Cissbury Ring

Cissbury from Church Hill



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Cissbury Ring as seen from the top of Church Hill, with the village of Findon in the valley below, during December 2004.

Contents

Introduction

Cissbury Ring is an Iron Age hillfort. You can reach the base of the 600 foot hill by car and one guidebook warns that the subsequent climb on foot "is not for the faint hearted". But it is worth making the effort if you can, for the views from the top are tremendous. On a clear day you can pick out Selsey and the spire of Chichester Cathedral.

Cissbury Ring from the air

The lovely surroundings which provide the backdrop for grazing sheep and galloping horses are dominated by the soaring prominence of Cissbury Ring, a natural defensive position which Iron Age settlers turned into a great fortress some 2,300 years ago.

Cissbury Ring from Long Furlong

An old view of Cissbury Ring showing the ramparts, with Findon Village nestling below. The large white building is the old Convent which was demolished in 1998.

Centuries before the hill was fortified, flint mines were being worked in the area. Some of the shafts went down 40 feet, with galleries radiating out from them; an extraordinary achievement by Stone Age people, using only antler's horns for tools.

(Text © Gil Saunders 1997)


Cissbury Ring from overhead
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This overhead view of Cissbury Ring shows the full extent of the ramparts. Findon Village lies to the west (ie beyond the left-hand edge of the photograph).

Whenever you visit the countryside, please just take photographs and only leave footprints, so other people who follow later may enjoy the wild flowers and litter free surroundings. Also, please leave all gates as you found them, ensure any dogs are kept under control and keep footpaths clear. Thank you.


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Cissbury Ring today

Cissbury Ring is about one mile to the east of Nepcote, which is located at the southern end of Findon. Refer to the Location section of this website for maps of the area.

A view of Cissbury Ring from the gallops at the foot of Bost Hill, Findon Valley



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A view of Cissbury Ring looking eastwards across Findon Valley from The Gallops at Bost Hill. The lower end of Bost Hill marks the beginning of Findon Valley, is about one mile south of Findon and leads up to the windmill at High Salvington. Findon Valley straddles Findon Road (ie the A24). The A24 leads northwards past Findon Village and southwards towards Worthing.

Location

compass

OS Landranger grid reference

TQ140081

OS grid reference X coordinate

514000

OS grid reference Y coordinate

108100

Latitude (WGS84)

50o 51' 40" (50.861182o) North

Longitude (WGS84)

0o 22' 54" (-0.381567o) West

Click here for an interactive map of the area.

Click here for an aerial photograph of the area.

Distance from Findon (as the crow flies) is 1.8 kilometres (ie 1.1 miles).


Cissbury Ring through the ages

Cissbury Ring is one of the greatest of Britain's prehistoric hillforts. The banks and ditches which you see are are the remains of a vast defensive wall enclosing an area of 65 acres. The inner band is over a mile round.

Illustration taken from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring. Reproduced with the kind permission of The National Trust.

Cissbury Ring is superbly sited to command the surrounding downland and has magnificent views, from Beachy Head to the Isle of Wight, with the sea in between and inland over the Sussex Weald.

Illustration taken from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring. Reproduced with the kind permission of The National Trust.

The builders of Cissbury were an Iron Age people and this was probably their tribal capital. Its planning and construction indicate the people were able and vigorous. Construction was begun before 300 BC in the form of a ditch and bank revetted with timber to present a raised wooden wall to an attacker. A partial excavation of the site earlier this century showed that a ditch was cut over 3 metres deep and loosened chalk (60,000 tonnes in all) was piled inside the ring to form a bank which was topped with a timber palisade.

Tools available to the builders were picks made from antlers, wooden spades and animal shoulder blades used as shovels.

When newly built it must have made a startling impression, not only on account of its size, but because of the vivid whiteness of so much exposed chalk.

At some time between 50 BC and 50 AD the ring was deserted. There is evidence of farming during the Roman period within the derelict ramparts.

