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.
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.