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One of Brighton and Hove’s earliest known residents – Whitehawk Woman

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Brighton & Hove’s oldest monument is to be found on Whitehawk Hill. The earthwork began to reveal some of its secrets through excavations in the late 1920s and ‘30s including the remains of some of the city’s earliest occupants. Today we meet one of them in our latest 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog.

Facial reconstruction of the Whitehawk Woman by Oscar D Nilsson

Whitehawk Camp is sited in a shallow bowl close to the top of Whitehawk Hill, commanding extensive views across the city, sea and Downs. For centuries, the earthworks were thought to be Roman in origin. In fact, it is a Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure, a rare type of ritual monument over 5,500 years old.

Excavations at the camp and other monuments of its type indicate that it was a place where communities came together. We can imagine it being a place where feasts were held providing a place for our Neolithic ancestors to share stories and make bonds. People travelled from afar to the camp which is located at a natural meeting point on the Downs close to where chalk cliffs rise up from the coastal plain to the south west and ridges between the dry downland valleys converge. The once exposed chalk rings of the monument would have reflected both sun and moonlight, drawing people towards it.

Watercolour drawing of Whitehawk Camp, Ian Dennis, University of Cardiff

The first methodical excavations were conducted by the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society (formally Club) in 1929. This was prompted by the risk of development and further encroachment of allotments and the pulling-up ground of Brighton Racecourse. It was only a few years earlier that a protest had been mounted against the levelling of the site. A second season of excavation was undertaken by the Society in December 1932 and January 1933. This revealed ‘not less than eight individuals: three whose skeletons are fairly complete (two adults and an infant)’. This included our ‘Whitehawk Woman’, referenced as Skeleton II in the excavation report.

‘There was a team of paid labourers and Philip Burstow, James Stuart and I helped whenever we could. Neolithic “A” pottery, flint implements and burials were found in the ditches. Conditions were uncomfortable, the weather was wet and cold, and sometimes the water in the ditches was frozen.’ – reminiscences of George Holleyman (1910-2004) published in Flint, Brighton & Hove Archaeological Society.

Photograph showing James Stuart and George Holleyman working in the third ditch, Holleyman Album, Sussex Archaeological Society

Whitehawk Woman was found in an elongated oval area surrounded by ten large chalk blocks and a number of smaller blocks. She had been covered with soil up to the level of the blocks and on top of this was spread a layer of charcoal. Found with her were two small perforated pieces of chalk (possibly pendants), two fossil Echinocorys scutatus (also known as shepherd’s crowns), and the lower half of the radius of an ox. More astonishing for the excavators perhaps was the discovery of the remains of an infant, Skeleton III. Such finds probably justified enduring the uncomfortable conditions.

One or two fragments of the infant’s skull were found adhering to the mud on the inner surface of the largest part of the hip bone of the adult skeleton, the ilium. This led to the suggestion that the child may have been intra-uterine (unborn) when the mother died. Reporting on the human remains following excavation, anthropologist Miriam Louise Tildesley (1883-1979) of the Royal College of Surgeons stated that it was reasonable to conclude that the infant was a few weeks old when it passed away.

Plan (detail) by Robert Gurd of the 1932-1933 excavations showing the location of Skeleton II from the Holleyman Album, Sussex Archaeological Society

Relatively new insights have been uncovered by Archaeology South East (Institute of Archaeology at University College London) and the Natural History Museum. Carbon dating has established that she lived sometime between 3650BC and 3520BC which coincides with a time of rapid monument expansion in the south of England. Osteological examination indicates her height was about 1.45m in height or approximately 4’8”, small for a Neolithic woman. She was between 19 and 25 years old when she passed away yet it seems her general health was good, suggesting she may have died during or soon after childbirth. It’s quite sobering to think of her situation and how it impacted those around her. Evidently great care was taken with her burial.

Interestingly, it appears that Whitehawk Woman wasn’t born locally or even in the shadow of the South Downs. Isotope ratios from her teeth suggest she grew up much further away, possibly near the border with Wales. This young woman had travelled quite a distance over her short lifetime. What were the reasons for this? Neolithic peoples are Britain’s earliest farmers and the downland landscape would have provided farmland, grazing, wood and flint for toolmaking to sustain more settled populations. Might news of such resources and other activity have reached people towards the west and tempted them to this part of the world?

‘Brighton, View from the Race Hill’ (1846) by Edward Fox, the earliest view of Whitehawk Hill in the museum’s collections – on the horizon are the hills of Highdown, Cissbury (site of the early flint mining complex) and Chanctonbury

Whitehawk Woman and her wider community were pioneers. It is they who first began to extensively clear woodland and cultivate the South Downs, creating a landscape not too distant from that we see today. Grazing in particular created chalk downland, a unique habitat supporting specialised flora and fauna which is incredibly valuable in terms of diversity. Our Neolithic ancestors have also left their mark in the monuments that scatter these landscapes. Further excavation, scientific study and advances in technology may enable us to understand a little bit more about the lives they led.

Oscar D Nilsson in The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery with another of his facial reconstructions, an Iron Age man found at Slonk Hill near Shoreham

The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery at Brighton Museum gives visitors the opportunity to meet Whitehawk Woman. Informed by excavation reports and osteological analysis, her remains have been sensitively redisplayed with those of her child and some of the items finds found with them. A facial reconstruction of her created by forensic artist Oscar D Nilsson is displayed nearby, bringing visitors face to face with this young woman who lived and died in our city over 5,500 years ago.

For those eager to find out more, information on the places and scientific research featured in The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery are available online. Further resources including those for children and schools and links to excavation reports are available here.

Dan Robertson – Curator of Local History & Archaeology