The method of cultivation then in use led over a period to a build-up of soil at the edge of the fields and the characteristic pattern of ridges can still be seen. After withdrawl of the Roman army from these shores in the 5th century AD, the ramparts were re-inforced, but whether by the Saxons or as a defence against them has not been determined.

Old as it is, the hillfort is by no means the earliest of the remains here as the builders of Cissbury Ring were already using an ancient site. Indications of field systems which predate the ring have been found both inside and outside the embankments.

(Text from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring, reproduced by permission of The National Trust.)

Neolithic flint mines at Cissbury

The many humps and hollows at the west end of the enclosure are the remains of Britain's earliest known industry. They are the filled-in openings of flint mines dating back to about 3,000 BC, and the spoil heaps of centuries of flint working. Over 250 pits have been counted, and some go down over 40 feet.

As a flint producing center Cissbury was only rivalled by the later mines at Grimes Graves in Norfolk.

To the Neolithic people who mined here flint was essential to their way of life. This material could be fractured to produce a hard cutting edge and, by skillful knapping, formed to make knives, axes, scapers and arrowheads.

They were particular about the quality of flint they used and the skill of its manufacture. The flint from this site was clearly well regarded and the mining and working of the stone into implements were a flourishing industry for over a thousand years.

Examples of tools made from Cissbury flint has been identified over a wide area, in specimens being found as far away as the Eastern Mediterranean.

Illustration taken from the sign 
at the foot of Cissbury Ring. Reproduced with the kind permission of The National Trust


The pits are bell shaped with narrow openings and wide flat bottoms where the stratum bearing the best flints accurs. Horizontal shafts radiate out along the flint-bearing layers so that the pits are often interconnected. The six layers in the adjacent diagram are labelled: (1) Top Stone - Poor Flint (2) Soft Chalk (3) Upper Crust - Poor Flint (4) Hard Middle Chalk (5) Wall Stone (6) Poor Stone - Good Flint.

(Text from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring, reproduced by permission of The National Trust.)


Hillforts

Hillforts are among the most impressive remains of the Iron Age inhabitants of these islands. They are found througout Britain and an important series is located on the chalk downlands of Southern England.

The term hillfort is used to describe the remains of an enclosure constructed on high ground by prehistoric people. Eighteenth and early nineteenth century investigations of these enclosures, noting their strategic siting, referred to them as hillforts, and the name has stuck.

Our present use of the word fort brings to mind a compact piece of military architecture but hillforts were never purely military. The simplest of them were little more than corrals where a group of people might be safe from surprise attack and the livestock guarded against rustling. The larger ones, which were probably tribal centres permanently settled, had vast ramparts, sometimes over a mile round, topped with wooden palisades and were more like walled towns than forts.

Modern archaeology has shown that hillforts which occur widely in Western and Central Europe, vary considerably in size and structure and presumably in purpose. They are the subject of much recent and current investigation and many long held assumptions about their use and age are being adjusted. It is now considered likely that the earliest hillforts were built before 1,000 BC. Many were captured by the invading Roman armies in 46 AD and their use declined. Some like Cissbury, were re-fortified at the end of the Roman Period.

(Text from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring, reproduced by permission of The National Trust.)

The natural history of Cissbury Ring

Because of its archaeological interest, Cissbury has escaped the post war spread of ploughing on the Downs and as a consequence is a precious example of natural unspoilt downland turf.

When you sit down to admire the view you may cover up to 30 different types of plants, all of them having survived the attention of countless generations of sheep. They are mostly very long lived perennials that can tolerate grazing, provided they are able to set seed occasionally.

Ironically, it is only this long history of grazing on the Downs that has prevented these delicate flowers and grasses from being smothered by taller more vigorous plants and shrubs.

This rich plant community includes rarities such as orchids, of which we find 8 species at Cissbury, or plants like the Field Fleawort, which may have been favoured by our Iron Age ancestors because of their value in discouraging bugs and lice when included in bedding. Many other important flowers survive here that are the food plants of caterpillars of our beautiful downland butterflies.

The National Trust has recorded 28 species on the site including our rarest, the Adonis Blue.

