The weather was surprisingly good. Normally when we visit this particular site it is freezing cold, driving rain or both, for the last stretch of our journey would take us to Arbor Low, one of the finest ancient sites in Derbyshire and certainly the best known. It is often referred to as the Stonehenge of the North, yet it bears little resemblance to that great circle, on the surface at least. The similarities are more subtle than that and anyone expecting towering pylons of stone are in for a disappointment. On the other hand, it does closely resemble the better-known site in other respects. The ritual landscape of which it is a part is potentially enormous. Mysteries abound and yet, unlike Stonehenge, here they have not been thoroughly plotted, excavated or investigated and what little is known is open to renewed interpretation in light of the discoveries and understanding we have gleaned over the past century. Even English Heritage in whose care the site now rests and who provide the information boards for visitors, admit that we know little and understand even less.
We crossed the farmyard which is the only way to access the site, paying our coins in an echo of an age-old rite of passage. Rather than heading for the obvious gate, and knowing the site well, we cut across the fields, following the path that most would take to exit the site. We had always done so before, but on our last visit, in the company of our friend Running Elk, we had kicked ourselves for not realising that here too, as at Barbrook, the accepted, clockwise path around the site runs the wrong way. This time, though, that deduction wasn’t based on some nebulous feeling of rightness alone, but on the layout of the site itself… and it made perfect sense.
We were heading first for Gib Hill. At first glance, it looks odd. It is neither a standard shape for a round barrow, nor for a long barrow. If anything, it more closely resembles in shape the type of mound usually dismissed as a ‘castle’… or a diminutive version of Silbury Hill. It stands at some distance from the circle and is thought to be the oldest surviving feature of the site. The strange shape of the mound has an equally strange explanation. It was originally a Neolithic barrow. The Neolithic period in Britain covers the period from around 6000 to around 4,500 years ago and was followed by the Early Bronze Age, which lasted until around 800 BC. During the Early Bronze Age, a second, round barrow, was built on top of one end of the older mound and it is this superimposition that has altered the shape of Gib Hill.
The mound was excavated in 1824 by William Bateman, who seems to have owned the field. Along with flints and a stone axe, he found that the earlier long barrow was made of layers of clay mixed with charcoal and cremated human bones. In 1848 his son, the antiquary Thomas Bateman, who became known as “The Barrow Knight” for his propensity for digging up these ancient mounds, dug a tunnel into the barrow, finding flints and the bones of oxen in the lower layers. Nearing the completion of his tunnel, a stone burial cyst fell through its roof containing a human cremation and an urn. Bateman appropriated the cyst and re-erected it in the grounds of his home at Lomberdale House. It has now been replaced in the mound and its capstone is visible on its summit.
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