Dove Holes is an Incredible Place!

It’s good to get out into the landscape and get a sense of where exactly Buxton Museum’s artefacts have come from. Some of the staff braved the winter weather last Friday to visit local Stone Age monument The Bull Ring, where flint tools have been discovered. The plucky adventurers were accompanied by experimental archaeologist and expert flintknapper James Dilley.

Dove Holes is a village just over three miles away from Buxton. Despite being a quiet and unassuming place that most people just drive through to get to somewhere else, it has a rich heritage. Apart from the henge known as The Bull Ring, the local quarry has yielded remains of some remarkable prehistoric animals such as the mastodon and the scimitar-toothed cat. The remnants of these dentally-challenged creatures are an insight into how different the Peak District must have been thousands of years ago although the snow, wind and sub-zero temperatures made it easier to imagine an ice age!

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photo by Laura Waters

The Bull Ring is clearly sign-posted about halfway along the main road but its location seems at odds with the patchwork arrangement of the village. The circular earthwork has had a fight for survival over the centuries. Apparently, the stones from the henge were removed and used on the Peak Forest Tramway in the late 1700s. Developments in the 19th century caused further damage and until recently, the annual village bonfire was held here. In terms of history, The Bull Ring is as vital as the other famous local stone circle, Arbor Low, but it has not been quite so lucky. Arbor Low still sits majestic and mysterious, largely undisturbed and surrounded by the rugged landscape of the Peak District. Fortunately, both monuments are protected these days and are free for visitors to speculate on their exact purpose and meaning. It is interesting to note that both henges are accompanied by burial mounds. The barrows lend weight to the sense of ancient significance.

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Dove Holes 15,000 years BC

You can visit The Bull Ring for yourself. The closest part of Buxton is Fairfield where I have already explored a wealth of history, including the barrow known as Fairfield Low or Skeleton Wood or even Skelebob Wood so you could include this on the same tour but the land is private so seek permission from the adjacent farm first.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens on May 1st 2017 and the brand new Wonders of the Peak gallery will feature artefacts found in Dove Holes. Like us, you may come to think of the village as the home of The Bull Ring and the scimitar-toothed cat.

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The Oldest Building in Buxton

What is the oldest building in Buxton? And where is it?

The Old Hall Hotel might spring to mind. Parts of the building date at least as far back as 1573. Others might suggest St Anne’s Church – an inscribed date on the porch reads ‘1625’, but other sections of the church are understood to be much older.

And what did the Romans do for us? We know they were drawn here by the natural hot and cold springs. Their baths, temple, fort and houses are buried beneath the foundations of contemporary Buxton.

But to find the site of the oldest building in Buxton we need to follow the River Wye south-west. Stroll through the Pavilion Gardens and along the Serpentine Walks to a patch of raised ground by a 20th century housing estate. Welcome to Lismore Fields.

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The entrance to the Serpentine Walks, 2016

The area around Lismore Fields, 2016

Lismore Fields, looking north, 2016

In the 1980s archaeologists excavated this site anticipating the presence of a Roman Road. Instead they discovered evidence for some of the oldest structures in Derbyshire.

Three buildings were discovered dating from around 6,000 years ago, during the Early Neolithic, but it isn’t known if they were used at exactly the same time. The buildings were rectangular and supported by posts. We can’t be sure what they looked like but it’s likely they had walls of mud plaster and heather-thatched roofs.

The people who lived here at that time were some of the earliest farmers in Derbyshire. Analysis of pottery found at the site suggested various contents including milk, animal fats and vegetable matter – the diet of those raising domesticated plants and animals.

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The Neolithic farmers of Lismore Fields can claim the title of ‘Oldest Building in Buxton’. But the site also produced stone tools and debris associated  dated to the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’, a time before farming was practiced in Britain. These highly mobile people lit fires and backfilled their rubbish into pits at their camp, but there’s no hard evidence of any built structures. The ‘Oldest Campsite in Buxton’ perhaps?

 

 

Making faces

This week two of the human skulls at Buxton Museum were scanned to see if these faces from the past can be reconstructed. This will help us tell their story in the new Wonders of the Peak gallery. One skull is of a young person found at Fin Cop Iron Age hillfort, dating from around 300 BCE. The second skull belongs to a man buried around 2000 years earlier at Liffs Low.

