The Arbor Low Environs Project (ALEP) aims to re-consider the Neolithic henge monument of Arbor Low in the Peak District of Derbyshire within the landscape that surrounds it.
Since the inception of the discipline, henge monuments have always fascinated archaeologists and there has been much discussion regarding their function. Interpretations of such monuments include territorial marker, astronomical centre, an interface with the supernatural and ritual site. However, in recent years a concern with the rationale for the siting of these monuments and the human experience of these sites in their wider landscape has arisen As both Prof. Chris Tilley of UCL and Prof. Richard Bradley of the University of Reading have highlighted, there is much potential for archaeologists to explore ‘natural places’ and the landscape more broadly in our attempts to further understand monuments. Prof. Bradley believes that monuments as a class of archaeological site will remain abstract concepts while we fail to integrate them with a wider, local landscape and he has called for both elements to become part of future research programmes. This approach means that we must try not to distinguish between what we currently understand as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and instead explore how features of the landscape held significance for people in the past. This project is using this as a basis to explore the landscape surrounding the henge of Arbor Low, which has long been the focus of both antiquarian and archaeological interest. In spite of this, little has been added to the body of our understanding of this monument since the early 20th century.
Arbor Low is located in the White Peak zone of the Peak District in Derbyshire (SK 1603 6355) and lies within the Peak District National Park. The White Peak is a Carboniferous Limestone plateau lying between approximately 200-400m above sea level. The area is well known for extensive archaeological evidence and extant sites. The majority of the Neolithic sites in the Peak District are ceremonial monuments such as long barrows and chambered tombs. Arbor Low is one of two henges found in the Peak District, the other being The Bull Ring to the north of Buxton (SK0784 7823). The wider landscape is one rich with ritual resources and close by are a number of natural features such as caves, rock shelters and fissures used as repositories for both artefacts and human bones. Excavation of the henge itself has been piecemeal and largely carried out prior to the development of contemporary methodologies and standards; the last excavation was carried out by Gray in 1902. However, the site has not gone unexplored since that time. English Heritage carried out both geophysical and topographic surveys of the henge and its immediate surroundings in the 1990’s and a topographic survey in 2007, which have recorded a range of possible features in the vicinity of the monument.
In reviewing the evidence for other henge sites in Britain it is clear that the route to and encounter with the site was one of particular importance for people. For example there are a number of henges which have earthworks or megalithic architecture associated with them (e.g. Avebury, Stonehenge and Durrington Walls). In each case the associated constructions are interpreted as playing an integral role in directing the route taken by those who used the monument. At Avebury for example the ‘avenue’ is interpreted as being a link to the Sanctuary. Recent research at Durrington Walls has shown this henge clearly linked to the nearby river by an avenue, which in turn linked Durrington Walls to Stonehenge, further downstream. The presence of these patterns elsewhere therefore lead us to believe that a similar importance may have been attached to the routeway provided by the natural topography of Cales Dale, between the River Lathkill and Arbor Low. In addition to the above, there are a range of further arguments that support our ideas regarding the important symbolic or cosmological connections that may have been drawn between Arbor Low and the River Lathkill. Of particular relevance here is the work of Colin Richards who highlighted the significance of water to the siting of henge monuments, with many being located close to rivers and low-lying areas, including the Orcadian henges, Marden and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and the Thornborough henges in North Yorkshire.
In terms of the immediate topography of the monument there are a number of features we are interested in. Previous surveys of the area surrounding Arbor Low have shown the earthwork sometimes referred to as ‘the Serpentine’ or ‘avenue’ leading out toward Gib Hill from the western bank of the henge. Although it only has a single bank this feature can be interpreted as an ‘avenue’, similar to those found at other henges e.g. Stonehenge, Durrington Walls and Avebury. The proximal terminus, was excavated by H St George Gray in 1902 and he interpreted the ditch and bank to be broadly contemporary with the henge bank. However, John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park thought it not to be associated with the henge, rather with Gib Hill, acting as a guide, directing people from the henge to Gib Hill barrow. Since the 19th century, this feature has been documented as being in two sections and while there is no firm evidence from excavation to link the two sections it is possible that later land use has destroyed such a link. The feature itself is still visible both on the ground as a faint linear feature and from the air.