Adders, Slow Worms and Viviparous Lizards are also common here and some of these may provide food for the Kestrels, as could chicks of the Skylarks and the Grey Partridge which breed amongst the grass.

The management of Cissbury is geared towards protecting both the archaeological remains and the ecological interest. This is best achieved by continuing the traditional management - grazing. This prevents scrub developing which shades out the plants and damages the buried archaeological evidence with its spreading roots.

(Text from the sign at the foot of Cissbury Ring, reproduced by permission of The National Trust.)

Stories from the West Sussex Ring

The following are some events you may, or may not know about Cissbury.

To say that Cissbury has a history, is an understatement. The sound of the chipping of stones once rang out over the surrounding countryside as Stone Age people, 3,600 years before the birth of Christ, sank over 150 mine shafts, some up to 50 feet deep, in their quest for flints. The shafts had a veritable rabbit warren of galleries leading from them. It was here that the ancient miners perspired as they toiled with primitive tools fashioned out of red deer antlers. The Cissbury mines are believed to have been engineered when other shafts in the Sussex area had been exhausted. It is hard to imagine but the hill was at this time one of the major commercial and industrial nerve centres of the Neolithic world, and supplies of Cissbury flints have turned up in northern England and all over Europe. At the time of Abraham, flint extraction was still in its heyday at Cissbury and tools, weapons and articles of ritual were regularly transported along the ancient ridgetop trackways en route to great centres such as Stonehenge.

Two thousand years separate the sweat of these old flint miners from the construction of the mighty Iron Age Fort at Cissbury as a tribal headquarters and refuge in times of danger. An amazing estimate of some 60,000 tons of chalk were excavated from the ditch area to build the fine ramparts we see today. Even they are a shadow of the former great earthwork which may have employed 200 men and taken two years to complete. It was awesome and spectacular, surmounted by an impressive enclosing mile-long defence wall of massive hewn timbers. There were originally between 8,000 - 12,000 of these massive lumber supports surrounding Cissbury, each about 15 feet high. A construction of no mean feat in those days.

By 50 BC the Cissbury Camp appears to have gone out of use as a fortress and was abandoned to the wind and rain. It took the Romans to see the potential of the downland and they began to cultivate considerable areas of land within the ramparts. It was possibly administered and occupied as a military station and a unit of some long forgotten legion was probably quartered on the sitelooking out to sea.

The Romano-British presence eventually diminished on Cissbury and the landscape reverted back to a deserted open space. Perhaps around a century later the Saxon pirates came up the valley frightening the local native tribes. The hordes trekked out in small pioneering groups to take by force any likely spot where they settted down and commenced farming. Legend says that Cissa, the early Saxon leader, in fact resided at Cissbury.

Around AD 1005-1020 the Saxon Royal Mint at Steyning was transferred to Cissbury (possibly through the threat of invasion). The coins were then minted within the embankments of the old disused fort. The exact spot of this mint has never been located, although over thirty 'Cissbury' minted coins are in existence.

Nearer to our own time, during Elizabethan days, an old chart records the name of 'Old Bury' relating to Cissbury Ring. This title appears to have remained up until the 19th century when Easter festivals were conducted there. The function appears to have been very emotive and 'Kiss in the Ring' was enacted as the locals danced with high spirited gaiety in a circle, singing as they went:

Hey-diddle-derry, let's dance on the Bury.

It was not uncommon as proceedings drew to a close for young people to disperse into the surrounding fields and scrub. Far too many 'Easter' infants are said to have been born nine months later as a result of these capers on 'The Bury'.

With the 19th century, came the age of the hilltop explorers and the Reverend Edward Turner wrote in a paper dated 1849 saying he had discovered the foundations of a Roman camp headquarters or praetorium on the centre of the hilltop. This has not been located since nor confirmed by any later surveyors. It must be said that it was around this time that the summit of Cissbury Ring was under cultivation and oats were grown on the plateau.

In 1857 a gentleman by the name of Mr G V Irving made a study of the windswept location. Strange as it may now seem, he thought the flints of little consequence and dismissed them! Some people of this era presumed the site to be a burial ground of the Romans, or even the Celts.

