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!


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.

mastadon hunt.jpg

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!

Stone Age Bling

Imagine if a loved one, or friend, picked up a stone and asked you to make from it a piece of jewellery which they could hang around their neck. And, that the only tools available to you to make this would be other similar stones, a selection of animal bones, water, and wood. How would you go about it? How would you shape and smooth the stone? How would you go about creating a hole with which to put the neck lace through without, accidentally, breaking the whole piece?  In an age when the wheel was only just being invented ( believed to be in, either,  Ukraine or Iraq — the jury is still out on that one –) it must have been quite a labour intensive, frustrating, and time consuming task to create what, essentially, is a non essential, luxury item. That person would have to be pretty special!

Neolithic Perforated Stone Pendant. 9 cm x 4 cm

This stone pendant was found at Chrome Hill, Derbyshire and dates back to around 3,500 BC during the late Neolithic Period (Stone Age). The Neolithic period was the age when large stone circles  such as Stonehenge and dolmens like the Bodowyr Dolmen in Wales were first constructed. Although Chrome Hill has no neolithic monuments it is believed to be an important site for both the Neolithic and Bronze age peoples as a possible place of ritual. It is known for its unusual, natural features where the hill resembles a giant, ridge backed, exoskeleton, bulging out of the land beneath the enveloping blanket of the Derbyshire countryside. It is also reported that a remarkable split sunset can be observed at certain angles over Chrome when standing on Chrome’s nearby sister – Parkhouse Hill – during Solstice.

Whether the jewellery piece was the ancient equivalent of a wedding ring or, perhaps, worn by warrior women and men as a battle talisman, or merely used for trade, we can never know. But, like a Rothko painting it confronts us with courage and boldness while within its simplicity lies a much deeper meaning. A meaning that we may never fully grasp in our modern society.

Lovely, Lovely Lithics

Any mention of stone tools or lithics and you’ll see my ears twitch. This is a subject which has held long fascination for me, ever since my days as an archaeology student. Coming back to Buxton has given me the opportunity to work with these types of collections once more, so I really couldn’t be happier.

Stone tools are a window into the distant past, and are often the only material that remains from prehistoric societies. As such, lithics are a precious route into the lives of our ancestors, allowing us to imagine how people may have lived and interacted with their environments. This will be critical to the successful delivery of Collections in the Landscape, as we attempt to interpret the lives of the prehistoric  residents of the Peak District.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

Let’s take an arrowhead as an example. They can be used to explore the relationship between technology and the environment, but they also demonstrate that, like today, objects can be more than utilitarian, and can hold important cultural, political or ritual meanings.

The Mesolithic period (c. 10,000 – 4,000 BC) is often characterised by the production of ‘microliths’ – tiny worked pieces of flint or chert. These could form composite tools, including arrowheads, where multiple microliths were set into a wooden shaft. You can see an amazing example of the real thing here.

These tools were effective against a range of creatures, and have even been discovered in association with auroch bones in northern Zealand, Denmark (aurochs were large, wild cattle that could be up to 1.8m tall!)

However, during the Early Neolithic (c. 4,000 – 3200 BC) we can observe a number of new arrow forms, including the distinctive leaf-shape arrowhead. So what drove this change in technology?

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

As the climate warmed after the Ice Age, Britain became home to fully developed mixed deciduous woodland. In fact, the period between c.7,500 and c.5,500 BC is often referred to as the ‘climatic optimum’ with average temperatures around 2 degrees higher than they are today, with more sunshine and lower annual rainfall (so nothing like contemporary Derbyshire!).

However, the clearance of woodland during the Early Neolithic changed this environment. It was now more difficult for the hunter to get a closer shot at his or her target. It’s theorised that leaf-shaped arrowheads offered a more aerodynamic and effective killing tool with increased range and penetration – more suited to the open environment.

However, not everything can be explained through a tool’s practical form and use. Archaeologists have to contend with the presence of both ‘fancy’ and ‘non-fancy’ tools (forgive the use of highly technical language). Some arrowheads have clearly only been worked enough to make them practically useful, but other’s exhibit extensive retouch and shaping. If you’re sole goal is create functional arrows, this amounts to hours and hours and unnecessary work.

So what’s going on here? Some archaeologists have suggested that ‘fancy’ arrowheads were more about ritual or status than they were practical tools, contrasting them with the partially-flaked, mass-produced arrowheads used for day-to-day hunting. However, others point out the fact that some ‘fancy’ arrowheads do appear to show evidence of use, so the plot thickens…

Fast forward to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age and consider beautiful barbed-and-tanged arrowheads like the one pictured. This type of ‘fancy’ arrowhead is closely associated with ritual activity, for example, often placed alongside the dead during burial. But these arrowheads also dangle another tantalising hint about the structure of Bronze Age society.

barbed and tanged arrowhead

Hunting tool or status symbol? Or both?

In general terms, the quality of flintwork generally deteriorates during the course of the Bronze Age, but clearly the knowledge and ability to manufacture quality stone items was still present, perhaps in the hands of a small number of specialists who were creating objects with powerful meanings or status.

As with most forays into the world of prehistoric archaeology I’m going to end up asking more questions than I started with. However, I hope this blog has helped demonstrate some of the ways stone tools can help us explore and theorise about the lives of prehistoric societies.

References and further reading:

Butler, C. 2005. Prehistoric Flintwork.  Tempus, Gloucestershire.

Larsson, L & Sjostrom, A. 2011. Early Mesolithic flint-tipped arrows from Sweden. Antiquity. November 2011.

Waddington, C. 2004. The Joy of Flint. Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.