A happy group of Butser staff travelled to Suffolk last week to visit two great archaeological sites – West Stow and the iconic Neolithic flint mines of Grimes Graves.
West Stow Anglo-Saxon village is a site built around a number of experimental reconstructions of houses from the early phase of Anglo-Saxon Britain, from the 5th – 7th Centuries. The houses are built on the site of the original settlement. As so little is known of housing and culture of the period it was very interesting to see their reconstructions. The site and period are different from our Butser Saxon buildings, which date from around the 7th – 8th Centuries, and have markedly different archaeology, so it was great to see the experimental interpretation of these buildings and enjoy the excellent small museums on site.
Without doubt, the highlight of our trip was the visit to Grimes Graves. Site manager Rob, along with other terrific members of staff, opened the site specially for us on a rather wintry but really lovely sunny Suffolk morning. The site, with its distinctive potholed landscape, features over 400 former flint mining pits. The mines were in operation around 4500 years ago. The miners extracted flint from a below-ground seam by excavating more or less funnel-shaped pits, 20 or more metres deep. There are quite a lot of flint lumps (nodules) above this level, but they were after the finest, black Suffolk flint, which occurs, fairly unusually, in a continuous bed well below ground level. How they knew it was there is just one of the fascinating archaeological questions arising from our visit!
After kitting up with hard hats, we descended into one of the few original pits to have been archaeologically excavated, which has been cleared of the infill that has closed over the vast majority of the others. Inside we experienced what is as close as it is perhaps possible to get to a Neolithic landscape, albeit a subterranean one! The really unexpected, and very cool, part of the Grimes Graves experience was being given access to the normally closed-off excavation tunnels, where miners used their antler picks and hands to form chambers off to the sides of the main pit, following the flint seam. Sitting in a Neolithic flint mine, talking about the archaeology… does it get any better?
We can highly recommend a visit to both sites if you find yourself in Suffolk. Grimes Graves and West Stow are only around 15 miles apart, with the interesting Anglo Saxon town of Thetford more or less in between.