Thursday, 21 November 2013

Mine all mine

There are aspects of my job that, to an outsider, can appear a little strange: eating warm pizza wedged into a narrow, 5,000 year old chalk-cut tunnel, some 12 metres below the rain-swept surface of Norfolk may well be one of them.

I was doing a small piece to camera, a discussion on flint mining in the Neolithic, whilst simultaneously crawling through the restricted space of a disused prehistoric mine gallery. It's one of the few places in Britain where you can still get a feeling of how things may have been in the Neolithic. Down here, in the claustrophobic space, cut from the chalk by the men, women and children of prehistoric East Anglia, there is no sense of the modern world intruding upon you. No planes, trains or automobiles, no mobile signal, no bird song. None of the distracting background 'chatter' of the modern world. 

Some of the galleries, where the deer antler picks still lie, abandoned by their owners a mere five millennia ago, it can feel as if the miners have only just stopped work, downed tools and popped back up to the surface for a bite to eat. You sometimes get the eerie sense that they may just return at any moment, demanding to know just what the hell you think you're doing crawling around their workspace disturbing everything. 

Empires have risen and fallen since these antler picks last saw the light of day: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia have all have passed into history, but the tools left by the Neolithic miners still reside deep underground, patiently waiting for their owners to return.

Down here you also get a real sense, not just of the achievement of the prehistoric communities that originally dug out the chalk and extracted the necessary flint with tools made only of antler, bone and stone, but also of the extreme difficulties they must have faced in the subterranean galleries. Elliot Curwen, writing in the early 1930s about a flint mine in Sussex (Harrow Hill), observed, when first encountering a freshly exposed gallery:

"A long dark tunnel stretches before us. Slowly and with awe, one of the excavators creeps into the gallery, candle in hand, noticing everything, and careful to disturb nothing. He is acutely conscious that he is the first human being to enter this underground workshop for some four thousand years. Suddenly he catches sight of a row of holes cleanly punched in the chalk wall while on the floor close by is a pick made from the antler of a red deer; the holes look as if they had only been made yesterday, fresh and clean-cut, with the chalk burred a little at the lip by the pressure of the pick. Progress along the gallery is far from easy. One must crawl on elbows and stomach, trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk, one’s fingers spluttered with candle grease. It is warm, and the silence is intensified by the tiny, far-away song of the mosquitoes who have found their way through the chinks in the chalk to this subterranean place of repose."

Today, whilst facing the cameraman, sound recordist and director, I am aware that they are blocking my only exit from the tunnel, whilst behind me, disappearing back into the darkness, lurk the still-blocked galleries, filled with chalk debris, antler picks, stone tools and possibly, just possibly, the remains of the miners themselves.

We finally complete the interview and then start to pack up. I crawl, as Curwen described, on elbows and stomach, 'trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk', past the crew to the deeper recesses of another gallery so that I may collect my abandoned kit. As I enter the space, in the hazy light of my helmet-mounted head-torch, three prehistoric picks are illuminated. Without thinking I pick one up and hold the cold, damp artefact for a moment, turning it over it my hand and feeling its weight. 

Then, for no real reason, I turn off my light.

Behind me (somewhere) I can hear the soundman locating his equipment and trying, unsuccessfully, to put it all away whilst, to my right, another member of the team is crawling slowly back towards the main shaft. Their muffled grunts and scrapes echo strangely off the walls around me and I start to feel a little disorientated. I also have a curious feeling that, when I do finally turn on my light, someone else will be in the gallery with me; some ancient figure clasping a pick and caked with chalk dust and sweat.

When I do (eventually) turn the light back on, I am somewhat relieved to find that I am alone.

I crawl back to the main shaft and the ladder that connects us to the real world above. We have only been down in the chalk for 4 hours, but it seems like days. Grimes Graves is a truly magical place.


  1. I apologise in advance for any praise induced uncomfortable shuffling this may cause...

    Having read this post (twice) it occurs to me that this is exactly the kind of inspiring recollection that should by tucked gently into a journal / popular media booklet (magazine) regarding Archaeology, or even in fact, dare I suggest it, on a certain institution's website.

    It's not only inspiring, but it actually puts you there - and for me at least, it reminds me why I enjoyed Archaeology.

    1. Thank you (uncomfortable shuffling aside), much appreciated. There are few places you can really 'experience' the Neolithic in the UK today and Grimes Graves is an amazing place - with regard to your other point, are you allowed to put 'inspiring recollections' on institutional websites? I'll look into that!

  2. Think I caught this on BBC2 on Monday. You didn't say that the gorgeous Neil Oliver was sharing such an intimate space with you!


    1. Hi, no this (Sacred Wonders programme) was a different bit of filming - I shared an intimate space (as you put it) with Neil Oliver (rather than sharing Neil Oliver's intimate space - which is how rumours start) last summer. There were more of us in the subterranean galleries then, hence it was just a tad more claustrophobic (but still fun).

      Always good to get back to the surface though....