The first British Neolithic representational art? The chalk engravings at Cissbury flint mine
I should express clearly my dissent from his views on this particular point. Any discovery of this nature would create such a revolution in our views of the condition of the early inhabitants of this country in the stone age, that although we must, of course, be prepared at all times to receive new truths, we ought not lightly to accept an assumption so much at variance with all collateral evidence (Lane Fox in Harrison 1887a: 438–39).
During excavations at Cissbury Neolithic flint mine, Sussex, in the 1870s, abstract art scratched on the walls of the mines, and on blocks of chalk within the mines, was uncovered (Lane Fox 1876; Harrison 1877a, 1877b, 1878). Subsequent twentieth-century excavations in other British mines revealed further examples: the late Neolithic site of Grimes Graves (Clarke 1915) and the early Neolithic mines of Harrow Hill (Curwen & Curwen 1926; McNabb et al. 1996) and Church Hill (Russell 2001; Figure 1). This phenomenon is discussed by Barber et al. (1999) and Russell (2000), and it has been recently synthesised by the author (Teather 2011).
Local archival research between 2003 and 2008 revealed few instances where inscribed chalk had been retained, and none from Cissbury (Teather 2008: 184–85). The subsequent availability of online museum catalogues, however, has been instrumental in locating a lost archive for Cissbury, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This article reports on five examples from an examination of 39 pieces during June 2015. A full analysis will be published in due course.
Excavations at Cissbury during the late nineteenth century were intensive and two separate groups of inter-connected shafts were excavated in the 1870s. Many antiquarians were involved (Lord Rosehill, Willett, Tindall, Park Harrison, Rolleston; even Boyd Dawkins visited the fieldwork in 1874). James Park Harrison, a former ecclesiastical architect and father-in-law to Charles Darwin’s niece (Lucy Wedgwood), took a particular interest in the chalk art, noting and reproducing some of the markings in publications (Harrison 1877a, 1877b, 1878). Two types of art were discerned at this time: abstract linear scratches in shafts and galleries, and incised symbols on walls and on smaller pieces. These two forms were viewed differently: the former were accepted but the latter—which Harrison suggested might be an early form of writing—were not (Lane Fox in Harrison 1877a, quoted above). The art discovered by Pull at Cissbury during the 1950s has also been treated with suspicion (Russell 2001: 184–89, 279; Varndell 2005: 57). Thus, having an opportunity to revisit the original material—until very recently thought lost—is a remarkable opportunity.
The art represented in this collection takes two forms: art on panels cut from the mine shafts and galleries, and art on smaller blocks. Many of the blocks, however, show fresh cut marks on their sides and bases, so it is probable that the decorated parts of the blocks were trimmed from larger pieces. The majority of marks appear to have been made either with a rounded tool or a sharp implement. One figurative piece (Figure 2) appears to have been pecked into the chalk, a common technique for rock art but not previously identified in chalk art. The decorated surfaces were all smoothed to some degree prior to marking. All available blocks were examined and photographed to scale.
Motifs and designs
Overall, the Ashmolean’s Cissbury collection differs in style from the examples noted at Harrow Hill (Curwen & Curwen 1926), which mainly consist of incised and in-filled cross-hatching. The art motifs, argued by Pull to represent animals (fish and deer), are now supported with further examples and hence they are probably fair representations of his discoveries. The two figurative pieces (Figures 2 & 3) do not seem to have been recognised in early British Neolithic contexts previously. The deer (with possible sun or moon) is unusual but has parallels at the Goatscrag rock shelter, Northumberland (Burgess 1972; Van Hoek & Smith 1988) and Abri Faravel in the French Alps (Walsh & Mocci 2011). The Goatscrag art is undated, but the shelter has evidence of Mesolithic and Early Bronze Age activity; the art at Abri Faravel is thought to be Neolithic. The axe or adze mark, possibly part of an integrated picture, is also rare and no convincing parallels have yet been located. It could represent an antler pick. One gallery head marking (Figure 4) has an extant coating of red ochre, indicating that it was applied to the bare chalk prior to decoration. This practice would have made the art more visible within the mines and may indicate the kind of pre-extraction ritual offerings suggested by Topping (2005). The use of red ochre within portable chalk art is also found on one piece showing the symbols referred to by Harrison (1877b; Figure 5). These, and markings on other blocks (e.g. Figure 6), may be related to Vinča symbols (Winn 1981). Ochre coatings have been reported on two chalk artefacts—at Church Hill flint mine (Teather 2008: 210–13) and Petit Spiennes flint mine, Belgium (Gosselin 1986: 110). More recently, the use of ochre has been noted on the rock art of the Ness of Brodgar (Card & Thomas 2012) and European megalithic monuments (Bueno Ramírez 2015; Bueno Ramírez et al. 2015).
Preliminary examination of the chalk art from the Cissbury flint mines indicates a remarkable range of practices. The different techniques of incision and carving, together with the range of motifs, indicate some complexity in the use of symbolism and material culture in the British Neolithic with probable European parallels. That the motifs are similar to examples at the rock shelter at Goatscrag and at the settlement at the Ness of Brodgar suggests that there is an underlying ideographic understanding that spans natural places, monuments and materials. The designs, however, are distinct from the spirals and cup-marks of megalithic rock art (Shee Twohig 1981). This may indicate a chronological difference as it is probable that this chalk art is from an earlier date. The radiocarbon dates for these Cissbury excavations span the whole of the fourth millennium BC (Barber 2005), although Bayesian modelling of British Neolithic flint-mine dates suggests mining commenced between 4600 and 3705 cal BC for Cissbury and 4250–3705 cal BC for Harrow Hill (Whittle et al. 2011: 256). These may therefore be the earliest datable examples of Neolithic art in Britain. Future work will seek to acquire new radiocarbon dates, to research possible scientific methods of dating the art directly and to identify further stylistic similarities across Neolithic artefact and monument types.
Grateful thanks to Stephen Shennan who inadvertently prompted me to locate this archive, the Arts and Humanities Research Council who provided funding to the Ashmolean Museum for their online catalogue of British Archaeology collections, and Alison Roberts and Claire Burton who gave me a warm welcome in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum kindly provided permission to reproduce Figure 4 and my photographs here.
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- Anne M. Teather
Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31–34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)