Grimes Graves, in spite of its strange name, is not a collection of graves but the site of prehistoric flint mines. The name is thought to have derived from the Anglo Saxon god named Grim (Woden). Located on a section of heath north-west of Thetford, the mines are one of Europe’s oldest industrial sites. They were worked in the new stone age more than 4000 years ago and present an example of industrial specialisation. Trading of the axe heads made here reached as far as western England. The people who lived here were early farmers who cultivated the land with barley and wheat, kept livestock, fished, and hunted deer.
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The mines cover 80 acres with 433 recorded infilled shafts. The shafts reach as deep as 45.9 feet (14m) and up to 65 feet (20m) across. It is estimated that it would take 20 men 100 days to dig a large shaft, then flint removal would follow for at least 40 days. Picks made from red deer antlers were the main tool used by the flint miners. Many have been found in the area. After removing sand and clay, miners dug through chalk to reach the best flint. Galleries parallel to the surface would then be excavated. Fat-filled lamps may have been used for lighting where needed.
The flint in this flint-rich area is found in layers within chalk. It is the type that is easily fractured so was extensively used for tools. A hammerstone was used to break up the large pieces and create thin flakes. Flakes became tools to use as knife blades, chisels, and scrapers, while the larger core was made into axe heads. Arrowheads were also created. This process of making tools is called flint knapping. Metal working sounded the death knell of flint tools, making Grime’s Graves redundant around BC 1000. There was a brief resurgence in the use of flint for flintlock guns in the 19th century.
When visiting the site today, you can descend by an enclosed ladder 30 feet (10m) into one of the three excavated shafts (no children under five allowed). Hard hats are required and the descent is made under supervision. There is a small visitor centre with information on the site. The heathland is an uneven surface so care is needed when walking. The area is also a site of Special Scientific Interest and supports a wide variety of flora and fauna. Meadow pipits, skylarks, and stone curlew as well as woodland birds inhabit the forest and heathland. Butterflies can be seen in the summer along with long eared bats. Plants include wild thyme, common rock rose, purple milk vetch, and mignonette.
At the nearby Brandon Heritage Centre are a full size model of a Neolithic pit and a reconstruction of a flint knapper’s workshop.
Grimes Graves is in the care of English Heritage.
Located in Thetford Forest Park on a minor road off the A1065 and the A134, seven miles north-west of Thetford.
Tel. 0 1842 810 656
Open: April-end Sep, daily, 10am-6pm; Oct, Wed-Sun, 10am-5pm; closed rest of year
Brandon Heritage Centre
Tel. 0 1842 811 380