Welcome the return of the light: Solstice at Arbor Low

To celebrate the winter solstice and have a well-earned Christmas jolly, the Elmet crew journeyed up to Bakewell to see the sights and have some festivity!

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The stunning monument at Arbor Low is situated in Derbyshire, a short drive from the town of Bakewell. It comprises multiple features, including a henge and stone circle as well as a bowl barrow which cuts into the bank on the Eastern side. The henge itself is a huge bank with an internal quarry ditch which runs between 7 and 12 metres wide and originally thought to have been from 2 to 3 metres deep. The bank is roughly 2 meters tall, although thought to have been a further meter high originally, and the entire monument is roughly circular. There are entrances to the inner area of the monuments from both the North West and the South East, from which there are causeways built up over the ditch.

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Various excavations have been carried out at the site, and those based at the terminals of the ditch at the North West entrance found bone and antler tools, flint flakes and both a leaf shaped and a barbed and tanged arrowhead. At the South Eastern entrance, antler tines have been recovered and are thought to have been used in the monument’s construction.

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Within the henge is the stone circle itself, comprising of around 50 stones and fragments. Whether or not the stones at Arbor Low were originally stood vertically remains a point of contention in archaeology, although many people currently believe that they would have been laid down as they now appear. In the center of the circle, there is a large stone setting known as the cove, made from at least 6 stones set into a rectangle. An extended human burial has been recovered from the Eastern side of this setting, with another in a pit close by to the North East. A human cremation has also been recovered from the middle of the barrow at the monument, laid on the original land surface. Because of this, it is thought that the barrow post-dates the henge significantly. The burial and its associated finds of flint, bone, and some unusual pots place the cremation as either the same age as or even older than the henge monument.

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A winter solstice is an astronomical event marking the shortest day and longest night of the whole year in the Northern Hemisphere. Lots of different cultures throughout the world mark the solstice with ceremonies, and at their root lies the same basic principle: an ancient fear that the dwindling light would not return. Many ancient cultures would aim to encourage the return of the light by way of vigils or celebrations. Monuments were often built in alignment with solstices and equinoxes and served as observatories to study these events.

The winter solstice was especially important, as the monitoring of the seasons could be achieved through the knowledge of when this event would happen. This midwinter festival would usually be the last big feast before the harshest weather would set in. Because the winter solstice was seen as the beginning of the return of the sun, the ideas of rebirth were intertwined with the celebrations. The year itself was seen as being reborn, or as a new beginning.

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Pagan people of Northern Europe traditionally celebrated a twelve-day midwinter holiday known as Yule, which incorporated the solstice, and from which we get a lot of our modern Christmas practises. Yule is the time of the most darkness and is strongly linked to the ideas of the rebirth of the sun. The celebration of the solstice was also seen to be the return of nature.

We hope you all had an enjoyable and satisfying festive season!

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Bibliography

Burnham, A. 2012. Arbour Low 1 – Stone Circle in England in Derbyshire [online] Available from: http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=0003 [last accessed 05.01.2016]

Crystal, E. 2016. Winter Solstice – December 21/22 [online] Available from: http://www.crystalinks.com/wintersolstice.html [Last accessed 05.01.2016]

English Heritage. 2016. Arbor Low Stone Circle and Gib Hill Barrow [online] Available from: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/arbor-low-stone-circle-and-gib-hill-barrow/ [Last accessed 05.01.2016]

Historic England. 2015. Arbor Low henge, large irregular stone circle, linear bank and bowl barrow [online] Available from: http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1011087 [Last accessed 05.01.2016]

The White Goddess Pagan Portal. 2016. Yule – Winter Solstice [online] Available from: http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/yule_-_winter_solstice.asp [last accessed 05.01.2016]

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