The Ancestors - Grime's Graves
Type of Spiritual Experience
Grime's Graves or Grimes Graves is a large Neolithic flint mining complex in Norfolk, England.
It was worked between c. 3000 and c. 1900 BC. Flint was much in demand for making polished stone axes in the Neolithic period.
The scheduled monument extends over an area of some 37 ha (96 acres) and consists of at least 433 shafts dug into the natural chalk to reach seams of flint. The largest shafts are more than 14 metres (46ft) deep and 12 metres (39ft) in diameter at the surface. It has been calculated that more than 2,000 tonnes of chalk had to be removed from the larger shafts, taking 20 men around five months, before stone of sufficient quality was reached.
An upper 'topstone' and middle 'wallstone' seam of flint was dug through on the way to the deeper third 'floorstone' seam which most interested the miners.
In order to remove the chalk efficiently, the ancient miners built wooden platforms and ladders as they dug downwards and piled the spoil around the shaft opening using turf revetments to hold it in place for the season, when the shaft and all its galleries were thoroughly and fastidiously backfilled. The landscape around Grime's Graves has a characteristic pockmarked appearance caused by the infilled shafts.
Grime's Graves is in the care of English Heritage. It is open to the public and it is possible to descend a 9-metre ladder and explore one of the shafts. There is a small exhibition area. This is the only shaft of its kind open to the public in Britain.
A description of the experience
Prehistoric Britain – Dr Christopher and Jacquetta Hawkes
…………working with shovels made from the shoulder-blades of domestic animals, and with picks, hammers and wedges …[the miners] drove their galleries crouching or lying prone as they prised out the valuable nodules. The miners-must have grown familiar with the maze of their subterranean burrows, but when they were long and dark they lit them with little chalk lamps: simple cups probably containing fat and a floating wick. In some of the … mines black patches on the roof still mark the places where these lamps burnt with a smoky flame that must have filled the galleries with strange, flickering shadows and a powerful smell.
…A most dramatic find made recently at the bottom of one of the Grime's Graves pits leads on to the whole question of the magico-religious beliefs of Neolithic times. Enthroned on a ledge sat the chalk-carved image of a fat and pregnant woman, looking down on a very perfect chalk phallus. A great pile of deer-horns had been laid as offerings at her feet.
Here, in fact was the shrine of a fertility cult, but one apparently intended to serve a curious and unexpected purpose. This particular shaft had failed to strike the usual rich flint-bed….
The spiritual uses of Grime’s Graves
Tunnels and mines such as this had, to most shamanic peoples a religious significance. The earth was the Earth Mother, and by tunnelling into the ground one was entering the realm of the Earth Mother – the womb. The figure of the Grimes Grave’s ‘goddess’ found in the mines is a depiction of the Earth Mother – rotund, amply breasted, a supplier of fertility and fecundity.
The figure was Neolithic, but later Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the area named the site after their god Grim - literally the masked, or hooded one, - Woden.
According to the archaeologists, the miners used picks fashioned from the antler of red deer. This is despite the fact that in other flint mines with better conditions for the preservation of artefacts, it has been seen they used wooden or bone shovels. Both left and right handed antlers were present – all remarkably well preserved given they were supposed to be being used as tools. Antlers are used symbolically by shamans and denote the ‘stag’.
There in the smoke filled semi-darkness, the people saw spirits. Initially it is assumed that the miners themselves saw the spirits, whether the mines were later used to deliberately help initiates see spirits is unknown, although there are indications that it might have been, the altar, and the figures are but two indications. It is not unusual for mines to be used as a replacement for ‘caves’ and ‘barrows’ all of which were used in the Mysteries to provoke rebirth experiences.
Archaeologists have also stated that ‘one unproductive shaft’ (pit 15) was turned into a shrine. But there is the alternative explanation that it was not unproductive, maybe it was a deliberate shaft used for religious purposes. An altar of flint lumps had been built with a chalk bowl at its base and antler ‘picks’ piled around. This rather implies a number of shamans had used this place for ceremonies.
In front of the altar had been placed the ‘Venus figurine of chalk’ – the Earth Mother statue. In addition to this there was a chalk phallus and some ‘balls’, also of chalk – cosmic eggs.
There are indications that Grime’s Graves may have become an extremely important religious site. Note that this does not contradict its existence as a flint mine, it was both. There were, according to Wikipedia, no red deer in this part of the UK at the time, as such the presence of so many antlers rather indicates they were imported. Wikipedia on the other hand postulates that
“Such a large industry may have required supporting infrastructure. Assuming no more than two shafts were open at any one time, around 120 red deer may have needed to be bred and managed nearby, in order to provide a steady supply of antler”
Grime’s Graves is near the Fens, with its very rich soils and it is known that extensive farming took place during the Bronze Age. This is known from middens that infill the mouths of many Neolithic mineshafts. Animal bones from these middens show that the Bronze Age people kept cattle, which they milked, sheep and a few pigs. They also grew barley, wheat and peas. But not deer. There is thus every indication, that the site and its various peoples were supplied by the surrounding population, almost like a monastic settlement once was.
The source of the experienceThe Ancestors
Concepts, symbols and science items
Science ItemsSacred geography
Sacred geography - altars
Sacred geography - crack or crevice
Sacred geography - physical caves
Activities and commonsteps
CommonstepsVisiting caves, mines, barrows and vaults
Mesolithic female shaman of Bad Dürrenberg, 7000-6500 bce, with reconstructed regalia from animal bones, horns, teeth, and shells.
From a wonderful color-illustrated pdf of “Archaeological Finds from Germany” from the paleolithic to the christian era.