Before the introduction of metal technology, the majority of tools used by humans in Britain were made of flint. Flint is a stone which in hardness and durability is second only to diamond. It possesses excellent flaking properties and can be chipped into a variety of shapes, sizes and implement types.
A flaked flint axe of “Cissbury-type” (top) and a flint pick recovered from the Blackpatch flint mines in Sussex 1922
Flint occurs naturally within the Upper Chalk, a sedimentary rock outcropping across much of the south and eastern lowlands of Britain. It may be found on or just under the surface as nodules or deep underground as horizontal seams. Mining for deeply bedded flint seams of flint began in the Early Neolithic, around 4000 BC, the extraction pits surviving today as large crater-like hollows in the chalk. Flint mines therefore represent one of the oldest and most distinctive forms of archaeological monument recorded from the British Isles.
Harrow Hill Flint mines, West Sussex, today
Harrow Hill flint mines under excavation, 1936
WHERE ARE THE SITES?
There are over seventy sites in Britain that have, at some time been identified as Neolithic flint mines. Of this group, only fourteen may be as definite. These comprise Blackpatch, Church Hill, Cissbury, Harrow Hill, Long Down and Stoke Down in West Sussex, Durrington and Easton Down in Wiltshire, Martin’s Clump in Hampshire, Grimes Graves in Norfolk and Den of Boddam and Skelmuir Hill in Grampian.
There are three further sites, at Tolmere and Nore Down in West Sussex and Buckenham Toft in Norfolk, where Neolithic flint extraction is probable, if not conclusively proven. Sites where Neolithic mining remains a possibility comprise the plough disturbed sites of High Salvington, Mount Carvey, Myrtlegrove, West Stoke and Roger’s Farm in West Sussex, Brading Down on the Isle of Wight and Ringland in Norfolk.
Confirmed Neolithic flint mines in mainland Britain in relation to the major deposits of chalk. 1 = Durrington; 2 = Easton Down; 3 = Martin’s Clump; 4 = Nore Down; 5 = Stoke Down; 6= Long Down; 7 = Harrow Hill; 8 = Blackpatch; 9 = Church Hill/Tolmere/High Salvington; 10 = Cissbury/Mount Carvey; 11 = Grimes Graves; 12 = Buckenham Toft; 13 = Skelmuir Hill; 14 = Den of Boddam.
Distribution of Early Neolithic monuments on the South Downs in Hampshire and Sussex. Long mounds as circles, enclosures as squares and flint mines as diamonds. 1 = Nore Down; 2 = Stoke Down; 3 = Long Down; 4 = Harrow Hill; 5 = Blackpatch; 6 = Church Hill / Tolmere / High Salvington; 7 = Cissbury / Mount Carvey.
HOW WERE THE FLINT MINES FIRST FOUND?
The characteristic crater-like hollows of backfilled Neolithic flint mines were not fully understood by the earliest archaeologists. In 1739, the Rev. Francis Blomefield thought that the mines at Grimes Graves represented “a very curious” Viking settlement. In 1852, the Rev. C.R. Manning reported that the Grimes Graves hollows were definitely the remains of an ancient British “fortified settlement”, whilst in 1866, the Rev. S.T. Pettigrew suggested the site represented a place of war between “the Saxons and the Danes”. The mines of Cissbury, fared little better, being interpreted as “rude huts”, reservoirs, pig pounds, barrows or a form of “holy place” built by druids.
In late 1867 and early 1868, Colonel Augustus Lane Fox oversaw two phases of investigation at Cissbury. Some thirty pits were examined at this time and, although none of the features were bottomed, Lane Fox correctly interpreted them as ancient flint quarries. Investigation of the shafts at Cissbury continued in 1873, under the direction of Ernest Willett, and in 1874, by Plumpton Tindall. Willett’s shaft descended to a depth of 4.2m, whilst Tindall’s bottomed at around 12m. In 1875, Lane Fox returned to Cissbury and, aided by J. Park Harrison, fully cleared a number of shafts and subterranean gallery systems.
No.1 Escarp Shaft at Cissbury, in the process of excavation by Lane Fox and Harrison in 1875.
20th CENTURY EXCAVATIONS
In the early 1920s John Pull, noticed a series of surface hollows on Blackpatch Hill, to the north of Worthing in West Sussex. From the end of 1922, Pull supervised the complete excavation of a mine shaft here on behalf of the Worthing Archaeological Society. Between 1922 and 1932, Pull and his colleague C.E. Sainsbury supervised the investigation of a further eight mine shafts four areas of flint working, eleven round mounds and a number of other associated features.
