The legend of dimply hollows

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Stephanie Northen visits a Stone Age flint mine, where Neolithic man once worked.

Imagine a humble hut-dweller of Anglo-Saxon Norfolk. He lives in a desolate heath in the middle of which is a pock-marked plain of about 90 acres. The ground is all dimples and hollows as if huge tennis balls have been pressed into green playdough. The peasant doesn't know what they are or were but that hasn't stopped his people giving them a name. Grime's Graves, they call them - the Devil's Holes of the pagan god Grim or Woden.

Move on 1,000 years or so. Through the flat country comes Canon Greenwell, aflame with the scientific ardour of the Victorian age. He excavates one of the 360 hollows and discovers that it is the top of a filled-in mine shaft. The canon has scratched the surface of one of the earliest major industrial sites in Europe - a huge Neolithic flint mine.

Now, in 2000, the wheel turns full circle. Four times a year Chris Lucas, head custodian of Grime's Graves, travels back to 2000bc. He dons animal skins and gets to work with the flint axe he made himself. He used to let children have a go, but stopped after several (axes, not children) were broken. As it takes this contemporary Stone Age man two days to polish up a good cutting edge on a flint his reluctance to let them play is understandable. Instead youngsters can debark a hazel stick which is turned into a spear. They also get the chance to descend a steep wooden ladder into the darkness of Pit One.

Halfway down a hole that pre-dates the tomb of Tutankhamen by 500 years, visitors might begin to wonder just how much they care about Stone Age man. Certainly Anne-Marie Turnbull, a teacher at Wickhambrook primary school, Newmarket, which has been making visits here for 20 years, says "her heart was in her mouth" as she was watching her class of six and seven-year-olds disappear into the gloom.

Once safely at the bottom - and it is only about 10m down - fascination takes over from fear. Cramped tunnels disappear into the chalk leading to low chambers where the miners would have lain working with a red deer's ntler for a pickaxe and an ox's shoulderblade for a shovel. Red deer still live in the forest that now surrounds the site. The miners then hauled the stone to the surface and processed it on site.

Chris Lucas says: "These people were making the machine tools of the Stone Age. This was an industrial site, they didn't live here. They just made the tools they needed." These included axes, chisels, knife blades, spears and arrow heads, plus scrapers for animal skins and all the other general purpose implements that Neolithic man would have wanted by his workbench.

Grime's Graves was known for the excellence of its flint, which explains why the site was worked so extensively for 500 years. The miners were tapping into a seam that runs from the Dorset Downs to the north coast of Norfolk, several miles across and between 2m and 15m down. All along the way are flint mines, but none on the scale of Grime's Graves. The tools - samples are on display at the museum - are almost pure black, like matt carbon fibre. Children can inspect them and examine fossils found in discarded flints on the site.

The museum is tiny and there is no interactive trickery. So a successful visit relies on teachers' ability to fire children's imaginations, to inspire them with a sense of times past and links to times present. If you are stumped for ideas, talk to the head custodian.

Chris feels the romance of it all. He hands over a 4,000-year-old arrowhead. "That's the real McCoy. The guy who made that might have visited Stonehenge." But he does not romanticise. "These people were not ecological hippies at one with their magical landscape. They were us, as destructive as us. They cut down trees, they used up flint which is a non-renewable resource. They did what they had to do to survive."

* Grime's Graves, Brandon, Norfolk, IP26 5DE.

Tel: 01842 810656.

Open April 1-October 31, daily, 10am-6pm. November 1-March 31, Wednesdays to Sundays, 10am-4pm. Closed 1-2pm.

School parties are free but book in advance. Free activity sheet.

NB: there are no toilets on site.

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