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Monday, 20 August 2012

Were Neolithic mines and quarries revered?

 Mauls and lumps of quarried or mined rock in the Bronze Age copper mine on 
Parys Mountain (Phil Morgan)

Neolithic flint mine at Grimes Graves, Norfolk.  The pit props and the 
electric lights are modern......

 Before coming to the question in the heading, let's take a look at this:

Bronze Age copper mining and "underground spaces"

Thanks to Rob Ixer for forwarding the reference mentioned below.  For the moment, we'll have to be happy with Robert Johnson's abstract, since the article costs £25 or whatever for normal mortals to read.  So those who are initiated into the mysteries of social archaeology (whatever that is) can read it, but the rest of us are mystified, and look on in awe........

Anyway, what the article seems to say is that when mining became an acceptable activity during the Bronze Age,  caves were no longer used for rituals etc, so that deposits and the use of artefacts in caves ceased or at least diminished drastically.  The author looks at data set A and data set B, finds that there is a correlation, and assumes a causal relationship.  Very dodgy indeed.  The author suggests that  Bronze Age people "developed a different knowledge of how caves were formed" when they started mining, and ceased to look on underground spaces as magical or sacred places.  Hmmm -- excuse me for saying so, but that sounds like a load of guff to me.  Why dress this up in elaborate garments?  Surely people moved out of caves and into the open landscape as communities became more sophisticated, as the population increased, and as the threat from large predatory animals diminished following the end of the last glacial episode?  That was just one of many settlement shifts during the course of history -- others occurred when hunting and gathering gave way to permanent  agriculture in preferred locations, so that migrational or seasonal settlement sites became permanent ones;  and another shift occurred when agricultural surpluses and economic specialisation was associated with the growth of towns and then cities.  I would suggest that ritual played no part in any of this.......... the driving forces were economic and social, not religious.

Moving swiftly on, the author seems to be suggesting that once mining was established (for example, on the Great Orme near Llandudno, and on Parys Mountain on Anglesey) people were no longer in awe with the mining and quarrying sites, and looked on them from that point on as strictly utilitarian places -- having an economic value bit not a spiritual or ritual value.  If that's what Robert Johnson is saying, then I think I would agree with him!

So what about the attempts by TD, GW, MPP and the rest of them to flag up "quarrying sites" as places of huge spiritual or ritual significance?  As I have said before, even if these quarries existed, I see no evidence anywhere that they were deemed to be specially significant.  They would have been simply places where stone could be obtained -- and if the stones were special enough, maybe the locations would be given some economic or even strategic value by the communities that "owned" them.

As I have pointed out before, this is exactly what happens with coal mines in South Wales, copper mines in Cornwall, salt mines in the north of England, gold mines in South Africa and even mines and quarries extracting limestone for cement or Bath Stone for building.  Are these places REVERED or WORSHIPPED?  No way -- they are places invested with economic or resource value -- more likely to be associated with crimes and warfare than worship or ritual.  I suggest that it was ever thus.......... even back in the Neolithic.

Can we get any guidance from flint mines like Grime's Graves, Cissbury, Blackpatch and Harrow Hill?   As far as I can make out, no ritual or spiritual significance was attached to any of them.  However, this might cause some confusion:

"The most memorable discovery at Grimes Graves is what appears to be a fertlity shrine set up in an abandoned shaft. The shaft is quite short - we can assume that the miners failed to hit the seam of flint they were after and gave up on further digging.  But before they quit the gallery they carved out a ledge, or altar, upon which was found a godess figurine of chalk, either very obese or pregnant. Beside the female figure was a phallus of chalk. Surrounding both was a pile of antler picks.  The accepted reading of this shrine is that the miners, disappointed at their failure to find the flint they needed, made a religious offering to the godess to ensure the continued "fertility" of the mine.  As is usual in historical investigation, there is a second interpretation which considers the shrine to be a much later addition..........."

An impression of the "ritual" assumed to have been conducted in a "failed pit" at Grimes Graves.  Was this a sign that the whole complex of excavated shafts and tunnels was sacred in some way?  Probably not.


