Hidden East Anglia:
The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed
The Age and Purpose of the Track
"I shall not attempt to ascribe a date to this trackway, leaving this to others more competent to judge."
Dr. Rudge said the above near the beginning of his Epilogue to 'The Lost Trackway'. But of course he did speculate, opine and draw conclusions, right from his first paper on the subject in 1949. Although this was entitled 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex', actual evidence for such a date was sadly lacking. He seemed to rely solely on a presumed connection with the flint mines at Grime's Graves in Norfolk, and on the Track's 'ridgeway character'. This was despite a distinct lack of any characteristics common to supposed ridgeways, not the least of which was any trace of an actual use-worn trackway.
By the time of his second paper, two years later, he had established to his satisfaction that Grime's Graves was indeed on the line of his Track. By then he had also concluded that both the mines and the Track were actually the work of an earlier Mesolithic culture called 'Tardenoisian'. In addition, he thought it no coincidence that a number of Mesolithic flint-working 'floors' lay along or fairly near the route of the Track. In 1952 he proclaimed that "in Grime's Graves lay its very purpose. It was here that the Stone Age miner dug down to the layer of tabular flint so highly prized for the fabrication of his tools and weapons, and along this track he carried the precious load to the centres of culture of his race."
He always believed that Chesham in Buckinghamshire (with its alleged 'stone circle' beneath the church) was one of those centres, but the western end of the Track remained uncertain. In the early 1950s he speculated that it might be aiming for the huge stone circle at Avebury, while in the 60s he thought that its goal was Woodhenge. Both of these are now known to be structures of the late Neolithic period, not the Mesolithic. In 'The Lost Trackway' he speculated that it was heading for Stonehenge. "Across the river Avon", he said, "the traveller would look down the 'Avenue' and would see, standing squarely before him like a solitary sentinel, the Heel Stone of the Stonehenge complex, just as he saw it at Chesham and elsewhere." His reading told him that the Avenue, Heel Stone, circular ditch and bank, and the Aubrey Holes were all "associated with the earliest stages of the Stonehenge monument", and were contemporary with the Track-builders.
For Rudge's theory, this chronology is untenable. If the Track-builders were of the Tardenoisian culture, they existed c.6000-4000BC. The bank and ditched enclosure, and the Aubrey Holes, were indeed of the earliest phase of Stonehenge, but that wasn't for another thousand years, at c.3100BC. The Avenue and Heel Stone weren't constructed until the third and last phase, beginning at least 500 years later (and it's now known that originally the Heel Stone was one of a pair, not a solitary monolith.)
Dr. Rudge was unfortunately relying for much of his chronology on authorities from the 1920s and 30s which were already outdated. A.L. Armstrong was one such, persisting in his belief that Grime's Graves (photo left) were the work of Mesolithic miners, long after strong evidence had shown them to be late Neolithic, being first worked from c.2650-2100BC.1 Another of Rudge's sources, but in the 1950s, was Stuart Piggott, whose tenuous classification of the 'Secondary Neolithic' culture at Stonehenge has long since been discarded.2 With regard to the date of the mines, Rudge was most convinced by the opinion of the eminent prehistorian Grahame Clark, who he said "traces the influence of the late Mesolithic period at Grime's Graves" - but 'influence' aside, ironically Clark actually held that they were of the Neolithic.3
Despite Rudge's disclaimer at the beginning of this section, earlier in 'The Lost Trackway' he seems to have settled on the Track-builders having been the first Neolithic immigrants, immediately following what he wrongly called "the indigenous Mesolithic tribes." This would place it at around 4000BC. Taking this into account, and hypothesising for the sake of argument that Grime's Graves were being worked in the early Neolithic rather than the late, the need for a 'flint trade route' between the mines and the south-west of England still needs to be examined.
To begin with, the distance from Grime's Graves to Stonehenge along the Track is approximately 193 miles (c.137 miles in a straight line.) It not only makes a ridiculously long and unnecessary loop to the east, but as Rudge himself admitted, it completely ignores contours and requires the pedestrian traveller to traverse a multitude of hills and deep valleys. Including Grime's Graves there are ten confirmed and two probable Neolithic flint mines known in England. One is just over two miles from Stonehenge, at Durrington - although this only exploited a shallow seam of poor quality flint in the later Neolithic. But keeping to the early Neolithic, there are shallow but extensive pits at Martin's Clump in Hampshire, about eight miles away. There are seven other mines of that date, all in Sussex, between 45 and 70 miles from Stonehenge. Why then would anyone travel over a hundred miles further to obtain flint?