The scanning was carried out by Mark Roughley and Dr. Eilidh Ferguson from Face Lab Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University and it was absolutely fascinating watching them work.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

The research group at Face Lab provides expertise in analysing the bones of the skull and face. They use it to identify bodies in forensic investigation, and to make archaeological images of historical figures. Mark has a background in medical illustration and Eilidh in forensic anthropology and they were able to explain brilliantly what they were doing and why, and what we could learn about people from looking at their skulls.

First the bones were inspected to see which parts needed to be scanned. Some of the remains were fragmented, but Eilidh could identify whether they were relevant and she helped us identify some unknown parts.

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Eilidh identifying some of the fragments as parts of the hand.

For example, some of the fragments stored with the skull were actually parts of the hand, so we re-labelled their packaging accordingly. Mark and Eilidh then set to work – Mark scanning each part in turn and Eilidh carefully photographing them for later reference back in the lab.

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The Artec Space Spider hand-held scanner looked rather like a steam iron!

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The image above shows Mark scanning and Eilidh working at our photography area in the Project Space watched by Collections Assistant Dave and volunteer Cynthia.

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An image was built up as Mark moved the scanner back and forth round the skull.

The scanning was done in our public Project Space, so visitors could see what was going on and we could explain about the project.

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Eilidh photographs the Liffs Low skull.

The Fin Cop skull is relatively complete and has not yet been on display. The Liffs Low skull is part of a complete skeleton which has been displayed in a reconstructed burial. Using a hand held scanner meant it was disturbed as little as possible. We’re hoping there’s enough of this skull to make a reconstruction, but it is quite fragmented with some of the key central part of the face missing. Mark and Eilidh will put all the pieces together digitally to create a more complete image of the skull and hopefully visitors to the new gallery will be able to meet these early Peak District people face to face!

Peak District Cave Lions!

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This amazing Cave Lion foot is part of Jackson’s collection of animal bones from Hindlow near Buxton. We recently decanted it from its ‘Bone hole’ on the gallery where it lay along with other Hindlow remains of bison, horse, mammoth and wolf. Up close, it’s much more obvious what a large animal the Cave Lion was, much larger than present day lions.  Going for a walk would be very different if these creatures still roamed the Peak District!

Painting of lions at Chauvet Cavern, Southern France (museum replica). Wikimedia Commons

 

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Part of the Cave Lion material in store.

Most of the Hindlow material is held in store because there is just too much of it to display. One of our expert volunteers Bente Loudon is working her way through assessing the material but previous research by Danielle Schreve (1997) on the Hindlow bones identified the presence of at least two lions. The bones include most of a right hind leg and may be the most complete articulated lion remains from the Pleistocene era. Along with the lions were the remains of at least three horses and four animals identified as cattle or bison. Gnaw marks on the bones and the variety of animals led suggests that the cave was a den for lions preying on horses and bovids (cattle/bison).

Also in the cave were the remains of another large, wild bovine, an aurochs. This led Schreve to suggest the bones were laid down in a warmer interglacial period when aurochs were here, rather than a cold stage, and this might explain the very large size of the lions and horses.

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Representation of the now extinct aurochs. (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

We’ve really enjoyed sharing the objects with our visitors close up and our Artists in Residence @KidologyArts have been taking inspiration from the Cave Lion too!

Signs of life

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Teeth. Feel your teeth with your tongue. Bite together. Use your fingers to feel them through the skin of your face. Do you like your teeth? Do you like the way they shape your face? Or have you always hated them? Do you feel guilty about the state of them? Would you trust them with a toffee?

Much more than buried bones, our teeth are an obvious part of our everyday appearance and shape how we see ourselves and others, and they’re tied up with all sorts of emotions we can easily imagine and share.

The teeth in the picture belong to a young woman. They were found with her skeleton at Fin Cop, a hillfort overlooking Monsal Dale, and are now at Buxton Museum. Although she lived around 2,300 years ago, her teeth are instantly recognisable and familiar objects to us, and they can tell us something about her.

Only one of her teeth is missing, out of a possible 32. She had some dental disease, with a cavity in one tooth and calculus on all the teeth. This points to poor dental hygiene and a diet which included honey or sugary fruit. She shows signs of having gone through a time of malnutrition or illness in childhood. There were cattle, pig and sheep or maybe goats to eat but we don’t know if she had the status to get this meat. She might have eaten hazelnuts and sloes from nearby trees.