There may even be treasure beneath Cissbury Ring! It was believed that an ancient civilisation had concealed their wealth of gold in the hill. A story tells of some men from the Worthing area who discovered the legendary tunnel leading from Offington Hall to Cissbury Ring. The passage was sealed with debris and they eagerly cleared the way with their picks and spades as they imagined the reward awaiting them. The unlikely tale ends when the treasure seekers were faced with hissing serpents at the end of the tunnel and the men retreated.

Coming to a more realistic era in 1867, Colonel Lane Fox began some excavations on Cissbury Ring. He dug down into a selected pit and with much elation came across a mine shaft, although at this point he did not realise its significance. He found a gallery running under the rampart and ditch, (the actual roof to this gallery being only some 3 feet under the ditch). As this explorer was crawling along, a skeleton's jaw fell on him! He had unknowingly disturbed the remains of a woman aged between 25 and 30, buried head downwards in a vertical position in the shaft. The skull had become dislodged and it was her lower jaw which had landed on the poor man. It was surmised that the body had been restrained around the arms and legs and lowered into the pit before infilling with debris. However, was she buried dead or alive? It was later determined that the arms of the woman were short due to her suffering from infantile paralysis.

Following this, a spate of excavations brought more attention and enthusiastic investigators to the Cissbury hill site. Plans of various joint operations revealed a quite unique subterranean network of radiating galleries under the crest of the hill.

By 1878, a gentleman by the name of Mr Park Harrison disclosed that he had found the underground caves to have been utilized for habitation, including fires. Yet another skeleton was then unearthed in debris in a disused shaft. It was that of a male, aged between 25 and 30, and he was said to have suffered from hemiplegia as a child. A large typical flint hatchet was laying discarded beside the remains. It seems strange that both skeletons showed evidence of being afflicted with some disability. One imagines that flint mining would require an amount of physical strength, which leads one to question whether these are the remains of flint miners or other unfortunates!

During World War II, the Ring was brought within the Sussex Defence Scheme and trenches were dug and gun emplacements sliced into the Iron Age ramparts. Barbed wire was evident everywhere. In 1942, a sculptured head which had been deftly chiselled out of chalk, came into the news as being discovered at Cissbury. It was promptly forwarded to the Worthing Museum. The artistry had been executed to half life-size and appeared rather grotesque with what might be described as an Adolf Hitler "look alike" growth on the upper lip. Before the end of hostilities, the offender owned up and it was revealed as a practical joke. The work of art was quickly condemned to a cupboard in the museum and was never seen again.

To bring Cissbury up to within living memory, in 1953 archaeologists discovered a further skeleton from the Neolithic Age in a tunnel. This was another woman, aged about 20. She had been carrying a torch and it was thought she had met a ghastly fate when the passage had collapsed 3,000 years ago and had crushed her head.

When roaming the ramparts of Cissbury Ring, the walker may now survey the scene from a different perspective. It has not always been a windswept summit, and when one considers the past history in conjunction with that special Cissbury atmosphere, it must be questioned if there are forces of a overpowering nature at work.

Dachshunds were originally bred to hunt foxes and rabbits as well as badgers. George was two years old and blond and wore a red collar. On Sunday, 26th January, l997 at Cissbury Ring, this miniature dachshund may have followed the instinct of his breed and pursued his quarry underground in the hope of tracking and flushing it out. Sadly, George vanished without trace. Jenny, his owner, searched in vain for him and returned with her husband day after day in an attempt to find him. Advertisements were placed in the local press and billed on likely spots on Nepcote Green, in the hope that someone would come foward with news. The Fire Brigade were alerted and came to the 65 acre Ring to assist in an attempt to locate him. It was all to no avail and eventually time ran out. Jenny would like to let all the helpers and fellow dog walkers know how grateful she was at the time for their assistance in searching for George. As can be guessed, she spent many hours up on the high downland of Cissbury Ring and is the first to admit to its unaccountable eerie qualities, especially as night drew in as she continued her search earlier that year.

(Stories from the West Sussex Ring © Valerie Martin 1997)

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