Cissbury Rings is one of my favourite walking places in West Sussex. Standing on the South Downs and within walking distance of my home town of Worthing it’s an excellent place to wander and refresh yourself. Even in the depths of winter you’ll find some hardy folk along with their canine companions walking the ring or brivetting about in the undergrowth. It’s quiet seclusion also offers spectacular views in all directions covering the Downs, the sprawl of the south coast conurbation from Brighton to Bognor Regis and on a clear day you can even see the Seven Sisters to the east and the Isle of Wight to the west.
Hard to believe then that this was once one of the powerhouses of Neolithic industry in the UK. Though mostly known as an Iron Age hillfort it actually began it’s fantastically varied life as a source of raw flint in the Neolithic era and the south western area of the hill bares testimony to this with it’s hundreds of shallow, and sometimes enormous, pits. This ‘moon-cratered’ surface represents the backfilled shafts of flint mines dating back some 5000 years and although not visible today some of them were between 40-45 feet deep and gave onto galleries and chambers that sometimes connected to other shafts. Cissbury and the nearby Church Hill and, slightly further afield Harrow Hill and Blackpatch, were some of the primary sources of flint throughout the Neolithic period. Only the slightly later mines at Norfolk’s Grimes Graves were any significant rival. The quality of the flint mined here was obviously very high as mining continued well into the Bronze Age and tools created from the flint have been found across Britain and mainland Europe. Between the four Sussex locations there were probably in excess of 400 shafts. Some of these were the subject of a number of archaeological digs between Victorian times and as recently as the 1970s. The earliest interest for the Cissbury site comes from 1849 when the Reverend Edward Turner, addressing the Sussex Archaeological Society, stated confidently that the hollows were formed for ‘Druidical celebrations’ but didn’t specify what these might be! The first excavations were carried out in 1857 by George Irving, but he failed to get to the bottom of the pits both physically and metaphorically and interpreted them as ‘animal pens’ due to the finds he came across. In 1867 Colonel Augustus Lane Fox was the first person to suggest that the pits were associated with flint mining while investigating hillfort construction on the South Downs, but he too failed to fully excavate the mines to their actual bottoms. However, the discovery of shafts beneath the fort’s ramparts made them realise that the shafts pre-dated the Iron Age and discovery of a polished axe within the ring and to the east of the pits firmly planted the shafts in the Neolithic era. Ernest Willet, who in 1868 had been looking at similar features to Lane Fox on nearby Church Hill, began working at Cissbury in 1873 and was the first person to get to the bottom of a shaft after digging down 4.2m through the back-fill in one of the earlier excavated pits where he discovered a series of chambers and galleries. Sadly his site notes from the dig were lost. More diggers came and went for the next 60 years but one of the more interesting figures to explore Cissbury was a local working class, self-taught archaeologist named John Pull. He’d already achieved notoriety in the area following his discoveries at Blackpatch in the early 1920s and suffered at the disparaging hands of the Worthing Archaeology Society for his methods and site recording procedures. Most of this was down to pure snobbery on the Society’s part and given the towns Conservative nature hardly surprising. He did however rejoin the Society in 1947, taking over as president in 1952 and started new works at Cissbury the same year which gave rise to the most comprehensive studies of the Cissbury mines ever undertaken. Sadly he was shot dead in a bank raid in 1960 while working as a security guard at the Durrington branch of Lloyds Bank. For further intriguing reading on the subject take a look at Miles Russell’s fascinating book ‘Flint mines in Neolithic Britain’ (Tempus Books, 2000).