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Early Neolithic Flint Mines of Sussex

By Jon Baczkowski

The Early Neolithic flint mines of Sussex are amongst the most important prehistoric monuments in the British Isles. They date to shortly after the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, when lifestyles in southern England transformed from being based on hunting and gathering to newly adopted practices, material culture and domesticates introduced from Continental Europe, c. 4000 BC.  The mines are therefore one of the earliest monuments to appear in the landscape whose remains are still visible today and can still inform on the spread of Neolithic practices across southern England.

Of the ten confirmed Neolithic flint mines in the British Isles, seven are located in Sussex, including a group near Worthing, consisting of Cissbury, Church Hill, Harrow Hill and Blackpatch and lesser known sites near Chichester, comprising Long Down, Stoke Down and Nore Down. These mines are characterised by shafts, up to 14m in depth, which join a complex basal system of galleries that exploit the flint seams.  The flint was predominantly used for the production of bi-facial axes, many of which became polished.

All the Sussex mines have been subject to varying intensities of archaeological investigation since the 19th century.  In 2017 a set of five new dates were obtained from archival material held by the Novium. This was carried out in collaboration with Neomine, a Leverhulme Trust funded project with the aim of gathering more radiocarbon dates from Neolithic extraction sites across northwest Europe, including flint mines and stone axe quarries, and the authour, as part of their PhD research on the wider environs of the Sussex flint mines (University of Southampton). The dated material was excavated from the small mine complex located on Long Down, Eartham, which was investigated between 1955-57 by E. F. Salisbury.  The material comprised of red deer antler fragments, fashioned into picks by the miners for use in the extraction process and recovered by Salisbury from either the backfill of mineshafts, or their associated working floors. 

The radiocarbon dates were varied, from the Early Neolithic through to the Early Bronze Age. A cluster of four dates indicates that mining occurred between 4000-3500 BCE, supporting those obtained from a 1984 excavation. Interestingly, the later date possibly relates to secondary extraction, such as recycling of previous mining material during the Bronze Age.

The dates obtained are of note, and along with others acquired in the Neomine Project prove that from the very earliest centuries of the Neolithic extraction of flint, or stone, was an important activity for communities across the British Isles. Reasons for the sudden need to mine are unclear but may range from the purely economic, for example the supply of a raw material to produce axes to fell trees and clear land for new agricultural practices, to the non-functional, such as the reinforcement of social bounds during seasonal mining events, and finally for symbolic reasons, including the extraction of cosmologically charged material to supply axes for long distance exchange networks.

Overall, the results from Long Down are notable and show that the mine was visited and worked by communities living during the earliest centuries of the Neolithic in Sussex, a defining period of British prehistory.

Further reading

Baczkowski, J., and Holgate, R. 2017. Breaking Chalk; The archaeological Investigations of Early Neolithic Flint Mines at Long Down and Harrow Hill, West Sussex, 1984-86. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 155. 1-30.

Barber, M., D. Field. and P. Topping. 1999. The Neolithic Flint Mines of England,London: English Heritage.

Russell, M. 2000. Flint Mines in Neolithic Britain,Tempus Publishing Ltd.

Teather, A. 2016. Mining and Materiality: Neolithic Chalk Artefacts and Their Depositional Contexts in Southern Britain. Archaeopress Archaeology.

 

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Radiocarbon results 2018, from Long Down.

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Selection of antler from Long Down (J. Baczkowski 2017).

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Antler pick fragment, Long Down (R. Holgate 1984).