"Copper mining and the transformation of environmental knowledge in Bronze Age Britain"
Robert Johnston
Journal of Social Archaeology June 2008 vol. 8 no. 2 190-213

Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, UK,


The argument presented in this article is that copper mining during the Bronze Age in north Wales transformed the cultural landscape, specifically people's understandings of underground spaces — the mines themselves and nearby caves. The basis for the argument is a correlation between mining and a hiatus in the depositional history in the region's caves. The interpretation offered for this evidence is that through the creation and appropriation of underground spaces during mining people developed a different knowledge of how caves were formed. This new environmental knowledge denied the caves a status as mediatory or liminal places where rituals associated with other spheres of social life might be undertaken. Such knowledge was constituted by and served to structure the use and perception of the landscape by the communities who worked the mines.   


Anonymous said...

Hmmm....Robert Johnson of the Dept of Archaeology, University of Sheffield.....not to be confused with Robert Johnson of the University of Life, my friend, and one of the greatest Blues artists of all time. Unable to find whether he ever played in caves or mines, but he was legendary.

Humphrey Littletoon.

geocur said...

"Unable to find whether he ever played in caves or mines "
Humph ,

"Stones in my passway " is a clue , he was also a quarry in "hellhound on my trail .

chris johnson said...

I am not an expert here but the only obviously genuine flint mine I ever visited did not seem to have any religious connotations. It is a man-made cave above the Maas south of Maastricht.

It seems to be a very pragmatic place used to mine flint. There is plenty of flint remaining so I doubt there was a big economic imperative to corner the market in flint, despite scarcity in the wider region. Nor are there fortifications or any sign of neolithic factories. There is plenty of flint and worked flint in the surrounding fields but it all seems indicative of bands coming to re-supply themselves with raw materials and breaking pieces up into a convenient size for their carrier bags.

No doubt these people had religious beliefs - most people do. Perhaps they left a chalk image of an earth mother on a shelf of chalk - if so it has long since disappeared.

This is not to say nobody in prehistory attributed religious significance to particular types of stone from particular locations. Obviously in the case of axes from Switzerland, Langdale, Prescelli, they sometimes did.

Tony H said...

"Prehistory of The Peak", Mark Edmonds & Tim Seaborne, Tempus, 2001:-

Speaking of the Paleolithic in The Peak District, Edmonds [whom Geo & I have referred to recently] writes "the seasonal cycle set a pattern to movement and to presence in different settings and there are hints that the ranges over which people moved may have been extensive....Close parallels with implements as far away as Kent's Cavern [South Devon] may indicate that seasonal ranges across cold and largely open country may have been in the region of a hundred miles or more across....
The fragments that we have to work with often encourage a very minimal view of life at the time. We talk of gathering and hunting and dwell upon the relative merits of different strategies for securing game. It is easy to conjure up an image of people living a 'poor, bare and forked existence'. What often gets missed in these accounts is the humanity; the relation of people to land and to each other. It is likely that the paths of different people overlapped.....movement [in some places] was in step with animal migration or the seasonal abundance of resources in different places............Geography was never just physical; it was always social"........

He goes on..."It is this compexity of life that we often miss when we talk simply of gathering or hunting. The archetype gives little sense of hte ways that people may have thought about the broader world. It even misses how routine tasks are always embedded socially, creating the frame through which people come to know the world and their place within it. What we do know is that communities whose lives involve routine movement seldom perceive the landscape as an object ot be parcelled up.... The ties that bind people to these places often involve the evocation of a sense of tenure to be renewed rather than territory to be held. and hteis tenure is often grounded in a sense of ancestry, sustained through origin myths and identified with the physical evidence of the past encountered in the course of practical experience."

And further on: "Just how later Paleolithic communities in the Peak attached themselves to particular places is unclear; we have so little to go on. CAVES were certainly important, used repeatedly for practical or more sacred purposes, perhaps both. Where people moved in step with the migrations of wild horse or reindeer,hoof and footprint one behind the other, it may well be that certain animals also had a significance that went beyond the practIcal."

Mark Edmond was, when writing this book, Reader of Landscape Archaeology in the University of Sheffield.