Inspired by Pull’s work, the Worthing Archaeological Society commenced the examination of mine shafts on the nearby slopes of Harrow Hill in 1924. The work was directed by Dr’s Elliot and Elliot Cecil Curwen. Work at Harrow Hill was restarted by George Holleyman in 1936.
After finishing at Blackpatch, John Pull moved to Church Hill, excavating six shafts, three lesser pits, fifteen areas of flint working and ten round barrows between 1932 to 1939 and 1945 to 49, the early phase being accompanied by his son-in-law Arthur Voice. Between 1952 and 1956, as president of the Worthing Archaeological Society, Pull directed the excavation of two shafts and three areas of flint working at Cissbury.
At Long Down in West Sussex, a single shaft and two working floors were examined by E.F. Salisbury between 1955 and 1958. Further investigation of shafts in Sussex has since been conducted by Fred Aldsworth at Nore Down, West Sussex in 1982. Also in 1982, as part of the Fourth International Flint Symposium, P.J. Felder excavated a mine shaft at Harrow Hill on behalf of Gale Sieveking. Further investigation was conducted here by
Greg Bell in 1984. Fieldwork and trial excavation has since been conducted by Robin Holgate at the Neolithic mine sites of Church Hill, Harrow Hill, Long Down and Stoke Down.
The first systematic survey of all Neolithic mine sites in Sussex was conducted by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England between 1994 and 1997 whilst John Pull’s excavation archive was fully published by Miles Russell in 2001.
EXCAVATING THE MINES
The 19th and 20th century examination of Neolithic mine sites could prove dangerous, laborious and extremely time consuming. A vivid depiction of the restricted space available in the mines is provided by Edmond Venables, writing in 1960:
“I entered the…tunnel, which was so narrow that my shoulders rubbed against the walls on either side, while the roof was so low that I could not proceed on hands and knees but was forced to crawl along on my chest. Behind me came a doctor on holiday from India, and behind him came Frazer Hearne. The gallery ran for 60 feet into the hillside, and at the far end was a tiny round room, just large enough for me to turn round but not for my companions to do so. Therefore, they had to wriggle out backwards, and, while I do not suffer from claustrophobia, I was scared pink that they might become wedged in the confined space. When wearing an ordinary jacket, it is one thing to go forward, but quite another thing to go backwards. I was particularly apprehensive about Frazer Hearne, for he was the most burly of the trio and he was wearing a rough tweed plus-four suit, and I had horrible forebodings that his jacket would ruckle up from the hem and that he would be trapped in the narrow tunnel.”
A similar feeling of exhilaration mixed with claustrophobia is provided by Elliot Curwen, writing in 1930:
“A long dark tunnel stretches before us. Slowly and with awe, one of the excavators creeps into the gallery, candle in hand, noticing everything, and careful to disturb nothing. He is acutely conscious that he is the first human being to enter this underground workshop for some four thousand years. Suddenly he catches sight of a row of holes cleanly punched in the chalk wall...while on the floor close by is a pick made from the antler of a red deer...the holes look as if they had only been made yesterday, fresh and clean-cut, with the chalk burred a little at the lip by the pressure of the pick. Progress along the gallery is far from easy. One must crawl on elbows and stomach, trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk, one’s fingers spluttered with candle grease. It is warm, and the silence is intensified by the tiny, far-away song of the mosquitoes who have found their way through the chinks in the chalk to this subterranean place of repose.”
At least 100 shafts are known to have existed over an area of 1.5 hectares at Blackpatch. Few of the features are visible on the surface today, however, the site having been bulldozed flat in the 1950s. The majority of recorded shafts concentrate upon the western slopes of the hill.
Shafts 5 and 6 and the central cut of Barrow 2, located at the northern and eastern limits of the mining area, are simple adit or quarry pits, descending to no more than 1.8m into the chalk. Shafts 1, 2, 4 and 7 descended to depths of no more than 3.3m, each exploiting the first major seam of flint encountered. Seven short galleries extended from Shaft 1, one of which connected with the gallery of a mine to the north east. A complex of galleries extended from the lowest levels of Shaft 2, connecting it with at least three other shafts to the east, south and west. Initial extraction within these galleries had seriously destabilised the overlying chalk. Little is known of the nature of workings within Shaft 4, though Shaft 7 possessed nine galleries connecting it to at least four other shafts.