Wear patterns show she regularly performed some task which involved biting or holding something in her teeth.

She was likely to be in her early 20s, perhaps about 5’ 4” tall, and may have been pregnant with her first child.

This information has been built up by researchers interpreting all the evidence gathered during excavation. The story of the death of the people found at Fin Cop could easily become their whole story, but simple objects like these teeth offer a window to our shared experiences of life.

 


 

These remains were found in excavations in 2009 and 2010 by Longstone Local History Group with supervision by Archaeological Research Services Ltd. A further excavation was carried out in 2012.

References:

Waddington C, Beswick P, Brightman J, Mapplethorpe K, Marshall P, Meadows J, Thornton A. 2011. Fin Cop Archive Excavation Report for 2010, ARS Ltd Report No. 2011/27, Archaeological Research Services.

Waddington C, Beswick P, Brightman J,  Bronk Ramsey C, Burn A, Cook G, Elliot L, Gidney L, Haddow S, Hammon A, Harrison K, Mapplethorpe K, Marshall P, Meadows J, Smalley R, Thornton A & Longstone Local History Group. 2012. Excavations at Fin Cop, Derbyshire: An Iron Age Hillfort in Conflict? Archaeological Journal 169(1): 159–236.

 

 

Going Underground

There’s only so much we can do for the project from behind a desk. We also need put on our walking boots and get into the landscapes that we want to tie closer with the collections. Last week I was lucky enough to join partners from National Trust in a tour of Fox Hole Cave.

The cave is high up the steep sides of High Wheeldon, a dome-shaped hill that dominates the landscape near the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, close to the village of Earl Sterndale. The museum holds a significant amount of material from the site, some of which will be described below. I’ve visited the area many times, climbing High Wheeldon as a youngster and staring into the gated entrance, pondering what secrets might lie inside. But this would be the first time I ever had the chance to venture into its depths.

Getting ready - High Wheeldon in the background

Getting ready – High Wheeldon in the background

Our guide, Paul, handed us our hardhats and lamps before leading us up the steep slopes of High Wheeldon. The cave entrance is tucked away and easy to miss. The site was rediscovered in 1928 when a dog disappeared down what appeared to be a fox hole. A boy, crawling in pursuit, returned clutching a bear skull and news that the ‘fox hole’ was in fact a cave. Early excavations followed, uncovering the bones of a brown bear, Neolithic pottery, stone tools and a bronze wire armlet identified as Roman.

Venturing into the dark...

Venturing into the dark…

We carefully lowered ourselves through the unlocked gate into the entrance chamber. We followed the passage into the First Chamber. Paul described the layout of the cave and pointed out clues to its formation. The entrance passage was a distinctive keyhole shape, indicating it had been formed by a high pressure stream of water creating a tube in the rock. Later, as the flow lessened, it carved a trough in the base of the tube.

It was in the entrance of the cave, and the passage leading to the Main Chamber, that most evidence for human activity had been discovered. Evidence indicates the cave was used in phases, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Romano-British period, perhaps becoming lost then rediscovered many times. Highlights include worked antler points, dated to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, and pottery sherds and hearths associated with the Beaker culture.

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

I could rattle on about discoveries at Fox Hole for some time, and there’s plenty more to discuss. If you’d like to know more I’d recommend checking out the Derbyshire HER record. It’s also worth keeping your eye on the Buxton Museum website, where we’ll soon be launching an online catalogue of our collections, including objects from the cave.

A lot of material has been excavated from the entrance chambers and passages. A line of carved dots on the wall indicated the original level before excavations began in the late 1950s. This wouldn’t be first the ‘archaeology of archaeology’ we encountered.

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Venturing into the Main Chamber we imagined how prehistoric cavers may have experienced the space, turning off our torches and lighting a solitary candle. The gentle orange light transformed the space, deepening the shadows but providing a more diffuse light than the harsh, directional glare of our head torches. How would only ever experiencing a cave by firelight affect your perception of the space?

Here we also found more ‘archaeology of archaeology’, the remains of a cable system used by the Peakland Archaeological Society to haul sediments to the entrance for sorting.