The only reason Rudge ever gave was that mentioned above, that it was "so highly prized for the fabrication of his [Stone Age man's] tools and weapons." He never once commented on the existence of the other, closer, mines, some of which yielded flint as good as that from Grime's Graves. Also, as far as it can be ascertained from finds, most of the tools and weapons used in the Neolithic age were actually fashioned from flint obtained from localised surface deposits. It has been observed that "At any period, the Grime’s Graves flint mines were, like all flint mines, unnecessary, since local industries were predominantly made from surface flint of the surrounding Breckland".4
Why then was any mining ever carried out? Research has shown that the earliest shafts at Grime's Graves were among the deepest, apparently bypassing other seams in order to obtain the high quality black flint at the lowest levels (commonly known as 'floorstone'.) This also occurred at other mines in both England and abroad. But in some cases, "lesser quality deep flint seams were often favoured over shallow, good quality ones".5 It would appear that greater value - whether for aesthetic or other reasons - was placed on flint obtained more deeply and more hard-won rather than for its quality. In addition, it is now being theorised that the location of Neolithic mines, the sinking of shafts, and the communal effort to extract the flint may represent a much broader social, cultural and economic context for mining in that period.6
For the sake of argument, I'll assume here (and only here) the following:
1. That the Puddingstone Track actually did exist.
2. That the Track, Grime's Graves and Stonehenge were all coeval.
3. That flint from Grime's Graves was prized above any other.
4. That demand for this flint in the south-west was such that a unique trackway had to be established,
Could there then be any evidence along the route? In theory, there should be concentrations of tools, weapons or flakes made of Grime's Graves flint at places like Chesham and Stonehenge. However, very few scatters or assemblages of Neolithic tools or flakes have ever been found in Chesham. Of the few that have been identified, they have all been composed of the local grey mottled flint. Similar local sourcing from high quality flint nodules has been noted at Stonehenge. Spills and discards would also have occurred along the Track, but there have been so many individual finds and scatters in all regions that it's impossible to discern any apparent 'trail' through specific parishes or indeed counties.
All the flint from Grime's Graves, at all levels, is black, but the floorstone in situ is distinguished by being covered with a thick, cream-coloured cortex or 'skin'. This should make identification much easier, but unfortunately it seems that the cortex was removed before the flint left the mining area to be made into either blanks or tools elsewhere.7 Geologically speaking, most English flint is too similar for any exact source to be identified through macroscopic or microscopic analysis. Attempts have been made in the past, such as the British Museum project to find the provenance of axe-heads by examining trace elements. Out of 400 axes analysed from all over the country, only two could be assigned to Grime's Graves.8 On another occasion, use of a form of spectroscopy called ICP-AES showed that few artefacts from the Norfolk mines could be located at contemporary monuments in Wessex.9 Other types of spectroscopy abbreviated as pXRF and ICP-MS have more recently shown promise as methods of provenancing flint, but no significant mass studies have yet been carried out.10
With no physical evidence of the Track's alleged purpose as a 'flint trade route', and a dubious chronology, it needs to be examined in the context of other known - or supposed - prehistoric trackways in England, which is the subject of the next section.
1. A. Leslie Armstrong: 'The Grime's Graves problem in the light of recent researches' in 'Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia' Vol.5, Issue 2 (1926.)
2. Stuart Piggott:: 'The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles' (Cambridge University Press, 1954.)
3. J.G.D. Clark: 'The Mesolithic Age in Britain' (Cambridge University Press, 1932.)
4. Frances Healy et al: 'When and Why? The Chronology and Context of Flint Mining at Grime’s Graves' (The Prehistoric Society, 2018.)
5. Jon Baczkowski: 'Learning by Experience: The Flint Mines of Southern England and their Continental Origins' in 'Oxford Journal of Archaeology' Vol.33, Issue 2 (2014), p.135.
6. M. Barber, D. Field & P. Topping: 'The Neolithic Flint Mines of England' (English Heritage, 2014), p.72-3.
7. Frances Healy: 'The Surface of the Breckland' in 'Stone Age Archaeology: Essays in honour of John Wymer' (Oxbow Books, 1998), p.231.
8. Katherine Walker: ''Axe-heads and Identity: an investigation into the roles of imported axe-heads in identity formation in Neolithic Britain' (University of Southampton, 2015), p.257.
9. I. Longworth, G. Varndell & J. Lech: 'Excavations at Grimes Graves, Norfolk, 1972-1976. Fascicule 6: exploration and excavation beyond the deep mines (British Museum Press, 2012), p.146-7.
10. Seosaimhín Áine Bradley: 'Archaeological and geochemical investigation of flint sources in Britain and Ireland' (University of Central Lancashire, 2017.)