FIGURES: Shaft 1 1922
At least 26 shafts have been recorded from Church Hill mine site, although many have probably been destroyed through ploughing.
Shafts 1, 2, 4, 5a, 6 and 7 exploited seams of flint at depths of 4.9, 3, 5, 3.6, 5.8 and 4.9m respectively. All shafts exploited seams beneath the first encountered. Shafts 1 and 2 possessed small headings or niches, rather than galleries. Within Shaft 4, substantial cuttings had been made into the third seam encountered, whilst five galleries, one connecting with Shaft 5, extending out from the base of the shaft. The fourth seam had also been extensively worked within Shaft 5a, with two galleries connecting it directly with Shaft 5.
Shafts 6 and 7 probably represent paired shafts, originally being cut, worked and remaining open at the same time. Both pits had passed through five seams of flint before ending at the sixth. A single gallery connected the two shafts.
Shafts 6 and 7
Cissbury represents the largest single area of flint extraction on the South Downs, with at least 270 shafts having been recorded.
At least 20 shafts have been archaeologically examined at Cissbury between 1873 and 1956. The shafts cleared in the late 19th century varied between 2m and 12m in depth. One shaft, named “The Large Pit” by Lane Fox, was never fully bottomed. The feature possessed an overall diameter of 20m and was traced to a depth of 12.8m, at which point the sudden collapse of the standing section forced an end to the investigation.
Galleries and undercuts into the shaft wall, were recorded from a number of the pits examined in the 19th century, though the level of recorded detail is variable. Certain galleries possessed internal chambers which widened the working area considerably, whilst others ended in a domed chamber.
Shafts 24 and 27 cleared by Pull between 1952 and 56, bottomed at depths of 4.5 and 5.8m. Shaft 24 exploited the second seam of flint encountered through a series of six galleries, two of which connected with other shafts. Shaft 27 extracted flint from the third and fourth seams through a series of galleries connecting the feature with at least four other shafts.
Around 160 shafts have been recorded from the eastern and north eastern slopes of Harrow Hill. Flint appears to have been extracted by means of both open cast quarries and deep pits.
Shafts I, III and 13 descended to 3m, 2.6m and 3.2m respectively, whilst Shafts II and 21 descended to 4m and 6.8m. In some cases more than one seam of flint was exploited within any given shaft. The cutting of Shaft 21, for example, involved the removal of flint from the first, second and third seams, the second and third being removed through the excavation of galleries.
Basal galleries at Harrow Hill do not extend very far from the shaft wall, perhaps due to the close proximity of the shafts to one another. Excavations 1982 revealed that Shaft 13 was surrounded by a series of smaller satellite shafts. Sometimes shafts were dug in pairs in order to exploit the desired layer of flint.
Other Sussex Mine Sites
At Tolmere, of a series of 45 known pits, only two (Pits 38 and 40), are certainly Neolithic in date. These pits extend to depths of 1 and 1.9m respectively.
Only a single shaft has been fully examined at Long Down. It measured over 4.6m in depth and cut through four seams of flint. Surface investigation suggests that there were in excess of 50 shafts at Long Down.
Galleries do not appear to have played a feature in any of the three shafts examined at Stoke Down, though Shafts 1 and 3 possessed a limited number of undercuts. The shafts, numbered 1, 2 and 3, were bottomed at depths of 4.6, 2.9 and 4.2m respectively. Aerial photographs suggest that the original area of extraction here comprised at least 70 shafts, cut along the chalk ridge for a distance of more than 750m.
The site of Nore Down appears minute, with only 9 shafts recorded, covering an area of around 0.5 hectares.
WORKING IN THE MINES
From the numbers of tools recovered, as well as from marks left upon the walls of excavated galleries, it would appear that picks made from red deer antler, represented the main tool of the Neolithic miner.
Antler, with its sharply pointed tines, formed the perfect digging tool and could be used to pick away at joints in the chalk, ‘hook-out’ loose rubble and hammer away at flint lumps.
At Blackpatch, John Pull noticed that punches made from antler had originally been hammered into the chalk so as to safely dislodge blocks. In gallery I of Blackpatch Shaft 1, a series of holes formed by the systematic hammering of punches into the chalk face, were recorded set in two parallel rows.
Other types of digging tool were also originally used in the mines, most notably wooden bars, ox bone and stone axes.
