Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

IMG_3357

Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

IMG_3358

So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

IMG_3354

After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

IMG_3347

In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

*

And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

IMG_3353

I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

IMG_3364

So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

The Winter Walker

100_7046

You can step back through time on Wenlock Edge. The trackways across the ridge-top have doubtless been trodden by itinerant traders since Stone Age times. In fact if I didn’t know that the lone figure on the path ahead of me was Graham, I might tell you that this is the shade of a six thousand year-old stone axe merchant, or a four thousand year-old Bronze Age smith. Or closer to our time, say two thousand two hundred years ago, it could be an Iron Age farmer trekking through the woods.

There are also traces of Roman farms either side the Edge, and from the Middle Ages until modern times the limestone from which the Edge is formed would have been quarried for building and for iron making, and also  burned in kilns to make lime mortar and fertilizer. And then there is the 400 million year geological history of the Edge itself – starting in times before fish had evolved, let alone mammals. (I won’t mention the four foot long giant water scorpions that lived back then).

But landscape as a portal to the past – it’s an intriguing notion.

*

This week at Black & White Sunday Paula’s guest, Lisa Dorenfest, gives us the theme of ONE. Please go and see her stunning photo, and Paula’s own response to the challenge.

Pondering on what makes us human: that would be shopping, then?

96_thumb[19]

So what does make us human? What differentiates us from our closest relatives the great apes? These were some of the questions posed to us as students of Prehistory & Archaeology way back in the 1970s. Naturally, the philosophical framework of a course with such a title is going to be artefact-driven. Archaeologists deal in physical remains. Prehistory means there is no written record. Mostly all we are left with are bones, stones, post-holes, hearths, bits of wood (if we’re lucky), stains in the soil, and that prehistorian’s joy of joys – the rubbish pit and/or midden.

(After all, there is nothing so fascinating as poking through other people’s garbage – as long as it doesn’t smell too much. Just think what future archaeologists will make of our landfill sites, and what their contents will say about us. See WALL.E  the movie for starters.)

But back to that ‘what makes us human’ question.

In the early 1970s it was widely thought that the appearance of tools was a key criterion. Their construction suggested evolving cognition and the ability to forward plan. Tool-making further  presupposed the facility to walk upright, thus leaving hands free to access materials, and to fashion them for preconceived purposes.

For a time this seemed a useful marker, but then as palaeontologists delved ever further back through the remains of our pre-human ancestors (mostly in Africa’s Rift Valley) it became clear that even by 2.5 million years ago, pre-humans were making tools. The picture was further confused by the realisation that chimpanzees also make tools, albeit crudely fashioned ones – e.g. hammers to crack open nuts, or break into bee hives.

Large brain size was another criterion (judged back then on the basis of the cranial capacity of skull remains), this supposedly indicating a well developed intelligence. I’ve never liked this much, feeling it had a whiff of eugenics about it.  I also remember finding it perplexing to discover that Neanderthal brains were apparently larger than those of modern humans even though Neanderthals were supposed to be ‘inferior’.

None of this seemed to advance my understanding at that time, and besides, now we find that back in the Paleolithic, and  in two distinct phases hundreds of generations apart, humans of the northern hemisphere interbred with Neanderthals. The evidence is there in our genomes.

88_thumb[7]

I left Prehistory behind long ago. As a discipline, I felt it never would be capable of revealing the aspects of humanity that are truly important. And while inferences might be drawn (read: guesses made) about social, religious, political and economic systems from the fragmentary remains of ancient humans, archaeology alone cannot retrieve the all important drivers of human development, the intersecting sets of shared beliefs that create human culture.

After all, we do not know why Stonehenge was built, or what people actually did there, or who organised its building and the activities that took place within the great stone arcades. We never will know. But we can date associated remains, source materials, conjecture on construction techniques, work out how long the place was used, and then we can admire it as an astonishing edifice built by people with an apparently limited technology.

The physical remains,then, are indeed important, but what I really want to know is what was the intention of  its builders; what beliefs led to Stonehenge’s conception and realisation.

By now you may be wondering why this post includes scenes from Dubai, including the 9th century pot above. Here’s a clue from the bazaar:

128_thumb[7]

And another from the Gold Souk:

127_thumb[5]

And at the Dhow Harbour:

118_thumb[8]

And in the mall:

72_thumb[11]

Yes, you have guessed it. Trade is the clue. And so, having ruminated on archaeology’s limitations, I can say that one of the things it does do well is reveal ancient trading  patterns across the globe. In fact only last week it was announced that a study of sediments from a waterlogged 8,000 year-old Mesolithic (ostensibly hunter-gatherer) settlement in the English Channel contained introduced wheat grains that suggest trade with European farmers.

In this regard then, the movement of goods, the origins and spread of food species can be tracked across the millennia. We can thus surmise that even 8,000 years ago humanity was already out shopping, and that, down the ages, this would seem to be one shared behaviour pattern that is exclusively human. We all do it, and probably always have, because whatever territory was commanded on a day to day basis, it probably did  not provide for all its inhabitants’ wants and needs.

There may have been the need to share with other groups a particularly good source of flint for tool making. Inland and maritime communities would have met to exchange materials and foodstuffs. There would also have been the pressing need to find mates well outside the group of related family members. And there might have been a yearning for salt or, in season, for honey or for a particular fruit, all of which might have involved negotiation with outsiders. Fresh water sources might also have been at issue, or the need for extra hands for some seasonal hunting or farming pursuit. And so, for these reasons and more, we would have traded, bartered, exchanged, made treaties and contracts, formed alliances, given and received gifts. This was also probably how some us of ended up with Neanderthal DNA in our genomes.

