Friday, 3 August 2012

Getting Out - 1 of 4

So having self-diagnosed myself with massive case of Cabin Fever, I decided to turn a brief trip home to Norfolk into a four day stay in the hope that this would give me enough space and quiet to... recalibrate or... whatever it is I do when I get like this.  I grew up in Norfolk, specifically the Brecks, and decided to re-visit places I’d been to as a child, but perhaps didn’t fully remember or had been too young to appreciate.  

Grimes Graves and West Stow

This was definitely the case with Grimes Graves, a Neolithic flint mine, and quite the loveliest heritage site to visit because there is really nothing there.  You drive into the middle of nowhere, enter what appears to be a large field (there is one small cabin for the loo, another marginally larger one for the visitors booth), and the rest is open land.  At least that's what you think at first...

A birds-eye view of Grimes Graves, scanned from the English Heritage guidebook
The first thing you notice is that the ground appears to be pock-marked with dozens of craters about the width of a pond.  There are several hundred of these within that one field.   Every one is a back-filled mine dug by men using only antlers and the shoulder blades of deer for tools in their search for flint - the only material back then that could reliably hold a sharp edge before bronze became more common.  Each pit can go as far down as 50 ft, and each would have taken about a year to dig.  There are sheep tracks between them and you can roam the site freely but your natural impulse is to stay out of the holes for some eerie reason.  (Once I realised this I immediately went and sat in one.  Out of sight of the visitors booth, it wasn't hard to imagine the yawning hole opening up beneath my feet, the busy noise of working miners, and the sharp glint of their treasure.)  I also climbed down the ladder into the mine opened to the public.  Now capped for safety’s sake, it’s dark and cool down there and you can still touch the remaining flint nodes in the walls, stain your knees on the chalk floor, and duck into the narrow galleries to see where men crawled and scraped away.   If anything it’s far more evocative now than when I was younger.

Shoulder blade of a red deer - a shovel for a miner

Into the mine
A tight squeeze.  Not a job for the claustrophobic Neanderthal.
I find these earlier periods of history fascinating, partly because because it says so much about our ancestors, who are commonly thought of as dim-witted savages, that with none of the tools of resources we have now they were ingenious and resourceful enough to find a way to achieve things most of us would never dream to attempt.  The Neolithic era was 4,000-2,000BC, when the hunter-gatherer people were just beginning to settle and farm rather than live nomadically, following the seasons and herds.  This might have been what gave them the ability to stay in one place for long enough to mine the land, but what really got me is how did they know the flint was down there? 

There are two kinds of flint in Grimes Graves; nodes, which are chunks of it that you can see in the walls when you climb down into one of the old chalk pits, and then below that is Tabular flint, a solid layer of the stuff.  Darker, harder, and higher quality.  The nodes are flaky by comparison, so tabular flint was better for knapping (shaping) larger objects like axe-heads and knives.  You can just see what’s left of it in the photo below.  I can imagine flint nodes being found, particularly around rivers where the water had worn the world down enough to reveal the layers in the earth, and the people going after those, but what made them dig that extra 10ft to the flint table?  How did they know it was there, that far beneath the soft green surface were the shiny black bodies of billions upon billions of silicon sea creatures crushed to glass?

Nodes, about 20ft down

The remains of the flint table, 30ft below the surface

This small blade was created by a local flint knapper.  It's been blunted to protect the kiddies, but you can see just how fine and precise an edge you're able to get with flint.
 I love the word-smithery of the place too.  Grimes Graves comes from the old English name Grim, a kind of nickname for ‘The Hooded One’, Odin or Woden.  The Anglo-Saxon people that lived in the area between 500-800AD used to meet there, on a small rise of earth by the old graves (a ‘grave’ of course, just meaning a shallow hole).  Not knowing about the long-forgotten flint, these early Britons attributed the strange landscape to the god.  At the back of the site is the Grimshow (or ‘Grimshoo’) which has the same root in its name.  Literally it is the howe, or mound, of Grim.  With the strange look of the place, Grimes Graves would have been easily known by all the locals, and a good place to call council.

My next stop was the reconstructed Anglo Saxon village (and activity centre, and picnic area and etc) at West Stow.  Every Norfolkian school child gets brought here, but my memories of it were very vague and, as it turns out, very fuzzy!  

It’s part of a ‘practical archeology’ project, where rather than just looking at artifacts and speculating on how people used to do things, you then try it yourself to see if it worked.  The result is this village of half a dozen houses, along with a small museum and activity centre.  Each house is different as the physical understanding of the building process informed the modern archeologists.  For a long time it was assumed that houses were an A-frame roof over a shallow pit, but when the first house was built to this model it quickly became clear that the villagers didn’t live in the dusty soil of East Anglia.  With that in mind the archeologists began to consider the possibility of floorboards over a shallow cellar, and soon found evidence to support this theory.  The next house they constructed reflected this, and so on.


You can walk round these on your own but I found it most interesting speaking to a storyteller who was there for the day.  We sat out under the eaves of the Great Hall, enjoying the sunshine and discussing perspectives on history.  We both seem to think there’s an odd little habit in this technological era of seeing former generations as somehow ‘primitive’ in a derogative sense, forgetting that all our achievements are at some point owed to theirs.  This storyteller told me about how when men who are builders or carpenters visit West Stow with their families they are often surprised at just how good the knowledge of materials is, how efficiently it is used, how clever and inventive the people must have been to achieve what they did, and how ‘advanced’ their lifestyles were.  

A few minutes in the museum attests to this if you're a museum-y kind of person, which I always am!  There's a huge variety of artifacts from the area that shows just how much thought went into the Anglo-Saxon way of life, and how sophisticated and cultured they really were.

Anglo-Saxon jewellery, including glass beads imported from abroad.  Norfolk's large coastline made it an ideal trading route from Europe.

Decorated clay pots
Barbed arrowheads
I read about a recent example where the diggers at the Roman excavation in Silchester were stunned to discover our pre-Roman ancestors ate off plates.  “But that would mean …they were civilized!”  I'm all for having your ego deflated once in a while, as you realise just what a small part of the universe you are.  I think it's good for you :)

Aaaaand here’s a falcon I also met.  Just because.

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