Hearths set within the shafts may represent the desire to produce additional warmth or light or as a way of aiding the flow of air. Smoke discoloration noted on the roof of galleries at Blackpatch and Harrow Hill may relate to lamps used by the Neolithic miners or to nocturnal visitors to the 1920s excavations at both sites. Galleries in the majority of Sussex mines seem to have possessed an ample supply of natural light, assuming they had originally been worked during daylight hours.
Flint rubble could have been removed by the Neolithic miners by using baskets or bags hauled to the surface with ropes.
At Church Hill, two slanting holes found at the base of Shaft 7 may represent traces of a Neolithic ladder or slide up which bags of rubble could be pulled. A vertical hole in the fill of Shaft 27 at Cissbury may indicate part of a small tree trunk, ladder or climbing pole used by the original miners.
A series of linear scratch marks have been recorded from the Sussex mines, most notably at Harrow Hill, Cissbury and Long Down. These have been interpreted in the past as either tally-marks, random doodles or a form of ancient writing.
In Shaft 4 at Church Hill, a series of circular marks were recorded above three of the five gallery entrances. At Cissbury, a series of more naturalist carvings were recorded from galleries extending from Shaft 27. These appear to include the heads of two red deer, an ox and a fish.
Three categories of human remains have been recorded from the flint mining sites of Sussex: articulated, disarticulated and cremated..
Three articulated human skeletons were recorded from mine fill at Cissbury. In “the Skeleton Shaft”, Lane Fox found the complete skeleton of an adult female lying upside down within the fill. Lane Fox suggested the body was that of a woman who had fallen into the shaft, Pull theorised that the woman had possibly “been flung head downwards” into the half-backfilled shaft as a sacrifice.
Clearance of Shaft 27 by Pull revealed the complete remains of a second adult female. Pull suggested that the skeleton was the remains of a miner killed by a sudden collapse of the chalk roof.
The third articulated skeleton from Cissbury, that of an adult male, was recovered by Harrison some 4.9m down in the fill of Shaft VI. The body lay on its right side and had been surrounded by a row of chalk blocks.
Other human body parts recovered from Cissbury comprise two pieces of human skull, one from a gallery in Shaft IV, the second, missing the jaw, was recovered from the fill of Tindall’s Shaft in 1874. A single human fibula came from the fill of Shaft 6 at Church Hill.
Human remains have also been found at Blackpatch, from a series of round mounds associated with the mines. Here, a partially disarticulated, skeleton was found recorded at the centre of Barrow 12, whilst a second skeleton was recorded from within the mound. Two articulated skeletons were found in Barrow 3, an adult male at the centre of the mound and an adult female to the south east. Disarticulated human bone was also found from Barrows 4, 7, 9 and 12.
VISITING THE SITES TODAY
Cissbury, West Sussex (NGR TQ 137 078)
Lying 3.2km to the north of Worthing, and around 1.2km to the east of Findon, the site at Cissbury is owned by the National Trust. A number of car parks exist close to the site, the closest being that located at the northern fringes of the Findon Gap, just east of the A24. The site is easily accessible by footpath. Artefacts deriving from excavations at Cissbury may be viewed at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, Museum of Sussex Archaeology, Barbican House in Lewes and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
At 184m above sea level, Cissbury offers extensive views east towards Beachy Head, north across the Downs, and west to Church Hill and across the coastal plain towards Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Cissbury Ring itself is an impressive, oval-shaped Iron Age hillfort, enclosing some 24.3 hectares. The massive inner rampart measures over 9m in width at its base and fronts a flat-bottomed ditch, measuring over 6m in width and 2.5m in depth.
The flint mines occur mainly within the western part of the hillfort, but also continue under and outside the defences on the southern side of the hill. Over 200 shafts are visible as depressions, some surviving to an impressive 6m in diameter and 3m in depth. Scrub clearance over the hill has in recent years contributed much to the overall visibility of the mines.
Harrow Hill, West Sussex (NGR TQ 081 100)
Lying some 4km to the due south of Storrington and 5.8km to the north west of Cissbury. A number of car parks exist upon the northern scarp slope of the Downs, within a fair walk from the site, the closest being those signposted just outside of Storrington on the A283 and B2139. The site is accessible from a number of footpaths that traverse the lower slopes of the hill. Finds from excavations at Harrow Hill are displayed in Worthing Museum and Art Gallery and the Barbican House Museum of Sussex Archaeology, in Lewes.
