Fin Cop Burials – Artistic Responses
Gordon the Toad writes about the Fin Cop Burials in Derbyshire
In the summers of 2009 and 2010 Archaeological Research Services Ltd. were engaged by the Longstone Local History Group to work with them, volunteers and six local schools on an excavation of Fin Cop, a prehistoric hillfort near Monsal Dale in the Derbyshire Peak District. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and significant finds were eventually deposited with Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. In 2017, as part of the Museum’s Collections in the Landscape Project, artists were commissioned to present their responses to the museum collections and Gordon the Toad, a writer and storyteller, chose this enigmatic and poignant site where the bodies of at least two iron-age women, a teenager, four babies and a toddler were found- possibly victims of the UK’s first recorded massacre.
A sad, quiet hill-top
Understanding the history ancient site and appreciating the situation of its ancient dead are not always the same thing. As a pagan, I find that a conscious synthesis of knowledge and intuition is needed that leaves us in a space that might irritate all sorts of people, but that often calls for action on our part. The following is an account of one such relationship with a place and its people – the story is not finished yet…the italic entries are from my notes at the time of my first visit.
South of Buxton in Derbyshire, the A6 drops down through Taddington Gorge and onto the floor of the Wye Valley as the river widens a little, slows a little, flows round the lump of the Warren Stone and on towards Ashford-in-the-Water. As the road delivers travellers to the dale floor, a sheer bluff rises on the other side of the water, rearing back from the river and up several hundred feet like a ship’s prow lifting into a crag that also holds one of Hob Hurst’s* houses in the Peaks. The “prow’ is an extension, a curve of the eastern edge of the river and the point of the prow is Fin Cop. There is a hill fort there, right on the edge, cutting off the point. Not very dramatic, a bank and a ditch, and there are bigger, easier to get to and more striking sites within a few miles.
This crag, however, held a secret.
You can get to it easily. Park at Monsall Head and a narrow public footpath winds its way along the top of the scarp. The embankments lie in fields where there is no public access but the path will take you round the edge and onto the open top of the prow where house platforms are just about discernible.
The forgotten dead lie under grass on this wide hilltop.
The same could be said of so many places in the crowded Peak District. There are plague villages, settlements, battlefields, burial fields, small camps, old barrows. Some lost, some known, a few excavated, most not. Just there.
To get over-excited about a single hill-top seems unreasonable. Down there, peering over the edge of the scarp, just down there is a Roman-British settlement. It must have its own dead. And over in Deep Dale is Old Woman’s House Cave where Neolithic families had their being. Then there are the 19th century railway tunnels boring through the limestone hills to connect Buxton to Bakewell, opening the dales, offending Ruskin. But how many deaths went unremarked then? No big tragedies perhaps, but how many stray navvies slipped, or died under that single rockfall, the slipped pickaxe, or breathed too much of that lung-rotting limestone dust? Or turn, and down there is Litton Mill, stylish now, a nightmare once for workhouse children. And there is Taddington were the children slept between sufferings…So many dead here. We live in a well-used land, a richly deceased landscape.
But the quiet, sad story of Fin Cop commands attention. It was a lost story. There seems to have been no tradition of what was here. Names often hold clues but Fin Cop? The end of the hill? Or Finn Low – the mound of the fiddler Fin, or something to do with the Celtic hero Finn. Pennyunk Lane that brings us here from Ashford-in-the-Water might have meant “The head (as in top of a hill) of the young man/young/youth”. But it might not. And for centuries nothing much happened here. There are earthworks, early Iron Age embankments, traces, ripples now are all that remains in the fields of earlier burial mounds. Then there were later lead mining and limestone digging and firing in kilns. There are walls. And cows. And a forsaken hillfort commanding stunning views. But after that day, that night, it looks as if no-one lived here again. Still don’t.
In 2009, returning for a second season in 2010, a local history group got a grant from the Heritage Lottery to do some limited excavation on the hilltop. (Links at the foot of this article will take you to excavation reports). Some of the finds are on display in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Some of the bones are there too. There is a visual reconstruction of one of the skulls. You can go and look on a face from the ancient dead.
The excavations found bones. From about 400 BCE. They might have had their throats cut first, these people. They might have been stabbed. They might have been tossed into the ditch alive, and the wall that topped the embankment pushed down on top of them. Some reckon that the bodies were curled into defensive postures – alive before the stones fell. Difficult to tell. Nine bodies were found before the money and the season ended. Nine we know of. Maybe more. Almost certainly more. There were two adult women, another adult, gender uncertain, a teenager, four babies and a toddler. The UK’s first recorded massacre?
Now, I’m standing here on the hilltop, on the cliff edge, turning slowly, counting deaths. There’s not much to see, tumbled embankments, the ditch, a dyke, doubled here, lost there. The stray pimples of robbed out barrows. But trenches on a dig here found bodies and the site promises, threatens, more. The scientist in me wants evidence, needs to know, needs the next trench. The storyteller feels the tale, looks at landscape, at bones and shapes a story of death and fear and scrabbled survivals on a rock scree slope. The shaman in me feels presences, the forgotten dead, the abandoned dead who no one honoured, no one named, the dead who were simply left.
“Tarans” we call them in Scottish stories – the unnamed souls of lost children. I find myself whispering. I pledge an evening with a single flame, a gathering fire to warm old bones, food offered, a libation to share, a space to sit, a listening ear, an attentive heart. I would hold a space, a stillness. That is the invitation though I know no-one may come.
I was part of a team of artists who had been invited in our turn to respond to different aspects Buxton Museum’s collection and how those collections related to the local landscapes they came from. Several of my colleagues concentrated on Fin Cop and its story. Caroline Chouler created pottery containing burnt bone found on walks over the hilltop. Richard Johnson drew and painted and Amanda Johnson wrote haunting music. Richard and Amanda’s work together became an exhibition: Lullaby of the Larks. I am a storyteller and writer. I simply sat and listened to places, Fin Cop among them. I tried to write the stories that grew in me out of hills and rivers, dales, streams and the whispering voices of the ancient dead.
So now I return to a windswept, sun-scorched or snow-blown hilltop and quietly settle down as the sun sinks, lay out a picnic to be shared with no-one you could see and wait in the silence and the wind for the nameless ones to sit down around me and smile their cautious smiles.
*Hob Hurst is one of the Peak District’s resident Boggarts. There are various Hob Hurst “houses”, and caves scattered across the region
Gordon’s poems and stories inspired by the Collections in the Landscape project are available in a booklet – Tales of the Wonders” available by contacting him directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. This work largely revolves around a sense of belonging to a place and how this shapes personal identity and includes two pieces about Fin Cop, a Neolithic Lullaby and a story from Liff’s Low and a set of voices marking the transition between meso- and neo-lithic lifestyles
Gordon’s work: http://creepingtoad.blogspot.com/