Neolithic flint mines at Cissbury Ring

Artist's impression of flint mining at Cissbury Ring

Flint mining took place at Cissbury Hill during the Neolithic period long before the construction of the hill fort. Thanks to Victorian archaeologists we know that there are substantial surviving underground shafts and galleries here. In the 1970s radiocarbon dating on material from all Britain’s flint mines showed that mines in Sussex were the earliest in the country.

Why was flint mining undertaken?

Flints can be found scattered all over the ground but those that have been exposed to the elements become brittle and cannot be worked. Mining gave access to stronger flints buried in layers within the underlying chalk.

How were the mines worked?

An initial shaft was dug down to the level of the seam of flints then horizontal galleries were dug to extract the stones. Spoil was backfilled into exhausted galleries to reduce the amount of material having to be brought to the surface.

There are three types of mine: small circular pits, large single shafts, and large paired shafts linked by a common spoil heap.

Animal bones made effective tools. A deer antler would be used as a pick and an ox shoulder blade as a shovel. Both have been found during excavations at Cissbury.

Red deer antler found at Cissbury Ring
Red deer antler found at Cissbury Ring
Red deer antler found at Cissbury Ring

Once the flint was removed from the shafts it was processed at the surface to remove unwanted material. Many flint flakes have been found scattered around the interior of Cissbury Ring.

Where were the mines at Cissbury?

Most of the mineshafts are located inside the hill fort at the southern end with a group extending down the southern ridge outside the ramparts. There are around 270 pits ranging from 3-36 metres in diameter and up to 12 metres in depth.

These appear clearly today like a lunar landscape of hollows and mounds. The hollows have been formed where the material used to fill the shafts has sunk and the mounds show where excavated chalk and struck flint flakes from the initial processing of the material were deposited.

What was made from the flints?

The majority of the tools found at Cissbury have been axes. This has led archaeologists to believe the mines in Britain might have had a specialised or ritualistic role because the amount of flint mined in the whole country was only a small fraction of the flint in actual use. Worthing Museum holds a collection of axe heads and other items excavated by John Pull in the 1950s. Finds unearthed by the Victorian archaeologist Pitt Rivers can be found in the museum in Oxford that bears his name.

Axe heads found by John Pull at Cissbury in the 1950s
Axe heads found by John Pull at Cissbury in the 1950s
Axe heads found by John Pull at Cissbury in the 1950s

How did the miners live?

The Neolithic period saw a clearing of woodland, the development of agriculture and pottery, and the beginnings of large-scale communal activity.

The mines probably occupied a separate clearing located a short distance from the agricultural land. It is believed that the miners lived in temporary shelters because there is no archaeological evidence of permanent dwellings from this period. Perhaps they worked on a seasonal basis returning to their nearby settlements when not engaged in mining activities.