From the historical record we also know that when it comes to dealing in resources and commodities, hostilities may be instigated, or suspended depending on those whose interests rule. Safe havens, forums, fairs, markets, shopping centres, bazaars, souks, malls are places we all recognise. In the past such gathering points would have also provided venues for song and dance, spiritual and ritual observance, political rallies, exchanges of information and specialised services, the telling of tales.

Dubai, these days, is one of the world’s shopping capitals, reinvesting its wealth from oil refining and trade in the ’shop till your drop’ model. It brings together the concepts of the marketplace and the caravanserai, but on a mega, upmarket 5* scale. Yet it also draws on ancient roots, and on actual trade routes that go back to at least 3,000 BCE. Back then copper and the pearls dived for off Dubai Creek were the stock in trade. Later, as commerce between the Mediterranean and the East began to thrive, dhow merchants made the most of Dubai Creek’s favourable geographical position. The trade continues, only now it is western cars, refrigerators and Coca Cola going east, while the spices, as they have for centuries, come west.

100_thumb[11]

Shopping then, provision and consumption, is, I suggest, what makes us uniquely human. And while I admit that this does not seem a particularly elevating pursuit for our time on this wonderful planet, it nonetheless engages pretty much all of us, from Manhattan bankers to Congo hunter-gatherers. Multifarious  mechanisms of exchange bind us in relationships of largely peaceable cooperation.  The squabbling over resources, and corporations’ drive to make profits at others’ expense threatens us and our planet. But either way, it is hard to see where this never-ending shopping spree will take us. Maybe we need to take a hard look at those landfill sites of ours, and consider what future archaeologists will have to say of us.  I’m not sure we will want to hear it.

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Inspired by Jennifer Nichole Wells and her One Word Photo Challenge: teal

 

Uluru on top of the world: one view, several perspectives

“Then the earth itself rose up to  mourn the bloodshed—this rising up in grief is Uluru.”

Norbert C Brockman Encyclopedia of Sacred Places

*

Scan-140419-0006 - Copy

 

This striking eruption of earthly sorrow is only one of the stories that the Anangu people of Australia’s Northern Territory tell about the origin of Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). Uluru is a sacred place in their tribal land. It is now part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which since 1985 has been jointly managed by the Australian Government and the Anangu people. In Brockman’s version of the origin story he says that back in the time of ancestral spirits, two tribes were invited to a feast. But on the way, the guests became captivated by a group of Sleepy Lizard Women and lingered at a waterhole where Uluru now stands. The party hosts took umbrage at their guests’ nonappearance and, feeling insulted, sang evil into the mud they were moulding until it sprang to life as the dingo. Next, a terrible battle broke out and all the tribal leaders were killed. The spilling of their blood caused Uluru to rise up.

Scan-140419-0006 - Copy (3)

 

Geologists will of course give another explanation. They will say that Uluru is an inselberg, literally an island mountain, a sandstone dome that is the sole remnant after the slow erosion of a mountain range. Tourist guides will tell you that it is Australia’s most famous natural landmark, that it rises over 300 metres above the flat desert scrub, that the tough trek to the top is 1.6 km, and the walk around the base over 9 kilometres.

As I write these facts and figures, I feel myself becoming irritated. Surely they are not the point. I begin to see a little of why the Anangu people do not want people scrabbling all over the place. Come there, by all means, they say. But do not climb. Watch and listen. This is the place where several songlines intersect, and where many sacred ceremonies are performed. It is filled with great meaning and resonance.

Scan-140419-0006

Genetic studies have shown that Australia’s indigenous people arrived in that land some 50,000 years ago. In all that vast expanse of time, and until the arrival of Europeans, their cultural view was presumably uninterrupted. They lived a hunter-gathering life well fitted to a demanding environment. There were people living around Uluru 10,000 years ago. What to European newcomers appeared utterly undeveloped and primitive, was rich in metaphor and codes of conduct. And if I have rightly understood what the Anangu people say (see the links below), then physical reality, metaphor, and time itself are meshed as one. Past, present and future are all part of the becoming that began with the first ancestral spirits.

Scan-140419-0006 - Copy

In the beginning, then,  the earth was flat and featureless. Next came the spirit ancestors who took the forms of people and animals. In their wanderings across the surface of the world, they instigated acts of both creation and destruction. These brought into being the physical landscapes we see today. They are journeys of becoming, iwara or songlines, and through them was engendered  the law, tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa).  These are ethical pathways, ways of being and doing that honour the interconnectedness of all things; the relationships between plants, animals, humans and the land itself.  The law is remembered and passed on by elders to the rightful inheritors through song, art, stories and ceremonies.

One can see, then, why the Anangu people might feel that the word ‘dreamtime’ does not do justice to the meaning of tjukurpa (law). To the European mind the term suggests something fey and otherworldly. Yet in the physical sense Anangu law is absolutely worldly; it is about showing responsibility towards the land and all living things; honouring existence. This, I would suggest, is the kind of moral geography that we ‘Rich-Worlders’ could do well to acquire—and PDQ? Our trail of destruction across the planet speaks for itself. Our presumption of being ‘on top’ in the civilization stakes is more than a little flawed. We forgot a few hundred years ago to leave only our footprints.

Scan-140419-0006 - Copy

 

For more about Anangu culture go HERE and HERE and HERE

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Weekly Photo Challenge: on top