Crowning high ground just to the north of Worthing, Cissbury Ring is the second-largest Iron Age hillfort in England. Its monumental earthworks, built c.300 BC, enclose an area of 26ha – but the site is also home to traces of much earlier activity. The ground within and around the ramparts is pockmarked with grassy mounds and overgrown craters testifying to the efforts of Neolithic flint-miners, working some 6,000 years ago. Before the advent of metal-working, flint was one of the go-to materials for tool-making – it was durable and hard, but capable of being shaped into a variety of forms – and the chalky environment of the South Downs was a rich source of this glossy black stone.
Cissbury Ring would have been a hive of such activity: over the course of around 500 years, some 270 mineshafts were opened on the hilltop. Although now mostly infilled, these pits originally descended metres into the ground – a remarkable achievement given that they were dug using only stone tools and implements crafted from red-deer antler and bone – and from their bases radiated honeycombs of ‘galleries’, tunnels following the flint seams horizontally underground. Although the shafts were not all in operation at the same time, they highlight the scale and longevity of the industry that the site witnessed.
The mines have attracted archaeological attention for centuries, but the most-illuminating excavations were those carried out by John Pull in the 1950s. For Pull, a local, self-taught archaeologist, Cissbury Ring marked the culmination of a decades-long career investigating other Neolithic flint-mines in the area, and his findings would revolutionise understanding of such sites.
Cissbury’s story is not limited to Neolithic mining and Iron Age monumentality, however: it is home to a number of Bronze Age bowl barrows and Romano-British field systems, too, while more recent episodes saw it host a Tudor warning beacon and Second World War anti-aircraft guns. How, then, do you go about presenting such a rich history to the public? As James Brown, National Trust regional archaeologist for London and the South-East said during a recent visit to the site, distilling everything on to a single information board is something of a challenge and would not do justice to this special site. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, improving public understanding of the hilltop’s historic significance has become even more important.
When there were restrictions on meeting indoors, people flocked to explore green spaces in their local area, and Cissbury Ring also saw a huge increase in footfall. This explosion of interest is a positive, James Brown said – though a corresponding increase in antisocial behaviour, particularly littering, was rather less welcome. The National Trust was keen to tell people more about the site’s archaeological features, in the hope that a better understanding of Cissbury Ring’s history would lead to more care being taken of the site. The solution was not a simple as putting lots of interpretation boards all over the hilltop, however, due to the site’s protected status as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Plus, James Brown added, ‘not everyone comes to the site for heritage reasons, and we don’t want to detract from the experiences of the dog-walkers, the birdwatchers, and those who simply want to enjoy nature and look at the view by creating clutter.’
Trialling the trail
Instead, a partnership between the National Trust, the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), and Worthing Museum has taken an innovative technological approach to the issue. They have mounted small acrylic plaques on existing infrastructure around the site – fences, benches, fingerposts, gates, and a trig point on the summit of the hill – that visitors can scan with a smartphone to access short videos that form a new interpretive trail around Cissbury Ring. Each plaque has its own QR code and NFC tag (Near Field Communication; the same technology used in contactless payments), and scanning either of these takes the viewer to one of ten videos hosted on the National Trust’s London and South-East YouTube channel (see ‘Further information’). Similar technology has previously been trialled in the area by the SDNPA, in Meet the Farmers, an award-winning initiative that used plaques on gateposts to help build connections between local farmers and walkers, with the aim of encouraging respectful use of the countryside.
Each Cissbury Ring video lasts for around two minutes, and is hosted by James Brown and James Sainsbury, Curator of Archaeology at Worthing Museum, who often leads walking tours of the site. (The museum also holds many of the archaeological finds from Cissbury Ring, including John Pull’s archive.) They talk about various aspects of the site’s past, from the Neolithic flint-mines and the people who excavated them, to Roman farming on the nearby slopes, military use of the area, and how the land and its ecology is managed today. To help illustrate these themes, the films feature LiDAR images, aerial photographs and drone footage, historic photographs, and artefacts from Worthing Museum (another key aim of the project was to reconnect artefacts and the landscape they came from, museums and outdoor spaces, James Sainsbury said).
A particularly appealing historic photograph appears in a video about Victorian excavations at the site, focusing particularly on the work of Augustus Lane Fox (later, and perhaps better, known as Pitt Rivers – he changed his name as a condition of inheriting the estates of his cousin, the 6th Baron Rivers). Lane Fox initially dug at Cissbury Ring in 1867, but mistook the infilled mineshafts for the remains of animal enclosures or hut circles. It was only a few years later, following the identification of another extensive Neolithic mining site at Grimes Graves in Suffolk (see CA 327), that he returned to investigate the features in greater detail. In the video, a photograph from these later excavations shows a pith helmet-adorned Lane Fox standing proudly in a trench cutting through the hillfort ditch; this is followed by a modern photo of James Sainsbury standing in exactly the same spot.
Other videos are used to help draw attention to important but less visually obvious parts of the site. One such spot is Shaft 27, a Neolithic mine that lies just outside the boundary of the area under the National Trust’s care, and is partly obscured by gorse, but which was the location of some of John Pull’s most-important discoveries. At the base of the shaft was a Neolithic skeleton that Pull interpreted as ‘one of the old flint-miners who had met with a fatal accident at his work and whose body had never been recovered by his friends’. He was partly right: the individual was Neolithic (radiocarbon dating later would place their death in c.3600 BC), and may well have been a miner, but subsequent analysis of the remains revealed them to be those of a woman aged around 25. Today, she is known as the ‘Cissbury Lady’, and her bones are housed by Worthing Museum.
Further important finds came from the mine’s Gallery 7, where images of deer, birds, and fish had been carved into the tunnel’s chalk walls. It is still debated whether these images are genuine, but if they are Neolithic, they include a depiction of what is thought to be a bull with a halter around its neck, which might be the earliest representation of a domesticated animal – a key part of the Neolithic cultural ‘package’ – known in British archaeology.
Another steer to the location of the plaques has been analysis of Strava heat maps created and shared by fitness fans documenting their runs, walks, and cycles in the area. From these, the project team has been able to establish how the site is being used, and target particularly busy ‘hot spots’ – such as the most-commonly used entrances and a popular bench above one of the nearby car parks – with information plaques. They are also using YouTube data to see which videos are the most-found or most-popular (it is possible to determine which views come from people accessing the films via the plaques, and which are being found via YouTube itself), and the team hopes that this will be a useful pilot project that can be rolled out at other National Trust properties in the future.
Further information To watch the Cissbury Ring trail videos, and other recordings about National Trust properties in London and the south-east of England, see www.youtube.com/c/southeastnt. For more information about Cissbury Ring itself, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cissbury-ring. Worthing Museum is open 10am-5pm Wednesday-Saturday, and 11am-3pm on Sunday. You can read more about its archaeological collections at www.wtm.uk/collections/archaeology.
Photos: C Hilts.