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Next the cave offered us into two routes. First we pressed straight ahead to the end of the cave. The passage grew lower and tighter as we progressed and we soon ended up on all fours, crouched in a tiny space as far as any sensible human being could go. Amazingly, the mud and stone in which we were sitting was littered with tiny bone fragments from small mammals and amphibians. I learnt this is often referred to as ‘Frog Earth’.

Retracing our steps to the Main Chamber we turned left and followed the passage to Bear Chamber, so called because of the bone material recovered here in the past. Even recent tours had spotted bear remains, so we were all keeping our eyes peeled for a bear skull peeking through the mud. No luck this time though. In fact the only thing we found was a long abandoned trowel, ‘archaeology of archaeology’ again!

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

The bone material from Fox Hole far outweighs the artefact count. Some of the animal remains recovered are particularly ancient and include lion, horse and reindeer, as well bear. None of these were still roaming wild in Britain last I checked.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and informative scramble underground I didn’t really think the afternoon could get any better. Then we emerged to this view:

No words required...

No words required…

Although the cave is usually locked to protect it’s important archaeological value, National Trust can arrange access to the site and run a number of public tours throughout the year. You can find out more by calling the White Peak Estate Office on 01335 350503 or find out more on the National Trust White Peak website http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-peak/.

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Re-discovering Some Derbyshire History in the Museum Stores

By Heather Miles

As a recent graduate, caught in the vacuum between finishing a BA and jumping into the black hole that is Postgraduate Study, I have found myself temporarily sheltered in the relative calm of Buxton Museum. By playing the part of a volunteer, I seem to have tricked them into unknowingly giving me refuge, and I have spent this past August blissfully recording archaeological finds in a quiet office.

My project has been to update the digital records of small finds and pottery from a series of archaeological digs around Carsington and Hognaston, Derbyshire, in the 1980s. This is no small task, as I have unboxed over 700 finds lying in storage unrecorded and anonymous. Many objects sit unidentified in dusty Ziploc bags, sadly a life shared with much of our nation’s archaeological record – not all finds can be as revered as the Sutton Hoo helmet or Richard III’s skeleton.

An unassuming cardboard box, sat in storage for over a decade, contains 22 bags of cremated human remains.

An unassuming cardboard box, sat in storage for over a decade, contains 22 bags of cremated human remains.

Fortunately for me, this absence of information has created a great learning opportunity. In order to record what is in front of me, I have had no choice but to learn fast how to identify pottery wares, animal and human bone, flint objects, and metallic ores, as well as how to best preserve them when items are in need of repackaging or protection (for example, old cardboard boxes can be rather acidic). As I delve deeper into the collection and begin to understand more about our local past, more and more exciting objects are appearing before me.

One of my favourite finds so far is a leaf-shaped flint arrowhead from Hognaston Reservoir. This type of arrow is typical of the Neolithic era (4000 – 2000 BCE), a form produced for its aesthetics over the more practical barbed triangle you might tend to associate with an ‘arrow’. This particular example is of great quality, a delicate and regular shape that would have required an artisan’s skills. Because it is quite thin, and there isn’t any visible wear, it is possible that it was created purely for ceremonial purpose and was likely never used.

A leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, Neolithic era.

A leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, Neolithic era.

Apart from the occasional small find, though, there is an abundance of pottery. Locally produced Derbyshire ware fills bags in vast quantities, sometimes with over 200 sherds in one bag. It has its own rough beauty, varying from brick red to deep purple or black, with a distinctive coarse surface covered in quartz and stony grit.

Other less commonly found types of pottery give evidence of a rich Roman trade with the rest of Britain and the continent. Multiple types of Gaulish wares are present, as well as colour-coated wares from Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. One piece of colour-coated ware in particular bears an enduring mark of humanity, a clear fingerprint pressed into a Roman box-lid from the 3rd century AD. Other sherds display intricate decorations, some made by rolling a patterned stamp across the surface, some carefully etched in using a point by hand.

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A fingerprint on a Roman box-lid, 3rd century.

 

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Four sherds of pottery showing different decorative patterns.

I feel excited to be re-discovering artefacts that give insight on all aspects of life: eating habits, organised craft production, burial, trade and commerce, and even military presence. People have settled in Derbyshire throughout the ages, and all have left their permanent impression on the landscape – and eventually, in Buxton Museum’s store rooms.