Excavating the CA archive: Derbyshire

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 5 November. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI369, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

In the previous two issues, I began on the Wirral coast of Merseyside, before heading inland to Liverpool and Greater Manchester, and then on to Cheshire. I continue my journey through the north-west of England in this column, travelling further east into Derbyshire.


Before I head up into the hills and down into the caves of the Peak District, I would like to pause to note a personal milestone: this is my 50th column for Current Archaeology! In the summer of 2016, I approached Matthew Symonds, then Editor of CA (now editor of its sister-magazine Current World Archaeology) to ask if he planned to examine the history of the magazine for its 50th birthday in March 2017. I had in mind a one-off feature about its founders Andrew and Wendy Selkirk, their explorations, and the lifetime of friendships that they had made though their work. Matthew suggested that I dig a little deeper into the history of what is the longest-running archaeology magazine in the world, and so this column was born. Since November 2016, it has been my privilege to share with you sites and names old and new, and to become a small part of the extended CA family. So here’s to you, CA readers, for your enthusiasm for a magazine that has stood the test of time, and here’s to the wonderful team at CA, including the Selkirk family, who remain an integral part of the magazine’s machinery.


There have been many prehistoric sites from Derbyshire highlighted in CA, including the Fin Cop hillfort, where evidence was found for the massacre of women and children during the fort’s destruction in 390 BC.

Unusually for my county-based surveys, I begin with a recent issue of the magazine: CA 356 (November 2019). It explored the Peak District in conjunction with the publication of John Barnatt’s new book, Reading the Peak District Landscape. For anyone interested in the (pre)history of this stunning part of the country, this is the book to read, and CA 356 provides a wonderful summary and some exceptional photographs. Other aspects of John’s work in the Peak District can be explored in CA 239 (February 2010) and CA 352 (July 2019).

Having begun in 2019, I would next like to turn the clock back nearly 50 years to the summer of 1971, when CA 27 first reported from Derbyshire, on fieldwork at Mam Tor near Castleton, examining the Bronze Age and later Iron Age settlements there. Manchester University had led excavations on the Tor between 1965 and 1969 in partnership with the landowner, the National Trust, revealing much about the hillfort’s construction and settlement.

Jumping forward in time once more, CA 255 (June 2011) visited another significant Derbyshire hillfort with an unusual story to tell, exploring Fin Cop near Ashford in the Water. Here, excavations revealed unique evidence for the massacre of women and children during the destruction of the fort around 390 BC. As the project’s lead excavator Clive Waddington reported:

Prehistoric rock art, discovered in the Upper Amber Valley in Derbyshire, was highlighted in CA 179.

wherever we excavated, the wall deposit contained the articulated skeletons of people who, on account of their position, appeared to have been thrown in amongst the wall tumble, as the wall was being pushed in over them… with around 400m of ditch circuit in total, it is likely that many dozens, and perhaps even a few hundred, individuals still remain buried in the ditch fill.

A happier tale of Derbyshire’s prehistory came in issue 179 (May 2002), when landscaping work at Ashover Primary School in the Upper Amber Valley revealed two previously unknown prehistoric carved stones, the type of which is known across the county. The stones remain in place at the school as part of the playground, an inspiration for future generations of archaeologists and artists alike.

Arguably the most-important prehistoric site in Derbyshire, though, has featured repeatedly in the pages of CA over the years: Creswell Crags near Worksop, on the Derbyshire/ Nottinghamshire border. The magazine’s first visit came in issue 160 (November 1998), as part of a wider review of Upper Palaeolithic sites in Britain. CA then returned in issue 197 (May 2005) with the exciting news of the discovery of Britain’s first cave art in Church Hole on the Nottinghamshire side of the gorge. To this day, the finds at Creswell Crags represent the most northerly example of such prehistoric artistic finds in Europe. Paul Pettitt’s report on the process of their discovery is a gripping one that I urge you all to reread prior to a visit to the Crags themselves. CA returned in issue 330 (September 2017), with a survey of Palaeolithic sites in Britain by Nick Ashton for his book Early Humans. I am confident that the magazine will revisit the Crags in the future, for this is such an important site that it has, since 2012, been on the ‘tentative list’ for UNESCO World Heritage Site status – and fully deserves such international recognition.


CA 197 brought news from Creswell Crags of the discovery of the first cave art to be found in Britain.

Derbyshire is not traditionally a county associated with extensive Roman archaeology, and three locations that have featured in CA over the years embody that elusiveness. For example, CA 75 (February 1981) reported on an intriguing site quickly found and just as quickly lost: what is thought to be Lutudarum, headquarters of the Romano-British lead-smelting industry. At Carsington, near Wirksworth, an extensive Romano-British settlement was identified in the late 1970s, but unfortunately this took place in advance of the construction of a new reservoir by the local water authority. A sequence of occupation – beginning with timber structures and lead-working in the mid-2nd century, followed by the erection of substantial stone-founded buildings by the end of the century, and then adapted with cobbled yards, timber structures, and a complex of drainage ditches in the 4th century – lie to this day beneath the waters of the reservoir, preventing any further investigation unless CA can persuade the underwater archaeologists among their readership to show renewed interest in the site!

CA 156 (March 1998) reported from Littlehay in Ockbrook, now in the eastern suburbs of Derby. Here, an impressive Romano-British aisled barn some 29m long by 12m wide was excavated in the mid-1990s by three local archaeological societies. So far, so traditional, both in terms of a site and its exploration – only it lies in an area that is not traditionally thought to contain any Roman remains, the geology being a heavy red marl which, though good farmland by today’s standards, was long thought to be too heavy for earlier farmers. CA has not reported on the site again, but if any readers can shed further light on the Roman settlement of this region, then do please provide an update.

CA returned to the Crags in issue 330, with a survey of Palaeolithic sites in Britain.

Finally, CA 294 (September 2014) explored Reynard’s Kitchen Cave in the Peak District, home to a remarkable chance discovery of unexpected Roman remains. There, a sharp-eyed climber sheltering from heavy rain identified a hoard of Iron Age and Roman coins, which they reported to the site’s owner, the National Trust, who then mounted a full excavation. The hoard’s combination of Roman Republican and north-eastern Iron Age coins is not uncommon, but its location is most unusual, the first find of this kind in a cave in Roman Britain.

Such are the complex mysteries of Roman Derbyshire. In the next issue, I head still further east into Yorkshire, for the first of a two-part column exploring an interlinked series of counties – many would refer to them as a country in its own right – rich in archaeology and archaeologists alike.

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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