23 June 2018

#Research: Neolithic Grime's Graves Flint Mines

Hubby on his way down
We have been away on holiday, though holiday seems a misnomer where we’re concerned. Hard hat and down into a Neolithic flint mine, anyone? 

Grime's Graves, in the county of Norfolk, was given its name during the Anglo-Saxon period of the so-called Dark Ages. In this case it was the Angle period, when the peoples from what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany migrated to the area and created the Kingdom of East Anglia. 1500 years on, the region containing the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk is still loosely known as East Anglia, and Grim’s Graben – “the diggings of Grim” (a euphemism for their main god, Woden; Norse Odin) became Grime’s Graves.

Lumps and bumps at ground level don't do justice to the vast area
The place is currently overseen by English Heritage, and it is on its website the best image of the area can be viewed – HERE – unless you happen to have a camera-drone handy. 

Even seeing such a photograph didn’t prepare me for driving out of the Thetford woodland and along the designated chalk track to park amid what can only be described as a green moonscape of gently waving grasses. It’s just… odd.

The delves, some over 10 metres (30 feet) across, are the visible remains of 433 vertical shafts hemmed almost shoulder to shoulder, though it is believed others are buried beneath obscuring sandy soil nearby.

All have been in-filled: by the original diggers, by later Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age peoples, or by Nature. To give an idea of the time-line, the first diggings - using red deer antler picks, they've been found in the middens - were probably started as the groundwork was being laid for Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

It is all a bit basic on-site. Chemical toilets only are available near the gate because there is a ban on any sort of non-archaeological excavation, no matter how shallow. The visitor centre is a self-contained wooden structure "sitting" on the land so as to do minimum damage. But its exhibition is interesting, the staff friendly and informative, and we eventually made our way across the beaten-grass path to what amounts to a small metal portacabin suspended in the mouth of “Pit 1”.

The duty-man who gave us the Health & Safety talk trained as an experimental archaeologist, and the small space displays everything from lime-bast fibres and rope, to flint arrowheads, scrapers, knives, a flint-bladed sickle, and a surprisingly light axe big enough to fell a substantial tree.

L: repro flint axe detail, with 3 knapped, unpolished, spare flint heads / R: repro flint knife with antler handle and sheath

Hard hats on tight, we stepped onto the ladder which disappeared through a trapdoor and down some 9 metres (30 feet) to the excavated floor level. We were lucky; an electrician was rigging up new lights in the radiating chalk galleries and the safety grilles had been removed. We’d been warned only to stick our heads and shoulders inside the gallery openings as turning around in a 1 metre high gallery could prove problematic. Merely backing out proved problematic, and I was grateful for the hard hat on more than one occasion.

L: Husband crouching in front of a gallery entrance, with a second covered by a grille to show size. 
Rubber matting is laid on the excavated floor to help save it from modern foot-fall erosion. 
R: Inside a chalk gallery; bear in mind the size shown in the left image

The galleries, there are six main ones, are up to 15 metres (49 feet) long, twisting, turning and intersecting as the seams of flint were followed. The sections of chalk waste, and the flint nodules, were prised free with antler picks and raised in baskets to the surface to be worked on.

The mine was wondrous to behold, to crouch in the small spaces with bright modern lighting reflecting from the white chalk, and wonder just what those far off ancestors used to light their work. And how many times a rockfall snuffed out a life.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.


  1. I visited this site way back in the 1970s, when it was all open. No roof on the pits that were open to the public, just a long ladder and free access to the bottom. It's an odd place, with its own strange atmosphere. And the thought of those early people digging so deep, using such basic tools, and risking life and limb to tunnel underground like that. Amazing!

    1. It would have been interesting to see it like that, Stuart. Alas, modern Health & Safety would have a fit at the thought of open pits, doubtless not long excavated.

    2. Ah, Health and Safety: so good in many ways, so poor in others. I'm glad I saw it in a more natural state, but simply being there, in that space, must give any visitor a feel for the lives of those early miners, I think.

  2. I visited Grimes Graves years ago and found the site spooky with its memories from thousands of years ago.