Aerial view of Cissbury Ring © National Trust

Cissbury Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the South Downs in West Sussex measuring 84.2 hectares (208 acres). Owned by the National Trust, it is designated a Scheduled Monument for its Neolithic flint mine and Iron Age hillfort.

On top of Cissbury Hill is Cissbury Ring, the second largest hillfort in England and one of the largest in Europe. The earthworks forming the fortifications were built during the Middle Iron Age but the site was abandoned in the period 50 BC – 50 AD. It was later re-used as a settlement during the Romano-British period 43 – 410 AD.

Iron Age hill fort

Cissbury Ring is a hilltop enclosure with a single rampart surrounded by a ditch and a low bank. The Iron Age hill fort was constructed around 400BC and was used for defence for around 300 years. The hill fort itself encloses around 26 hectares and originally had only two entrances, one at the eastern corner and the other at the southern end.

Before the Neolithic period human activity here was limited. Bands of hunters are thought to have used the South Downs as a vantage point for spotting animal herds. During the Neolithic period settlements began to develop as people banded together for activities such as clearing woodland, planting crops and domesticating animals. There was also an extensive flint mining operation on the southern side of the hill, evidence of which can still be seen today.

Agricultural settlements continued to grow during the early Bronze Age, when Cissbury appears to have been used as a ritual burial ground. Two round barrows have been identified here. This type of burial mound marked a change from multiple interments in a long barrow towards individual burials.

After 100BC the interior of the fort was used for agriculture with rectangular fields being marked out with earthwork banks and terraces. During the later Roman period there was a settlement here comprising a group of 11 buildings and two rectangular enclosures near the eastern entrance. The ramparts were heightened at this time, possibly for fear of Danish attacks.

Plan of the layout of the hillfort during the Romano-British period © Sussex Archaeology

Neolithic flint mines

The site of the fort at Cissbury Hill also contains within its boundaries one of the first flint mines in Britain. The mine was in use long before the construction of the hill fort, and continued in use for around 900 years. There are around 270 pits at the site ranging from 3 to 36 metres in diameter and up to 12 metres in depth, with a diameter of 7 metres at the surface. Up to eight galleries extended outwards from the bottoms of the shafts, often interconnecting with one another.

First a vertical shaft was dug down to the level of the seam of flints, and then horizontal galleries were dug to extract the stones. Spoil from the mining was backfilled into exhausted galleries in order to reduce the amount of material which had to be brought to the surface. Excavations at Cissbury have shown that animal bones made effective tools. A deer antler would be used as a pick and an ox shoulder blade as a shovel.

Once the flint was removed from the shafts it was processed at the surface to remove unwanted material. Many flint flakes have been found scattered around the interior of Cissbury Ring. The majority of the tools found have been axes. The collection at Worthing Museum consists of axe heads and other items excavated by John Pull in the 1950s. Finds unearthed by the Victorian archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers can be found in the fascinating museum in Oxford that bears his name.

The lunar landscape of the flint mines at Cissbury Hill © Historic England

The site of the flint mines on Cissbury Hill today resembles a lunar landscape of hollows and mounds. The hollows show where material used to fill the shafts has sunk, and the mounds show where excavated chalk and flint flakes from the initial processing of the material were deposited.

Sources

National Trust                         https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cissbury-ring

Sussex Archaeology               http://www.sussexarch.org.uk/saaf/cissbury.html#arch

Wikipedia                               https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cissbury_Ring

Text                 Alun Harvey

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