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]

Bake History: ‘100 wheaten loaves baked in honey’

Since the first discovery of bread within early Neolithic artefacts in Europe, it has been assumed that bread would have been an important staple of the prehistoric diet, as it has been throughout history. Neolithic farmers introduced a range of new crop plants, and they were the first people to really intensively cultivate the land around them.

The most widespread crop emmer wheat, although some small amounts of einkorn and barley was also grown at this time. In modern times, we now grow what which has better qualities for baking, these cereals still essentially form a major part of our modern diet too. Free threshing forms of bread wheat have been found dating from the end of the Bronze Age, which, when ground into flour, would have been baked into unleavened bread.

Until the discovery of a loaf of yeasted bread, which was made from barley and wheat flours, in the Neolithic level at Lake Bienne in Switzerland, it was generally assumed that the people of prehistoric times did not have yeasted bread. However, this was not the case. In ancient Egypt, the soaked loaves of half baked bread in a mixture of both water and date juice, then added it to flour to make fresh bread. This is similar to the modern tenchiques used in the production of sourdough bread.

Yeast has typically been linked to both beer and wine brewing throughout the past; the relationship between grain, yeast, bread and brewing can be observed extensively across different time periods. Some fruit, like grapes and elderberries, have natural yeasts on their skins. Because of this, fermenting beer or wine can be added in the bread making process resulting in leavened bread. Using fermenting grain to produce alcohol dates back to the first cultivation of grain, and may have been a result of the way that grain was stored in pits at this time.  The damp earth started germination in the grain on the edge of the pit, which in turn used up all of the oxygen in the storage pit. When all of the oxygen was gone, this killed the germinating grain, creating a seal around the outside of the pit. This seal meant that the remaining grain would keep for much longer, sometimes being used over several years. When the grain was used, and left behind would begin germinating again, and by baking these germinating grains, malt was created. This malt can then be used in the brewing process.

Although modern bread is very different to this prehistoric bread, the taste is very similar and recognisable as bread. In order to bake bread, prehistoric people had to grind grain up using saddle querns to get their flour. This recipe uses stone ground flour, but if you can find them, the recipe should also work with emmer, einkorn or spelt wheat flours.

Prehistoric sweet bread with hazelnuts and plums

500g honey

1.5kg stone ground flour

1 cup shelled chopped hazelnuts (I bashed mine with a rolling pin in a bag which worked fine)

5 plums, stoned and chopped into small chunks

1 tsp sea salt warm water to mix

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  • Mix all of the ingredients together. Make sure to use a big bowl as there are a lot of ingredients! Mixing will take a while, and be sure to add your water slowly in small amounts at a time so that your mix does not end up too sticky! I found that kneading the dough once it had started to come together helped the mixing process.

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  • Leave covered in a warm place for three hours. I put mine in my conservatory in the sunshine, but it would also go in an airing cupboard, or an oven on a very low heat (less than 50⁰C).

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  • Knead the dough on a well floured surface. I spent about half an hour doing this, until the dough became more elastic.

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  • Then shape into small rolls. I cut my dough using a dough scraper, and just kept halving the dough until I had the size rolls that I wanted.

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  • Place your shaped rolls onto a baking tray lined with baking paper so they don’t stick, and then cover and  leave them for a further two hours.

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  • Bake your prehistoric sweet breads in a moderate oven. Mine took about 50 minutes at 100⁰C in a fan oven, although this may vary between ovens and depends on the size of bread rolls you have made.

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They can be eaten once cooked, however they can also be served in warm honey. An ancient Irish text talks about the Feast of Bricrin, and notes that part of the menu consisted of ‘100 wheaten loaves baked in honey’. To try this, warm your honey in a small pan or a microwave, and pour it into a shallow dish or deep plate. Place your prehistoric sweet bread rolls into the warm honey whilst they are still warm, and spoon some of the honey over the top of them. This will result in a very sticky sweet treat! Be careful as the honey may be very hot and may need to cool before you eat your prehistoric sweet bread.

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Now enjoy your prehistoric sweet bread and share it with all your friends, it was a hit at the Elmet office!

References

Black, M. 1993. A Taste of History: 10,000 years of food in Britain. The British Museum Press: London

Dilley, J. 2015. Ancient Craft: Stone Age Food [Online] Available from: http://www.ancientcraft.co.uk/Archaeology/stone-age/stoneage_food.html [Last accessed 08.06.2015]

Wood, J. 2003. Prehistoric Cooking. Tempus Publishing: Stroud