Globalising Archaeology: Producing Tools in the Neolithic

English Heritage

Grime’s Graves, Norfolk

Introducing Grime’s Graves
Grime’s Graves is one of ten known Neolithic flint mines in England and the only one open to visitors. This grassy lunar landscape contains over 400 pits. The name Grime’s Graves comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Grim (or Woden) and graves (hollows or holes). It was not until one of the pits was excavated in 1868 that they were identified as flint mines dug about 4,500 years ago.

Since ancient times humankind has recognised that there are treasures lying deep beneath the earth’s surface.

At Grime’s Graves, mining for flint began in about 2650 BC, during the late Neolithic period. The evidence of this digging can be seen as dips in the landscape.

The miners at Grime’s Graves dug shafts up to 13 metres deep to where the finest black flint lay.

With the flint they mined, the people of Grime’s Graves created tools and other objects, like these reproduction axeheads, for their own use and for trading.

Today, Grime’s Graves allows us to understand what life in a prehistoric mine would have been like.

Of over 400 pits at Grime’s Graves, only 28 have ever been excavated. The last excavations took place in the 1970s.

Excavations have uncovered evidence of the everyday lives of this ancient mining community and revealed the extent of prehistoric activity here. They have also helped us to understand the difficulty of mining flint, and shaping it into tools.

Producing tools in the Neolithic
The knapping, or shaping, of stone tools is arguably the earliest ‘industry’ in the world.

Prehistoric miners did not have metal tools. Instead they used antler picks like these or stone axes to extract flint from the mines.

Neolithic people learned how to source the raw materials for knapping and developed the skills necessary to produce their tools.

The production of flint tools was a laborious task, taking hours from start to finish. Confident strikes and an exact knowledge of the raw material were and remain vital parts of the knapping process.

During knapping, large flakes fall from the flint at every strike. These flakes fall around the knapper, forming a sort of circle.

Objects such as this flint core are also remnants of flint production.

For the final stages of production, the knapper would either leave the object in its raw form (as a cutting tool) or polish it into a blunter object.

During use, these flint tools would chip slightly. This means not only that the tools were self-sharpening but that they would eventually need to be replaced.

The names we give today to Neolithic tools are solely based on their form. This hand axe, for instance, could be used for scraping and harvesting as well as for cutting or chopping. Many Neolithic objects would have been multi-purpose.

Globalising Archaeology 
Archaeologists in Europe and Japan have been shedding new light on how remarkably similar prehistoric stone tool technologies developed worldwide.

Grime’s Graves is just one of a number of prehistoric mines around the world.

In Japan, obsidian – a dark, glass-like volcanic rock – was mined to make tools instead of flint.

The shiny volcanic glass was shaped into objects, like these arrowheads.

They are directly comparable to these arrowheads from Grime’s Graves.

In July 2016, Grime’s Graves and Hoshikuso Obsidian Mines in Japan became the first two archaeological sites to be twinned, thereby celebrating their archaeological bond.

The connection allowed archaeologists to discuss the development of Neolithic technologies in both regions, and explore the similarities and differences in approaches to the production of obsidian and flint tools.

Since 2010 the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures has been facilitating educational exchanges around Thetford, Norfolk. This new partnership has been established to enhance our understanding of the archaeological heritage of flint and obsidian.

Recognising the similarities of Neolithic production in these two sites raises fascinating questions as to how these Neolithic people utilised raw materials. In the future we hope to understand the links between more sites worldwide.

Credits: Story

Contributors: Jan Summerfield, Rose Arkle

Global British Archaeology

Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

Visit Grime’s Graves

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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