Recently, on a very wet morning, I visited a site I last saw in the 1990s: the Neolithic henge and associated monuments at Arbor Low in the Derbyshire Peak District. The site has a smart and useful guidebook penned by the great John Barnatt and I draw much of my information here from this publication, together with his book with John Collis: Barrows in the Peak District: Recent Research.
The Visitor Experience
The landscape is, like the Rollright Stones, wonderfully simple for the visitor. You drive up a farm track to a designated parking area, drop some money in an honesty box, traverse the farmyard, through a gate and negotiate passage through a herd of cows to the monuments in the fields beyond.
There are clear and straightforward heritage signboards, and the cows seem to enjoy using one to rub themselves against. Inside the henge and at Gib Hill there were no other visitors but lots of friendly sheep and lambs.
Gib Hill was originally an early Neolithic long barrow, one of only a handful known from the Peak District.
The henge dates to the late Neolithic and comprises of a limestone ‘cove’ within a limestonee circle of stones, none remaining upright. Around the stones is a deep ditch and outside this again is a large bank. There are two entrances interrupting the ditch and bank.
Given my interest in early medieval mortuary practice and also my interest in the biographies of monuments, I want to focus on the post-Neolithic archaeology of this monumental focus. The pairing of monuments seem to have attracted new burial mounds in the Bronze Age, one overlaying the bank of the henge, one superimposing itself over the long barrow of Gill Hill. The position of each suggests a reuse and rededication of this monumental landscape in the Bronze Age.
Yet each monument – Arbor Low and Gib Hill- have an elusive later history.
The place-name Eorthburg Hlaw (earthwork hill) seems mundane. However, might it alternatively be read to mean ‘earth-fort hill’ or (I speculate here) ‘burial mound by the earthen fort’? I am no onomastic expert, but it would be intriguing if the pairing of henge and mound is enshrined in the place-name. Opinions please Anglo-Saxon place-name boffins!
The Peak District is very well-known for its secondary early Anglo-Saxon burials inserted into and around prehistoric mounds, revealed through antiquarian barrow-digging and less frequently through modern archaeological research. The location of a small mound close to the henge produced an iron spearhead from a secondary context when excavated by Thomas Bateman. This might well suggest that Arbor Low and Gib Hill, or at least each monument’s later Bronze Age burial mounds, attracted one or more early medieval cemeteries during the fifth to seventh centuries AD. The site of the discovery of a seventh-century weapon burial at Benty Grange beneath a primary mound, and a number of other prehistoric mounds reused by early medieval secondary graves, are known from the immediate environs.
Were the stones originally upright and did they all get levelled by some medieval human action, or simply by the passing of time? The guidebook cites Avebury as a clear example of medieval destruction because of perceived satanic or pagan associations, but this is a now widely contested theory for Avebury in any case. For Arbor Low, as Barnatt observes, the evidence for any deliberate destruction or toppling is elusive.
‘The Avenue’ leads out from the henge to the south is regarded by Barnatt to be a later feature, possibly an estate boundary. The prominence of ‘Gib Hill’, particularly from the Roman road and subsequent Buxton to Ashbourne turnpike make sense that it received a later gibbet. However, there are apparently no surviving details of when and how many criminals were executed and displayed for their crimes at this location.
The monuments themselves are of interest, but so are the fabulous miniature pillars that delineate the henge with the initials ‘VR’ and later ‘GR’ upon them. Hence, these are themselves a fascinating dimension of the history of the site since this was Victorian protected ancient monument; one of the first ever protected for the nation following the 1882 Act.
Arbor Low and Gib Hill are thus important Neolithic monuments, but also monuments with later biographies that are far more fascinating still, if still only partially understood. Hence, both sites are classic examples of successive and changing interests of prehistoric and historic societies in the material traces of former times.