Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Grimes Graves

Few places in Norfolk have more mystery attached to them than Grimes Graves.
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Its name, for a start -.'Grim's Diggings', in which Grim is one of the titles of the old English god Woden (Odin), meaning 'masked', 'atrocious' or 'cruel'. .
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Dirt is grime and dirt is grim, and so are graves; one walks away from them wiping one's hands. The name comes down to us from the Dark Ages, as though the place were best avoided.
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The site is a lonely cluster of pits and mounds on open heathland surrounded by forestry plantations. In some ways the place itself is an anti-climax for visitors. How could it ever live up to its name? An English Heritage visitor centre squats in the middle of the site, housing introductory displays and a range of gift items, such as wines, jams and wooden swords. One is obliged to wear protective clothing before descending the ladder into the only open mineshaft. Once below, some 30 feet from the surface, with eyes adjusting to the dim light, one finds a series of low, lit tunnels and chambers radiating outwards into the surrounding chalk bedrock, from which slabs of flint were extracted by late Neolithic and early Bronze Age miners. The entrances are blocked with iron grilles and the chalk is grouted with white concrete - a far cry from the days of my childhood when I could scramble down the tunnels, and emerge covered in whiteness, my hands scratched by flints. 
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Grimes Graves gallery © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012

I first met Grimes Graves through the historical dioramas at Norwich Castle Museum. They uniquely opened my eyes to Norfolk's history. The most compelling and disturbing model was that of a semi-naked man with an antler pick in hand, twisted awkwardly and bleeding, hacking out flints in a flickering darkness. I found his vulnerability frightening. I could turn with relief to the next diorama of the series, a sunlit Breckland scene during the Bronze Age. These displays have been 'retired' in recent years, but their impact remains. It is rivalled by that of the dark reconstructions of the site by Alan Sorrell, commissioned by the Ministry of Works in the 1960s, with their grainy atmosphere of prehistoric despair. 
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Grimes Graves landscape © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012
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Last Saturday, I joined the Hertfordshire Geological Society at Grimes Graves for their Breckland field trip. I was asked to say a few words about the site, so I spoke to them of trading networks and flint, heathland and vegetation patterns. But while members descended into the pit, I explored the pockmarked landscape above. The turf is soft and enchanting, like downland, and is cropped by primitive-looking sheep. Some 400 craters are scattered across the site, each one pays homage to Man's ancient and powerful ally, flint, and beneath each is an unexplored deposit of chalk rubble and prehistoric debris with a story to tell. I suspect it was from a place such as this that the maggots hatched from the Earth to become the race of dwarves, 'who acquired human understanding and the shape of men' ('Gylfaginning', XIV).
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However, a horse's skull is my strongest association at Grimes Graves - the skull of a mare of Bronze Age date. It was recovered during the British Museum excavations in the 1970s, and represents the earliest known domesticated horse in Britain. She was evidently old at the time of her death, for her teeth were worn. Exotic and valuable, she was evidently worth caring for into old age. I think of her as the ancestress of all native horses in Britain. She appears in my imagination covered in chalk. 


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