England (drawing by Judith Dobie)

DIGGING FOR FLINT

Neolithic miners first cut flint out of the chalk of Grime’s Graves about 5,000 years ago. Discoveries in the pits they dug, deep underground, offer tantalising glimpses of the rituals that seem to have been an integral part of their lives – and suggest that flint had more than just a practical value.

The extraordinary landscape at Grime’s Graves, pitted with hollows like the surface of the moon, represents the infilled shafts and pits of over 400 mines. The miners dug shafts up to 13 metres deep to where the best flint lay and worked in subterranean galleries radiating from the base of each shaft to prise the precious material out from the floor, using picks made from antlers.

Flint was a valuable commodity for Neolithic people, used to make all kinds of tools: arrowheads for hunting and weaponry; axes for tree-felling; and cutting, scraping and piercing instruments for preparing hides, processing plant fibres and shaping wood.

Neolithic flint arrowheads from Grime’s Graves

Neolithic flint arrowheads from Grime’s Graves

DEEPER UNDERGROUND

Plenty of flint could have been found at the surface of the site, and yet the Grime’s Graves miners chose to dig deep, beyond the first and second seams of flint, to a third seam of distinctive smooth, black stone.

Later known as floorstone, this was undoubtedly a higher quality of flint, particularly for the construction of large artefacts. But the surface flint was perfectly adequate for most practical purposes, and did not involve digging at potentially dangerous depths. So why did the miners do it?

One possible answer is that this mined flint had greater cultural value, particularly when shaped into certain types of tool. Some floorstone axes were, for example, never actually used, and were often buried in ‘hoards’, suggesting a ceremonial rather than a functional purpose. Some have also been found many miles away, indicating that Grime’s Graves flint was also exchanged or traded and was therefore of particular value.

Inside one of the flint mines at Grime’s Graves

Inside one of the flint mines at Grime’s Graves

SACRED RITUALS

Intriguing finds from many of the pits suggest that mysterious rituals accompanied the everyday task of mining – another possible indication that this mined flint was highly valued, even in its rawest form.

They point to offerings or ceremonies. Chalk platforms resembling altars were found, displaying arrangements of pottery and antler picks. Two highly decorated pots had been placed on one such platform at the base of a shaft, and in another pit seven antler picks were found on a platform. Many mines contained carved balls, chalk cups, phalluses and other objects, which would not have served any practical purpose.

ABANDONMENT CEREMONIES

Even when the mines were abandoned, the shafts remained a focus for special activities. There is evidence of fires being lit on the floors of many, which had not been used for lighting or cooking. They may have been the basis of purification ceremonies.

In one pit, an axe made from Cornish greenstone was found lying on a gallery floor, carefully positioned beside two antler picks, which lay parallel to each other with their tines facing inwards. Between them lay the skull of a phalarope, a rare shorebird. Neither the skull nor the axe were everyday objects; both had clearly come from some distance away. This was no casually discarded group of finds: it must have been deliberately arranged for some ritualistic purpose when the miners abandoned the gallery, having exhausted its flint.

As the mines were backfilled, offerings of animal – and occasionally even human – remains were made. In one pit a complete skeleton of a dog had been carefully buried. Perhaps such offerings were presented in the hope of ensuring a plentiful supply of flint in the future.

Drawn from the English Heritage Red Guide to Grime’s Graves, by Peter Topping

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