Case Study 5: Beyond the Fence: Lithic Scatters and the Grime’s Graves Environs

Barry Bishop (Pre-Construct Archaeology and University of Buckingham)


This report highlights the considerable potential that lithic scatters can have in helping to re-populate a landscape that, due to past and present land use, has generally been seen as inhospitable to archaeological inquiry.

Grime’s Graves, one of Britain’s largest, best known and most intensively explored flint mine complexes, lies in an area dominated by forest. Its investigation required the formulation of a suite of approaches that commenced with ‘opportunistic’ fieldwalking, was enhanced using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and culminated with a test-pitting programme.

It succeeded in significantly extending knowledge of the monument and its surrounds. In particular, it has demonstrated that the scheduled site is only part of a much more extensive ‘landscape of extraction’.


The flint mine complex at Grime’s Graves, near Brandon in Norfolk, has been the subject of intensive archaeological explorations for over 150 years, although investigations have been almost entirely confined to the scheduled site itself (eg Armstrong 1926; Barber et al. 1999; Clarke 1915; Greenwell 1870; Longworth and Varndell 1996; Longworth et al. 2012; Mercer 1981).

The limitations of this have long been recognised: ‘One of the most intractable problems remains the relationship of the flint mines to the patterns of settlement and exploitation of the surrounding landscape’ (Barber et al. 1999, 73).

Consequently, a collaborative doctoral research programme was instigated, run jointly by English Heritage (now Historic England) and the University of York and funded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council studentship (Bishop 2012). One of the key aims of the project was to ‘restore’ the scheduled site to its broader landscape setting.

Archaeological prospection within the area immediately surrounding Grime’s Graves (about 1 km radius: ‘the environs’), is beset with difficulties (Fig 5.1). It lies in the Breckland, an area of low population density dominated by Forestry Commission and Ministry of Defence activities, and generally heavily forested.

Traditional archaeological methods, such as aerial photography or systematic fieldwalking, are impractical, and commercial development that might be subject to archaeological mitigation is virtually non-existent. As a result, almost nothing is known of the archaeology of the environs, limiting our understanding of how Grime’s Graves operated within its wider material and social world, or of its longer-term historical trajectory.


In order to redress this, it was necessary to explore how past activities had been structured across the environs, and how this may have related to the geological and topographical qualities of the landscape. As established procedures for investigating the archaeology can be only of limited effect, it was imperative to formulate novel, multi-facetted and reflexive approaches to exploring the environs (Fig 5.2).

Surface monitoring

The first task was to map the distribution of archaeological material, which principally comprised struck flint, across the environs. Although heavily forested, patches of disturbed ground are present. These have been caused by a variety of processes, including the felling and destumping of forestry stands, erosion of trackways, disturbance caused by wind-felled trees, and episodes of soil scarification undertaken by Natural England for ecological purposes. Particularly useful were localised disturbances caused by the considerable number of moles and rabbits.

The environs were continually monitored over the three-year duration of the project and every instance of soil disturbance recorded. Most exposures were small and isolated and these were recorded as separate entities. Only in two locations, a ‘destumped’ forestry stand to the south of the scheduled site and a furrowed pathway to its north, was it possible to apply a more systematic approach and these were fieldwalked with artefacts recorded on a 5 x 5m grid system.

The location and area of each exposure were recorded and in order to assess changes in the density of flintwork across the environs, the number of pieces of struck flint per m2 was calculated. All flintwork was quantified and assessed according to its raw material and typo-technological attributes.

Ground Penetrating Radar

Given the nature of Grime’s Graves, it was considered important to relate the distribution and density of struck flint to the environs’ sub-surface conditions.

Previous work employing GPR at Grime’s Graves has shown the technique to be particularly suitable for identifying both archaeological and geological sub-surface features and deposits, and that it can supplement the basic geological mapping as produced by the BGS (Bartlett nd; Linford et al. 2009). Accordingly, a GPR survey was undertaken where ground conditions permitted; mostly limited to grassy paths, but extending as far as practical beyond the scheduled site’s boundaries.

