Bateman’s Scars

Arbor Low. Photo © Google.

Arbor Low on Google Earth

Arbor Low is a Neolithic stone circle and henge in the Peak District. The henge is the bank and ditch arrange­ment with the bank on the out­side and is prob­ably the old­est part of the monu­ment. The cur­rent estim­ate is that it was built around 2500 BC. That’s a date that’s open to a lot of revi­sion as the last pub­lished excav­a­tion was 1901–2 I think. The stone circle could be as late as 2000 BC.

There’s some odd things at Arbor Low. For example the two entrances mean that the path through the henge runs in the same dir­ec­tion as the Roman Road built over two mil­len­nia later. That sug­gests there’s some pretty deep ideas about move­ment embed­ded with the land­scape. Excavations at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls have revealed pos­sible tim­ber posts and mul­tiple phases for build­ing, often much earlier and much more com­plex than pre­vi­ously thought. So why hasn’t any­one taken a mat­tock to the site for a cen­tury? One reason is money, but another can be seen on the east side of the monument.

Some time in the Bronze Age, a chief­tain looked at the henge and decided: ‘I’m hav­ing that.’ He gathered a lot of earth, quite a bit from the henge bank, and built a round bar­row to be bur­ied in. If a tomb is a machine for remem­ber­ing, then any­one who used the site after that would be reminded that here lay someone who as power­ful enough to take one of the biggest, most ancient, sites in the region and make it his. These days we’d call it van­dal­ism and egot­ism but because it happened over three thou­sand years ago it’s part of the rich pal­impsest of the land­scape. Yet his actions made him a tar­get for the future.

The Bronze Age barrow at Arbor Low

The Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low.

Around the eight­eenth and nine­teenth cen­tury anti­quar­i­an­ism came into vogue. People were becom­ing aware that there was a long pre-biblical past and one way of find­ing out about it was to crack open some of the many ancient monu­ments that littered the land­scape. The gentry would go out for a pic­nic at the week­end and watch, while the hired work would set about a bar­row with pick-axes, spades and shovels to see if any­thing was in it. Which usu­ally meant gold. There might be a few stone tools or bones, but at this time the pre­his­toric inhab­it­ants were thought of as crude sav­ages. Rather like the people out in the Empire that they were civil­ising. But some people took more of an interest, and one of these was Thomas Bateman.

Thomas Bateman was born in 1821, and was the son of an ama­teur archae­olo­gist. His interest grew and he joined the British Archaeological Association in 1843, where he saw how to dig a bar­row. The next year he dug almost forty bar­rows. In total he opened up over a hun­dred dur­ing his life. He used the tech­niques of his time. That’s why, since Bateman’s excav­a­tion, Arbor Low looks like someone thought what the place really needed was a giant earth­work hot-cross bun.

Bateman wasn’t a bad archae­olo­gist for his time. On the con­trary, he pub­lished his find­ings. Nevertheless he used the tech­niques of his time, and dig­ging deep trenches across the bar­row were an effect­ive way to get at the arte­facts and pot­tery. Stratigraphy, the idea that the lay­ers of soil overly­ing a site could reveal some of the con­text of finds, wasn’t really recog­nised until the work of Pitt-Rivers and Flinders-Petrie towards the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Bateman’s tragedy is that he had the tech­no­logy, but he worked before there was a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to use it.

Modern archae­olo­gists are aware that not only do ideas change, but so too does the tech­no­logy. Bateman’s excav­a­tions could be called van­dal­ism, but he didn’t have the bene­fit of hind­sight. Archaeology often invest­ig­ates a site by des­troy­ing it, and that can only be done once. Today we have a per­man­ent reminder in the Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low, which still bears Bateman’s scars.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman's trenches across the barrow. Background: The interior of Arbor Low.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman’s trenches across the barrow.Background: The interior of Arbor Low.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.