A number of weeks ago, Ben and I braved the elements, jumped in the car, and made the 10 mile journey from Buxton to Arbor Low. The prehistoric monument is one of the sites we’d like to build a pilot project around for Collections in the Landscape. The Scheduled Ancient Monument is one of the most important monuments in the Peak District but also holds national significance. This is reflected in it’s popular nickname, ‘Stonehenge of the North’.Luckily the rain held off as we met our guide for the morning’s visit: Ken Smith, Cultural Heritage Manager for the Peak District National Park Authority. Ken explained the archaeology and history of the site as well as how the monument is managed for present and future generations.
Prehistoric Henge & Stone Circle
Arbor Low consists of a henge monument, enclosed by a bank and ditch, with a circle of stones inside. A round barrow was incorporated in the south-western bank during the Bronze Age. Another barrow, known as Gib Hill, lies 300m to the south-west.
There are still many gaps in our understanding regarding Arbor Low. This doesn’t harm the sense of mystery and wonder I always experience when I visit, but it does frustrate the archaeologist in me! The Arbor Low Environs Project has recently been set up to help broaden our understanding of the monument and is still on-going.
The monument we see today was created in several phases over more than 1000 years, from around 2500 to 1500 BC. According to English Heritage, it’s thought that the first feature on the site was a Neolithic barrow at Gib Hill, followed by the creation of the bank and ditch at Arbor Low. Later, in the Bronze Age, the stone circle was added inside of the henge monument and two barrows built; one over part of the bank and another built over the Neolithic barrow.
The stones at Arbor Low lie flat rather than upright as one might expect. This has caused some debate over the years about whether or not they were ever standing. Ken was definitely in the ‘they once stood’ camp and pointed out what look like the stumps of several stones long since broken and removed.
Regardless of whether or not the stones ever stood, I think a lot of blood, sweat and tears must have gone into the construction. Today the bank stands at over 2 metres high and is 75 to 79 metres in diameter. This demonstrates a huge investment in time and effort even before anyone dragged more than 40 slabs of quarried limestone into the centre of the monument! However, looking out at the view, and the prominent position of the site, it’s easy to see why the spot was chosen.
It’s very easy to get bogged down in the fascinating archaeology at Arbor Low, but we also had other business for being there. It gave us a sense of the landscape we’d be working in and we were able to explore both the benefits and potential issues that delivering digital projects at the site might bring forth. It’s easy to sit in an office and forget all the problems that the weather, rugged terrain, variable mobile signal and rogue sheep can bring!
Access vs Conservation
Access to Arbor Low for you or me is thanks to a partnership between the Peak District National Park Authority, English Heritage and local landowners. This aims to create a sustainable future for the monument, balancing out the needs for conservation, visitor access and agricultural use of the land. Access is maintained through a £1 charge, payable at an honesty box at the farm. A bargain if I do say so!
My favourite bit of subtle visitor management was a thin line of gravel path that peters out as you cross the field towards Arbor Low. For many years visitors went through the gate and made a bee-line for the closest point of the henge, crossing over the bank and wearing a noticeable groove in the earthwork. Without any intrusive signage, the subtle gravel path sets today’s visitors unconsciously towards one of the monuments two entrances, ancient gaps in the bank and ditch.
Objects from the Past
Our collection includes many stone tools discovered in the region of Arbor Low, many discovered by local people as they walked the fields. There is little evidence to suggest where the communities that built Arbor Low may have lived, but finds such as arrowheads, scrapers, knifes and axe heads confirm their presence. Other tools, pottery and bones, found in other areas of the Peak District, also help put the world of ancient Derbyshire into context.
The collection also contains crawings, prints, lantern slides and photographs of Arbor Low. These help us understand how subsequent generations viewed the site. The monument attracted the attention of many local antiquarians including the likes of Thomas Bateman. 19th century excavations discovered human remains and grave goods in both barrows and further remains were discovered at the centre of the stone circle between 1901 and 1902.
We’d like to make our collections available to people as they stand amongst the stones and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this. I Dig Sheffield is a good example of a simple, effective method but at the moment the site doesn’t translate well to mobile devices. Keep tuned and we hope to announce exciting things for Arbor Low very soon…