The area around the henge has been the subject of contemporary geophysical surveys by English Heritage, field-walking and interpretation. The geophysical studies undertaken by English Heritage were largely inconclusive and covered the central area of the henge, the immediate vicinity of the ‘entrances’ and the area close to Gib Hill. In the 1980’s filed-walking was undertaken by a project sponsored by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) in fields to the SSW of the henge (cSK164 632). The finds included flint artefacts and ceramics of both Neolithic and Bronze Age date.These results may well have informed subsequent interpretations in which the area around the henge is depicted with huts/houses as part of a ‘seasonal gathering’. Recent field-walking carried out by the current project has recovered further flint artefacts in a field adjacent to those investigated by John Barnatt his colleagues. Hence, this part of the project seeks to build upon this work and reveal more of the past of this monument and its landscape.
Given this history questions remain as to both its dating and function. If, as current use of the term ‘avenue’ suggests, the feature is part of a processual route to the henge then how does it relate the henge to its wider landscape – that is to say, where does it lead? If the ‘avenue’ is contemporary with the bank of the henge, then in all probability it pre-dates the upper, Bronze Age section of Gib Hill. One possibility is that that the ‘avenue’ is connected, both literally and metaphorically, to the henge. The construction of such a feature would have formalised an existing routeway to a location that had long been held to be significant. The earthwork respects the Neolithic oval barrow at Gib Hill, keeping what might be considered a discrete distance from it. Additionally, the creation of the henge would have further enhanced the experience of ceremony and prescribed a location where such activity occurs.
Based upon the difference in width of the two ‘entrances’ the southern ‘entrance’ is considerably narrower (c5m wide) than the northern (c9.5m wide) – see Figure 3.1) John Barnatt has argued that the henge was approached from the north and exited from the southern ‘entrance’ with the ‘avenue’ guiding participants to Gib Hill. However we question why a smaller break in the banks of the henge should necessarily be interpreted as an exit? In addition, if the ‘avenue’ is a guide why does it appear to by-pass by the barrows of Gib Hill, and why is there a portal stone located at the exit? In contrast to Barnatt’s interpretation, we hypothesise that the avenue formalises the upper part of the dry valley of Cales Dale and consequently we suggest that it links the henge, Gib Hill and the potentially cosmologically vital River Lathkill, via the Cales Dale. If this is the case, the avenue may have acted as a guide, directing participants not out of the southern entrance, as suggested by Barnatt, but into the henge. One can imagine that if, as part of ceremonies held there, selected members of the community e.g. elders, were waiting inside the henge for initiates to arrive, there may well have been a significantly larger number of people leaving after a ceremony, hence a wider exit to the north.
As this discussion suggests, the aim at the heart of this project is to consider how Neolithic people used and experienced monuments. A broader question, and ultimately one which will be addressed in subsequent stages of the project is to question what pathways existed between these and other significant landscape features in the Neolithic of the Peak District? These are of course difficult questions to answer, but that should not stop us asking them. However, the immediate foci of this stage of the project are the earthwork associated with Arbor Low and the landscape to the SW of the monument.
To test the hypothesis that Cales Dale was used as a routeway or means of access to the henge of Arbor Low in the Neolithic the ALEP study area will focus initially on the area in the immediate vicinity of Arbor Low. This is the location where the hypothesised processual routeway progresses from Cales Dale and potentially terminates in an earthwork that is truncated by the monument In addition to this, it is planned to extend our knowledge of the monuments use with a programme of test-pitting in a field to the west of the monuments centred on SK163 634.