The British Isles are blessed with some incredible Neolithic sites and many remarkable archeologic finds can be admired in museums and exhibitions. However, nowhere have I ever felt as connected to Neolithic times as I did at Will Lord’s ‘Grimes Graves Ultimate Flint Knapping Experience’.
Let me try to explain why.
1.) First, it starts with a big question mark. There is the site itself, about contemporary to Stonehenge. After climbing down 49 feet into the amazingly spacious shaft of the Greenwell Pit, one of more than 400 pits (only 2 are open now), I couldn’t avoid asking ‘how on Earth did they move all this material – and, for that matter, more than 400 times over?’ Perhaps this is in in analogy to ‘how did they carry the bluestones all the way from Wales to Stonehenge?’ In both cases, the answer probably lies in a high level of organisation – but it is still difficult to grasp. And even more puzzling, why would they do this? There is plenty of flint at this site that is far easier to reach.
2.) Once at the bottom, we started crawling into some of the accessible tunnels (definitely not spacious – people with claustrophobia may have to limit themselves to some areas) and soon enough we found traces of the ancient miners, like marks that their (stone) tools left on the walls and the marks that their hands left (!) on their tools. The tools in this case were modified deer antlers that were used as a sort of pickaxes. Those antlers still are right there where the miners last handled them some 4 thousand years ago, but largely untouched ever since. The stuff is right in front of you – absolutely amazing! We know a lot about prehistory through archaeology and other research, but we will never know the personal stories of these people who lived at a time and space far before the advent of writing. I believe, this is a close as we ever get to these prehistoric people and I felt a sense of connection that is simply beyond words.
3.) And then there is Will Lord. He simply has the right touch to introduce a handful of visitors per year to all of this in a proper and very dignified manner. Afterwards, at his place, he showed us how the mined flint was transformed into a tool, such as an axe. The skilled flint knappers were almost certainly not same people as the miners because a high level of specialization had already emerged at this time. Will Lord’s own skills are nothing short of breath-taking. If he had a time machine and went back to Neolithic times, I believe he’d be ‘hired on the spot’ as a senior flint knapper! While creating the tool right in front of our eyes, he explained at various steps how flint knapping evolved from Mesolithic and even earlier times to the late Neolithic period. I guess, the Neolithic period was something like the Renaissance age of flint knapping. Reminiscent to modern luxury products of certain watch or automobile manufactures, those craftspeople created tools far beyond of what was simply needed. Likewise, the miners ignored 2 flint layers at shallower depths and, for that matter, ignored the significant amount of flint at the surface that was used by their early ancestors. Instead they went for priced top-quality stuff in perilous depth. It all started to make some sense now, intellectually but also emotionally.
Final question, did I learn how to flint knap? Let’s just say, in Neolithic times, I probably would have been a miner. That’s o.k. – but some others did better than me.