What is Arbor Low?
Arbor Low is a prehistoric monument, one that archaeologists call a henge. Of course most people have heard of Stonehenge, but there are over 120 other henges in Britain that we know of and they are found from the Orkneys to Cornwall.
What is a henge?
The term henge was first used by Sir Thomas Hendrick in 1932. As a monument type henges are typically circular or ovoid (egg shaped) and have a ditch surrounded by a bank. There are breaks in the banks which are usually called entrances, but they might equally be seen as exits. The number of ‘entrances’ varies between 1 and 4, but often 2 is considered to be typical. They range in size from just a few metres such as Pullyhour in Caithness to ‘super-henges’ of some 500m diameter such as Avebury and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire.
Pulleyhour henge in Caithness: the brown tufts mark the edge of the centre of the henge and the ditch is in the foreground
How old is it?
Good question! Henges date to the 3rd millennium bc, that is between 3000-2000 bc. So far we have no firm dates for Arbor Low from radiocarbon dating (C14) and from the evidence of excavations carried out in the 19th and early 20th centuries archaeologists have dated this monument to the latter half of this period – between 2500-2000 bc.
What about the stone circle?
Combined henge monuments and stone circles, or circle-henges, are not unknown but they are not that common. They generally occur along the boundary between two distinct zones, the upland or highland zone of the north and west of Britain and the lowland zone of the south and east. Generally speaking henges are to be found in the downlands and river valleys of the south and the Midlands, although they too are rare in parts of the south-east. Stone circles on the other hand are concentrated in the uplands of the north and west, especially Cumbria, the Peak District, Devon and Cornwall. The distributions of henges and stone circles then are largely distinct, which partly reflects the availability of different building materials. The other henge in the Peak District – the Bullring at Dove Holes north of Buxton – is a similar size but unlike Arbor Low there is no stone circle.
When did the stones fall down?
Hard to say; there are reports from the 18th century of a local man who claimed to have seen some of the stones standing, but he was also known to embellish the truth from time to time! The stones could have been toppled at any time from the late Bronze Age onwards. However, the only excavation of any of the stones by Harold St John Gray in 1902 reported that as far as the excavator could tell there was no sign of a socket in which a stone would have stood, implying that it had never been upright.
Other methods of establishing where the sockets are have produced mixed results. Geophysical surveys undertaken by English Heritage were disappointing due to problems associated with both technical problems and interference from the bedrock. Some dowsers on the other hand claim to have found what they interpret as sockets several metres away from some of the larger stones.
Where are the stones from?
The short answer is we don’t know yet. Geologists from the British Geological Survey have confimed that the stones are Limestone, but as there are 7 different types of Limestone in the Peak District it is hard to say which type it is without a detailed scientific analysis, which would involve taking samples from the stones. What we do know is that they are not which is the type of limestone found in the reef outcrops such as nearby Chrome Hill and Winnat’s Pass at Castleton.
What was it used for?
Local man Samuel Pegge (1783) suggested the site as a temple, and this led to a number of variations on this theme with several authors centring their understanding on the monument as a Druidical temple (e.g. Davies 1811). Cox (1884) believed that the henge was clearly a sepulchral site or connected directly with rites for the dead, though it was not, in his view, a temple in the usual sense. Other interpretations have ranged from a holding pen for cattle (Addy, 1911) to a prehistoric ‘theodolite’ (Matthews, 1907; 1911) an aspect that Hill (2007) has recently re-visited. The henge has been thought of as a defensive site – as protection from predators such as wild boar and wolf (Heathcote, 1936:12) and Ward (1932:7) offered the idea that the bank or rampart was an amphitheatre for the use of tribal spectators. The idea that Arbor Low had a defensive nature or purpose of was one that has been relatively short-lived. Heathcote for one stated the henge “is religious not defensive as the ditch is inside the bank” (Heathcote, 1936:7) and was “used for observation of the sun, and perhaps connected with the worship of “nature” or stones (Heathcote, 1936: 16). For most of the 20th century it was commonly thought that henges, and by inference Arbor Low, were “almost certainly sacred enclosures connected with religious rites, sacrifices and observances of these early peoples” (Thompson, 1975: 20). There were of course comparisons with other, more famous henges (e.g. Baker, 1976). The religious character or function of henges re-appeared in archaeological thought in part as a result of the renewed activity at Stonehenge in the shape of the Stonehenge Riverside Project (2004-2009) which established the relationship between Stonehenge and Durrington Walls and suggested that “people from across Britain must have participated in a religiously inspired remodelling of cosmology.” (Parker Pearson et al, 2006: 233-234).
Other recent interpretations on henges in general have focussed on the use of space and the control of people’s behaviour and there are examples of these aspects on the Project page. There are several henges which have earthwork embankments leading to/from them including the super-henges of Avebury and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues on the Stonehenge Riverside Project also highlighted the role of the River Avon as part of the link between Durrington Walls and Stonehenge.
If you want to find out more about Arbor Low go to the Further Reading page of the blog and there are a number of articles and books which will give you a good understanding about the site.
If you want to find out more about henges in general English Heritage have a free publication available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-prehistoric-henges-circles/prehistorichengesandcircles.pdf