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History of Cissbury Ring

Winter sunrise on the footpath around Cissbury Ring, West Sussex
Sunrise on the footpath around Cissbury Ring | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

From a Neolithic site of industry to machine guns during the Second World War, the history of Cissbury Ring is long and varied. Archaeological digs carried out by pioneering Victorians between the 1850s and 1880s shaped the understanding of this site through the centuries, alongside furthering the science of archaeology with new techniques practised here. Discover some of the stories hidden beneath the surface of the largest hillfort in Sussex.

Neolithic flint mines at Cissbury Ring

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

The mines were probably dug using animal bones: a deer antler could be used as a pick and an ox shoulder blade as a shovel. Both have been found during excavations at Cissbury Ring. Most of the mineshafts are located inside the hillfort at the southern end – there are around 270 pits ranging from 3-36m in diameter and up to 12m in depth.

Today these pits look 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 digging the mines were deposited.

What was made from the flints?

Most of the tools found at Cissbury have been axes. Worthing Museum holds a collection of axe heads and other items excavated in the 1950s. Finds unearthed by the Victorian archaeologist Pitt Rivers can be found in his museum in Oxford.

A Bronze Age burial ground

During the early Bronze Age Cissbury appears to have been used as a ritual burial ground. Two round barrows have been identified here – this type of burial mound marked a change from multiple burials in a long barrow to individual ones.

Earthworks at Cissbury Ring, West Sussex
Earthworks at Cissbury Ring | © National Trust Images/Tim Stephens

Iron Age hillfort

The Iron Age hillfort was built around 400BC and was used for defence for around 300 years. Cissbury is a univallate fort, meaning it is a hilltop enclosure with a single rampart accompanied by a ditch and a low counterscarp bank. After 100BC the interior of the fort was used for agriculture with rectangular fields marked out with earthwork banks and terraces.

A Roman mint

There is evidence of a settlement at Cissbury during the later Roman period, consisting of a group of 11 buildings and two rectangular enclosures situated near the eastern entrance. The ramparts were heightened at this time, possibly in fear of Danish attacks. The discovery at Cissbury of two successive issues of coinage struck between AD1009 and AD1023 suggests there was once a mint here.

A Tudor vantage point

There is little evidence of activity at Cissbury Ring during the medieval era but many of the local agricultural tracks are likely to have been made during this period. In Tudor times Cissbury formed part of an early-warning system of beacons that ran the length of the south coast. Watchers were able to monitor 78 miles of coastline from here.

Victorian archaeological investigation

In 1857 George Irving carried out the first of many digs made during the Victorian era, by investigating an isolated hollow on the southeast side of the hillfort and nine pits in the area of the flint mines. In one of these he found charcoal, oyster shells, animal bones and pottery including Roman and 16th-century material. His only other find was a William III halfpenny.

Winter dawn at Cissbury Ring, West Sussex, looking towards Shoreham and Brighton
Winter dawn at Cissbury Ring, looking towards Shoreham and Brighton | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

Pitt Rivers investigates

Colonel Augustus Lane Fox – better known as Pitt Rivers – and Canon William Greenwell excavated 30 pits in two separate digs: September 1867 and January 1868. They found large numbers of flint axes and other tools, more animal bones and teeth, charcoal, shells and pieces of Neolithic pottery.

A Victorian discovery

Ernest Willett reopened one of Lane Fox’s earlier pits in 1873 and excavated to a deeper depth of 4.2 metres. Here he discovered a shaft with a number of galleries radiating from it and several ox shoulder blades which he believed had been used as shovels. Several digs in the following years confirmed suspicions that a flint mine had operated here.

Cissbury during the Second World War

A large anti-tank ditch was excavated around the entire hill in 1940 and anti-aircraft guns were positioned across the highest part of the ridge within the fort. Later in the war the north slope of Cissbury Hill was used in military exercises in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Observation dugouts were excavated within the rampart to house machine-gun posts.

A bench under a tree with far-reaching views, at Cissbury Ring, West Sussex

Discover more at Cissbury Ring

Find out how to get to Cissbury Ring, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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Our work at Cissbury Ring 

Discover how we have improved and maintained the land at Cissbury Ring hillfort in Sussex and the historical features that have been revealed in the process.

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