Test pitting

The surface survey had provided insights into the spatial structuring and the range and chronology of flintworking at a landscape scale, and the GPR had identified quarry-like features extending beyond the scheduled area. In order to ‘ground truth’ the GPR and to provide ‘complete’ assemblages of struck flint for detailed analysis, a programme of test pitting was instigated utilising the help of volunteers from the local community.

Two areas were selected.

  • Firstly, the surface monitoring had identified significant quantities of primary flint working waste within Compartment 3235, a newly-felled forestry stand to the south-west of the scheduled site, about 700m from the visible earthworks. GPR survey was not possible here due to thick deposits of felling debris, but was conducted on grass trackways that lined three of its sides. This revealed significant numbers of circular sub-soil anomalies comparable to GPR images of confirmed flint mining shafts and pits at the scheduled site. However, the underlying chalk is susceptible to periglacial weathering which can include the formation of circular solution hollows; these results therefore required ground truthing.
  • The second area selected for test pitting was along the side of the trackway that runs along the western side of Compartment 3204. Here the surface survey had identified low but persistent levels of worked flint while GPR survey had revealed a number of sub-surface anomalies. Its position, running up the northern side of the dry valley from the scheduled site’s boundary fence, provided a suitable contrast to Compartment 3235 and an opportunity to investigate an important element of the topography. Additionally, the geological strata underlying Compartment 3204 consist of solid chalk, whereas Compartment 3235 lies on glacial deposits, allowing a comparison to be made between flint use and localised geological conditions.


Taken together, these methods provided insights into the changing ways in which the landscape around Grime’s Graves has been used over the long term. The opportunistic surface monitoring of ground disturbance revealed a persistent spread of flintwork extending way beyond the scheduled site, the nature, chronological range and composition of which is highly variable and provided insights into the patterning of different activities across the landscape and over long periods of time.

It enabled the environs to be seen as an ever-evolving ‘taskscape’, with the material conditions of the landscape shaping how people could encounter and experience the area (cf Conneller 2008; Edmonds 1997; Gibson 1979; Ingold 1993).

Particular concentrations were identified to the south and west of the scheduled site, areas where glacial deposits coincide with outcropping seams of the high knapping-quality flints from the Brandon Flint Series.

Of particular importance is the identification through surface monitoring, GPR survey and test pitting of intensive quarrying and initial dressing of flint in Compartment 3235, with the GPR indicating that quarrying may have continued over a much wider area, at least 1km beyond Grime’s Graves’ scheduled boundaries. Away from these deposits, as in Compartment 3204, flintworking occurred but at a reduced scale, even if closer to the scheduled site (Figs 5.3 and 5.4).

Click to view the full image and then zoom in for more detail

The surveys have shown that spatial patterning of activity in the environs is complicated, but closely tied to variations in the geological and topographical character of the area. It is clear that the flintworkers had an acute sense of different areas’ physical characteristics, not least the distribution of flint resources, both as seams within the chalk and also within glacial tills containing flint eroded from the chalk below.


By being adaptable, recognising the limitations of what the landscape had to offer and employing a suite of differing but mutually reinforcing methodologies, considerable insight into the prehistory of the area was gained.

The durability of flint means that it has long been and continues to be regularly encountered wherever the soil is broken, and his project took the approach that such scatters are indicators of spatially defined points of activity.

In order to appreciate their potential, we need to get away from thinking about them as sites or tightly defined patterns of settlement and see them more as residues of technological action that can be related to the specific qualities of the landscape. In other words, it can be just as productive to see past activity as framed on a landscape scale, rather than as a series of isolated points within it. Examining and plotting the distribution of surface-derived material combined with a detailed appreciation of the physical characteristics of the landscape therefore gives an opportunity to investigate the changing ways in which it could be inhabited.

This paper summarises a project that was designed as part of a research programme with the fieldwork specifically formulated for an area that presents difficulties for standard methods of archaeological inquiry.

Similar methodologies can easily be adapted and enhanced for use elsewhere, according to the potentials and limitations of any given landscape. During the three years that the project lasted considerable help was sought and freely given by local archaeological groups and volunteers (Fig 5.5). Such interest means that the project can be extended into the future, with the local community monitoring new ground disturbance over the long term, refining the mapping, and our understanding, of past activity within this difficult terrain.


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