History of Grime’s Graves
The mysterious lunar-like landscape of Grime’s Graves is the legacy of hundreds of years of activity by Neolithic flint miners. From about 4,500 years ago – around the time many of the stones at Stonehenge were first raised – miners dug over 400 pits here to extract the fine quality, jet-black flint from which they fashioned tools, weapons and ceremonial objects. Today Grime’s Graves is one of only ten known prehistoric flint mines in England.
The Mesolithic Period
Although the first mines at Grime’s Graves were dug about 4,500 years ago, the site has evidence of human activity over some 8,000–10,000 years. During the Mesolithic period (about 9500–4000 BC) hunter-gatherers inhabited a densely wooded landscape in this area, foraging for seasonally available foods and resources. At Grime’s Graves, however, evidence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer activity is found only in two possible hearths from a campsite and a number of flint tools.
Rituals in the Mines
Artefacts that may be deliberate offerings or evidence of ceremonial activities have been found in pits at Grime’s Graves. These imply that the process of flint mining in some shafts followed ritualised practices. Such activities may have been commonplace to the miners, for whom ritual would have been a part of everyday life.
In 1971 two highly decorated Grooved Ware pots were discovered on a raised chalk platform at the base of a shaft. Pit 15 produced seven antler picks on another platform, and many mines contained chalk carvings of ‘cups’, balls, phalli and other objects. In a gallery leading from Greenwell’s Pit a dog skeleton, which had been carefully buried, was discovered. Hearths were found on many shaft floors. These had not been used for lighting or cooking, but instead may have had ritual functions.
Even after they had been abandoned, the shafts were a focus for special events. Fires were lit periodically, and offerings of animal remains and occasionally human bones, such as the skull in Pit 1, were placed in the shaft fills. These deposits may have been part of renewal rituals.
Iron Age Activity
There is little evidence for settlement at Grime’s Graves during the Iron Age (about 800 BC–AD 43), but the site was used as a burial ground between about 390 and 150 BC. This practice followed a regional tradition of reusing existing hollows and pits as graves.
The two most significant burials were discovered in the upper levels of a shaft excavated in 1971. The first was of a young adult woman with a decorated chalk plaque by her hip. This was later disturbed by the burial of an adult male with a necklace (or earrings) comprising two iron beads.
Both burials appear to have been accompanied by ceremonies at which fires were lit and offerings placed beside the bodies. It is possible that other undated skeletons previously found in the upper levels of shafts, such as a female skeleton in Pit 2, may also be of Iron Age date.
Later History and Antiquarian Interest
By the 16th century Grime’s Graves may have become sheep pasture, as suggested by a reference in a rental of 1541–2.
The first reference to Grime’s Graves as a place of antiquarian interest was in Edmund Gibson’s additions to William Camden’s Britannia (1695), where the site was described as ‘a hill with certain small trenches … call’d Gimes-graves’. In 1739 the Revd Francis Blomefield continued the confusion by describing Grime’s Graves as ‘a very curious Danish incampment … [with] … great numbers of large deep pits’.
In 1761 John Parker produced a map depicting the site as 25 circles, with an additional circle for Grimshoe mound. The Ordnance Survey mapped the site in 1824 as a series of hollows on a low spur. This was followed by the earliest known sketch of the site, made by the Revd Francis Vyvyan Luke in 1852 (see Sources for Grime’s Graves).
The earliest recorded excavations took place in 1852, when the Revds ST Pettigrew and CR Manning dug several pits. But it was not until 1868–70, when Canon William Greenwell (a notable Victorian antiquarian and archaeologist) excavated a shaft, that Grime’s Graves was proved to be a Neolithic flint mine – the first to be recognised as such in Britain.