Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC
Iron Age 800 BC -> 43 AD
Having covered earthen long barrows and causewayed enclosures I thought it was time to pay a visit to the third major monument type of the early Neolithic: a flint mine. Cissbury Ring is actually an Iron Age hillfort – the largest in Sussex – and occupies a fantastic location on the beautiful South Downs with extensive views across Sussex and Hampshire. Within and without the hillfort are more than 200 flint mine shafts dating back to 5000 years ago, visible now as distinctive circular depressions in the ground.
It’s a straightforward site to find by following the road through Findon village off the A24, past the two pubs (slightly more of which later) and all the way to the end at which point there is a car park, and then it’s a short (but steep) walk up to the hillfort.
The archaeology bit
There are fifteen known Neolithic flint mines in Britain, ten of them in the south, two in East Anglia, two in Scotland and one in Ireland. Their locations, not always where the best quality flint seams are found, suggest that other factors were considered important by the Neolithic people who dug them laboriously with antler picks and other primitive tools. Furthermore the recovery of human remains and other items apparently deposited deliberately in the mine shafts as well as carvings on the walls of the galleries, suggest that there was more than simply mining for resources involved and that the mines, in common with other aspects of the Neolithic world, were part of a wider and considerably more complex environment.
Cissbury was first excavated in the 19th century and then further investigations took place in the 1950s under the direction of John Pull, a Post Office employee and archaeology enthusiast. He tended to publicised his findings in the local press due to his falling out with the local archaeological society when they rejected his written account of the Cissbury excavations and published one of their own. He spent many years excavating Sussex flint mines and other sites but met a tragic and premature end when he was shot in a bank raid, leaving much unwritten investigation.
The flint mines at Cissbury are mainly situated at the western end of the later hillfort, with more outside the ramparts. They are easily identifiable craters in the ground, measuring up to six metres in diameter with a depth of up to three metres. Although human remains are unusual finds in Neolithic flint mines three skeletons were recovered during the Cissbury excavations: two females in the base layers of the mines with no obvious care afforded to them and a male in the upper fill in a crouched burial position. The apparently different treatment of the sexes in life and death in terms of location and perhaps burial rites can be contemplated in this case. With our modern day perspective, flint mines have often been regarded as male domains but an alternative view is that women would have been more suited to working in confined spaces due to their smaller stature.
There is said to be a tunnel below Cissbury leading to nearby Offington Hall in which there is supposed to be treasure, unfortunately well guarded by serpents. Cissbury itself is said to have been created by none other than the Devil while he was digging his Dyke near Brighton (actually the longest, deepest and widest dry valley in Britain), throwing earth around the general area. And at the time of the midsummer solstice fairies are said to dance around Cissbury Ring. A return in June to check this out could be on the cards on the basis that it must be a lovely place to watch the sun go down even if it turns out there aren’t any fairies and maybe a UFO will fly past, as others have claimed.
The two pubs in Findon, The Gun Inn and The Village House Inn, look very promising from the outside but on this occasion the refreshments were sampled in a hostelry nearer to home.
The Halfway Bridge at Lodsworth is a pub I’ve driven past numerous times over the years but never stopped at before. It’s a nicely updated, comfortable pub with unfailingly friendly staff and good beers including Doombar from the West Country and Langham’s from just down the road in West Sussex. The classic and highly recommended Hip Hop was on offer but my personal favourite was Halfway to Heaven, 3.5% and goes down very nicely. The food is good too and both the Caesar salad and fish and chips can be highly recommended.
Barber, M., Field, D. & Topping, P. The Neolithic Flint Mines of England 1999, Swindon, English Heritage
Lewis-Williams, D.P. & Pearce, D. Inside the Neolithic Mind 2005, London: Thames & Hudson
Russell, M. Rough Quarries, Rocks and Hills: John Pull and the Neolithic Flint Mines of Sussex 2001, Oxford: Oxbow
http://www.sussexarch.org.uk/saaf/cissbury.html, accessed 07.03.14