RICHARD WILLIAMSON: The mystery of ‘Cissbury Sally’ remains hidden

The truth about Cissbury Sally’s untimely death will remain locked in the history and mystery of this vast and enigmatic hilltop fort for ever more.

We can but speculate on the only certainty: her skeleton was found 17 feet underground in the chalk, buried head downwards in a narrow shaft that had originally been dug by Neolithic Stone-Age flint miners.

It was in 1875 that Lt. Gen. Pitt Rivers began opening up the mine shafts and galleries in and under the ramparts of Cissbury to find out how and when they had been worked.

In Cecil Curwen’s classic The Archaeology of Sussex published in 1937, he quotes from the original report when Pitt Rivers was underground exploring the galleries and had just begun to remove loose chalk scree that poured down a shaft from above: “Presently a well-formed and perfect human jaw fell down from above, and on looking up we could perceive the remainder of the skull fixed with the base downwards, and the face towards the west, between two pieces of chalk rubble.

“When I saw this I hollered out so loudly that Mr Harrison thought the shaft had tumbled in and came with a shovel to dig us out”.

Her body and limbs extended upwards from the skull, so she had either fallen in head first and been killed by that fall, or she had been thrown in after being murdered and hidden for the next five thousand years.

Apparently her skull corresponded with the Neolithic type, which exists to this day. This was not the only body to be discovered.

Two or three years later Harrison continued the mapping and exploration of the Cissbury mines and came upon the skeleton of a 25 year old man. This person, who was of small size, under five feet in height, had been properly buried it seems, because he was in the cramped foetal position customary for the time, carefully surrounded by a single line of cut chalk blocks, rather in the way that today some graves are laid out.

The body was at a depth of 16 feet down and inside a shaft 30 feet deep overall. Such existing holes in the ground would be used for the departed but it is interesting that someone had taken care to lay him out carefully, unlike that for poor Sally. But there is worse to come in Curwen’s account of life in Sussex five millennia ago.

At the Neolithic site at Brighton known as Whitehawk Camp, just inland from the marina and on the race course, an excavation uncovered horrifying evidence of cannibalism.

Brain pans of young persons were littered across the floor of a midden dwelling which was also covered in filth and litter, broken pots, charcoal and ashes.

Over a hundred cooking stones, aka potboilers, used to heat up water, were strewn across the floor. So too, was the body of a 20 year old woman, of small and slim shape, together with her new born baby.

They were surrounded by the same sort of cut chalk blocks as found at Cissbury.

In other words, it represented a decent burial, even though it was in the kitchen floor.