This year’s series is called The Triumph Of Technology
Four thousand years ago, just 5 miles north of present day Thetford, our Neolithic ancestors began what may have been the largest early industrial process in these islands. This is the site that the Anglo-Saxons called ‘Grimes Graves’ and it contains nearly four hundred mine-shafts, built to extract high-quality flints, which could be chipped to produce sharp cutting edges. Using nothing but tools of bone and wood and presumably the flints themselves, these ancient people excavated to a depth of up to twelve metres, to reach the buried flints. It has been calculated that the miners needed to remove 1000 tonnes of waste to produce eight tonnes of flint. The site covers nearly 40 hectares and the whole project is astonishing.
Whilst more advanced technologies had developed elsewhere – for instance in China – our ancestors’ task was anything but easy. They needed timbers to shore up their excavations and ladders to get down in to them, lighting was required in the deeper pits and they needed tools, which they made from deer antlers, so they had to manage the local herds of red-deer. A separate and skilled industry was required to work the extracted flints and to market and distribute them. The flints were used as axe heads, as agricultural implements, as arrow-heads, and no doubt there were countless other applications that we have lost track of. The Grimes Graves operation underpinned the foundations of a new sort of society. The timescale was quite different from our own. Excavation at Grime’s Graves lasted more than five centuries, whereas, for example, valve electronics lasted about fifty years.