Harrow Hill rises to a maximum height of 167m above sea level and possesses commanding views of the Downs to the north and east and coastal plain to the south. A small rectangular, enclosure, covering an area of 0.3 hectares, overlies the southern edge of the Neolithic mining area. It is presumed to be late Bronze Age in date. Around 160 mines are clearly visible today as a series of impressive oval and circular depressions, measuring between 4 and 6m in diameter and surviving to an average depth of 3m.
Long Down, West Sussex (NGR TQ 933 092)
Lying some 8km to the north east of Chichester, 3km to the north east of Boxgrove and 0.7km to the west of Eartham. Limited parking is available in Eartham whilst a Forestry Commission car park and a series of unsignposted lay-bys exist to the north and north east of the site, off the A285. A single footpath traverses the southern edge of the mines. Finds from the site are stored in Chichester and Worthing Museums.
Longdown rises to a maximum height of 95m above sea level and faces east, across a dry valley towards the Early Neolithic enclosure of Halnaker Hill. At least 38 well defined mine shafts and their associated spoil heaps are visible today, ploughing having erased the northern and eastern fringes of the site.
“The Neolithic Flint Mines of England” by Martyn Barber, David Field and Peter Topping, published by English Heritage in 1999 presents the results of a comprehensive survey project conducted by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England between 1994-7.
“Flint Mines in Neolithic Britain” by Miles Russell, and published by Tempus in 2000 presents an overview and synthesis of all excavation and survey data recovered from the British mine sites.
The full detailed report for John Pull’s 1922 to 1956 flint mine excavations at Blackpatch, Church Hill, Cissbury and Tolmere was published by Bournemouth University and Oxbow Books in 2001 as “Rough Quarries Rocks and Hills: John Pull and the Neolithic Flint Mines of Sussex”, edited by Miles Russell.
Other useful starting points include:
Bradley, R, and Edmonds, M. 1993 Interpreting the axe trade. Cambridge University Press.
Clarke, W. (ed) 1915 Report on the excavations at Grime’s Graves, Weeting, Norfolk, March - May 1914. H.K. Lewis. London.
Crawford, H. (ed) Subterranean Britain: Aspects of Underground Archaeology. John Baker, London (especially pages 1-43).
Curwen, E.C. 1954 The Archaeology of Sussex (2nd edition). London. Methuen and Co.
Darvill, T. 1987 Prehistoric Britain. London. Batsford.
Edmonds, M. 1995 Stone tools and society: working stone in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. Batsford. London.
Topping, P. (ed), Neolithic Landscapes: Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 2. Oxbow. Oxford, (especially pages 55-67 and
Holgate, R. 1991 Prehistoric flint mines. Shire Publications. Princes Risborough.
Longworth, I, and Varndell, G. 1996 Excavations at Grimes Graves Norfolk 1972-1976. Fasicule 5: Mining in the deep mines. British Museum Press.
Mercer, R. 1981 Grimes Graves, Norfolk. Excavations 1971-72: Volume 1. Department of the Environment Archaeological Report 11.
Pull, J. 1932 The Flint Miners of Blackpatch. Williams and Norgate, London.
Russell, M. 2000 Flint Mines in Neolithic Britain. Tempus. Stroud.
Russell, M. 2001 The Early Neolithic Architecture of the South Downs. British Archaeological Report 321. Archaeopress. Oxford.
Russell, M. 2001 Rough Quarries Rocks and Hills: John Pull and the Neolithic Flint Mines of Sussex. Bournemouth University, School of Applied Sciences Occasional Paper 6. Oxbow Books. Oxford.
Russell, M. 2002 Prehistoric Sussex. Tempus. Stroud.
Russell, M. 2002 Monuments of the British Neolithic: The Roots of Architecture. Tempus. Stroud.
Saville, A. 1981 Grimes Graves, Norfolk, Excavations 1971-72: Volume II the flint assemblage. Department of the Environment Archaeological report no 11.
Shepherd, R. 1980 Prehistoric mining and allied industries. Academic Press. London.
Cissbury, Blackpatch, John Pull and other mine-related info appears on the excellent Findon Village homepage at:
whilst another very good page covering a wealth of Cissbury and other mine site related information may be found on the Sussex folklore page at:
A good site for the serious study of archaeology in Sussex is the Sussex Archaeological Society homepage at:
Whilst all sorts of weird and wonderful underground structures may be seen on the Subterranea Britannica page at: