Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
So a second mine at Grimes Graves has been opened up to the public.
To descend into the Neolithic mine requires you to climb down a 12m (40 ft) metal ladder.
You can get a sense of it here in the BBC News’ film of the newly opened mine. But before you click that, consider this:
Imagine heading down there 4,500 years ago, with no metal ladder and no bright torches, just burning brands or little lamps fuelled by oil or fat. As the light flickered around you, leaving much of the galleries in total darkness, you scraped and hammered at the rock. Antlers, stone, and bone were your tools. And the flint, that precious flint, required long tunnels to be created, chipping away at the rock. The effort meant you kept the galleries small, and many have to be crawled through. Later, at the Great Orme mines, when bronze had become the new super material, the galleries were so small that only children could have accessed them; did children work in the darkness here at Grimes Graves too?
Flint was the ‘must have’ material for thousands of years. Imagine you have antler, bone, wood and plant materials to use. You can spend hours and hours polishing a stone axe; a thing of beauty and use. But how do you get a cutting edge? You can use stone to sharpen and shape and cut these, but bash a rock and you’ll be lucky to get a sharp edge to cut with. Flint made us what and who we are; it enabled our distant ancestors to carve up carcasses, whether killed or found and scavenged. It meant that, despite our lack of sharp fangs and slicing claws, humans could hunt and butcher; no more waiting on other animals and beating them off to snatch a morsel or two of pre-torn and tattered flesh. Without flint, could we have developed the blades, knife-edge cutting edges, the scrapers to prepare hides for clothing and roofs; could we have developed arrows, to kill from a safer distance; could we have created some of the most beautiful ancient artefacts ever found by archaeologists?
Flint. Part of our history. And so vital for Neolithic people that they dug 400 shafts on this one site of Grimes Graves in Norfolk.
Greenwell’s Pit is only the second mine of the 400 on this ancient site to be opened to the public. It promises to be atmospheric, thought-provoking and only for those who don’t mind the dark and metal ladders. Sites and experiences like this are among the very, very few things that could get me down such a ladder. And then there’s always the coming back up them to consider …
Visit Grimes Graves, be brave, and marvel at Neolithic ingenuity and determination and the sheer scale of this flint industry. Don’t think of them as ‘primitive’; they had the same brains and bodies as we have, the same abilities and potential, and, definitely more courage on a daily basis than I have. It’s a long time since I first entered Grimes Graves. Have I the courage to do so again, in a deeper, darker mine?