Rites of Passage: Worlds apart

Our next stop was not only a site extraordinarily rich in archaeological remains, but also a local beauty spot with plenty of parking nearby and well-defined paths… always a difficult combination. We would always wish to have these places to ourselves, but as they are freely accessible, the better known sites are seldom deserted on a sunny afternoon. It is a balancing act… while it is undoubtedly a good thing that people visit these sites, taking even a cursory interest in their history and thus helping to preserve them for future generations, not everyone treats them with respect. Much damage has been done over the years, and you never know what you are going to find.

One of the first things you see as you enter the area known as Stanton Moor is a pillar of wind-worn gritstone known as the Cork Stone. The face of a watcher guards the entrance to the moor, a place where, for over four thousand years, a continuous human story has shaped the land.

The past few hundred years have seen damage and changes wrought by quarrying, plantations and medieval field systems, but it is the Bronze Age that renders this area one of national importance and spiritual significance. By the time you reach the Cork Stone, one of four such guardian pillars on the edges of this small patch of moor, you have already passed between two of the seventy or more burial cairns veiled in heather and bracken.

Many of these cairns were excavated in the mid twentieth century. Interred cremations and skeletal remains were found, along with grave goods, food vessels and personal possessions, all of which show care and attention to the dead, both as individuals and collectively, rather than our more modern attitude of fear and hasty disposal.

The grave goods imply a belief in a life beyond this one and a place for the ancestors within the lives of the living. Why leave offerings unless the departed with know about or need them in the space beyond death? Why worry about their remains, save for love and respect, unless you expect them to still be around in one form or another?

The cairnfields cluster around four stone circles. Most are almost impossible to find except in winter when the vegetation is sparse, but the best know, Nine Ladies, draws many visitors. The legend, a common one for stone circles, says that the stones are nine maidens, turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath and the outlying stone was the fiddler who played for them.

There are, in fact, ten stones at Nine Ladies… in addition to the outlying King Stone, a flat stone was found to the east in 1976. The small stature of the stones is typical of Derbyshire circles and, although the circle is over thirty feet across, none of the stones are more than three feet high. To those used to the tall stones in other parts of the country, it would be easy to dismiss these small circles as somehow ‘lesser’ than their grander counterparts, but when you are lucky enough to stand alone in their presence, you are very aware that here, size really does not matter.

There is a possible embankment around the circle and there may once have been a cairn or burial at its centre. A solitary stone now stands in the path a few yards away. This is the King Stone; long thought to be an outlier, it has now been found to be the central pillar of a ring cairn, now lost. It has sadly lost much of its height thanks to a collision with a car… vandalism has long been a problem at this site.

Most, but sadly, not all of the time, the damage is not deliberately caused. The stone circles draw innumerable visitors and simple erosion by the passage of thousands of feet will eventually create problems. When we arrived at Nine Ladies, we were treated to the terror of a young lamb, separated from its mother, fleeing for its life from an uncontrolled dog… its owner nowhere to be seen. There were families, campers with hammocks strung from the trees and walkers… and, with the poor lamb having just run through, the atmosphere was not good.

It strikes me as sad that these old places, once sacred centres for their builders, should be given less respect than more familiar places of worship. Those sprawled across the stones or partying in their midst would not dream of repeating their behaviour in a church, even if they do not subscribe to its faith. We may not wholly understand the beliefs of those who built the stone circles, but we know they were seen as sacred places… and I believe that their beliefs deserve respect.

We stopped at the threshold formed by the King Stone, the central pillar of the now-invisible cairn, unwilling, for the moment, to go closer. The juxtaposition of cairn and circle is seen at many of the sites in Derbyshire. Barbrook, Doll Tor and even Arbor Low seem to make this deliberate connection between the rites of the living and the presence of the dead.

Quite how significant this may have been we have no way of proving, except by working with the sites and seeing what comes. What is known though, is that the cairns and circles on this stretch of moor and beyond were arranged in quite specific alignments.  Author John Barnatt, senior survey archaeologist for the Peak District, has used modern methods to confirm these alignments… though their purpose may elude us.

The archaeological evidence, however, does indicate that life and death were seen as intimately linked and suggests a belief that there was a line of communication between the two. Perhaps the ancestors were thought to care for the living, even from beyond the veil, perhaps they were believed to be able to influence or advise on events. It also suggests that while the innate, life-preserving fear of dying would have been at least as strong in our ancestors as it is in ourselves, the fear of the dead, and of death itself, was less prevalent than it is today.

In a society where the ethos of winners, losers and ‘every man for himself’ has become the desired and necessary approach for those seeking material success, we seem to have lost that sense of community and continuity that places the wellbeing of the many before the desire of the one. Ego is in the driving seat…and ego fears nothing as much as its own obliteration.

With a certain reluctance, we led the way into the circle, allowing our small company time to become acquainted with the stones. The circumstances were not ideal, but when we gathered to share the visualisation of the Web of Light, we might as well have been invisible.

We began the long walk back, passing through the huge but hollowed cairns, as well as those yet to be excavated, that line the pathway. Two by two, caught in our own part of the story, we headed back towards the Cork Stone. With more time and fewer people around, we could have spent a day exploring here. As it was, there was a quieter place that we wanted to share before the afternoon ended…

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