Fin Cop Massacre

Moving new exhibition tells story of ancient Peak District massacre

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Lullaby of the Larks: The Fin Cop Massacre

New multi-sensory exhibition Lullaby of the Larks commemorates the Fin Cop Massacre , an iron age Hill fort near Ashford-in-the-Water.

Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood explains more about this moving exhibition:

Haunting anthems written by award-winning composer Amanda Johnson are now encouraging visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to reflect on the events that may have occurred about 2,500 years on a hilltop in Derbyshire. Sixteen pictures by Richard Johnson are memorials to the remains of sixteen young women, children and neo-natal babies that were recovered from the surrounding ditch, and are now retained at Buxton Museum. In four exhibition cases, bashed rocks and stones from the archaeology surround scarlet rosehips and hawthorn berries, and a sole leg-bone of a tiny bird reminds us of the larks in the landscape.

Amanda Johnson on Stannage Edge with her violin.

Lullaby of the Larks is Richard and Amanda Johnson’s response to archaeological remains from Fin Cop. Many artists working at the museum have been moved by events there. Visitors to the Wonders of the Peak gallery can see the work of Caroline Chouler-Tissier, and read Gordon McLellan’s moving poetry and stories, while considering the face of one of the people who was there.

Richard Johnson at Carl Wark.

I first learnt about Fin Cop in a letter that was sent to the director of the museum (me) over 15 years ago. The notelet was written in the hand of an elderly lady who had heard about the remains of a woman being found in a ditch. “I am appalled…”, I read, and then I had to work out where the letter continued, so that ultimately, it is these words that hang in my memory.

“I am appalled…”

I worked out that this was not a matter for the Derbyshire Constabulary Cold Case squad, since this was all too long ago, but rather for the archaeologists at the Peak District National Park, and they were already ‘on to it’.

Let me take you there

Fin Cop is a high spur of a hill overlooking the deep valley of the Wye River. If you go to Monsal Dale, and stand on the Headstone Viaduct and look downstream – Fin Cop rises on the left. It is probably a good place for a settlement, with meadows on the hills around offering level ground for modest iron-age pasturage and ‘gardens’, and fertile soils in the valley below, and fish and wild fowl from the river. From this platform, the views are spectacular (although be aware, this is private property and visiting isn’t encouraged). Back then, people would be able to see the smoke from fires from neighbouring settlements in the early dawn, and the comforting glow of distant firelight under the sweep of the Milky Way on dark nights. Communities then were not necessarily alone.

Fin Cop Massacre

Fin Cop facial reconstruction.

But something happened here, and the limestone of Derbyshire has preserved some of the story. Between 2010 and 2012, an award-winning, community archaeology project excavated at Fin Cop alongside archaeologists from the Peak District National Park. What they found asked more questions perhaps than anticipated, but the story suggested does not make comfortable reading. It is not my task here republish the archaeologists’ report; that can be seen at www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com , but what remains there were preserved in the limestone and what is missing leave many questions to consider.

What might have happened at Fin Cop?

People had been going there for thousands of years. There is a tool-knapping floor, with the remains of chert flakes scattered around, dating from long before the iron age. But by the time of our events it seems that there was a community here, maybe not permanently, but with the security of a wall around the houses. Something happened, and the community reinforced that wall, not very well so we can imagine it had to be done quite quickly. And then…?

Let us start with the things which are missing from the archaeology. We would expect clothes and baskets and other organic materials to have disintegrated completely, which they have. But there is very, very little pottery – admittedly the pottery of the time was friable and poorly made – more like flapjack than ceramics!  No metal – well, the limestone reaction will not have helped that. No beads, no bone ornaments and tools; no spindle whorls or loom weights. If you want clothes made from wool, then these would surely survive, just round or circular pieces of stone with holes drilled through them?

It is unlikely that the archaeologists didn’t choose to collect them. They just aren’t there. Nor are the bones of animals – pigs or sheep. There is no evidence of men, or older women. There is no evidence of infection, nor of a site being raised to the ground.

So what is there?

What there was, found seemingly tossed into the ditch below the wall, and with the wall tumbled above, were the remains of young women, children and unborn babies, including a woman carrying twins. No clothes. No ornaments – not a bone pin that might have held a cloak, or beads that may have braided hair. The soles of the feet had been beaten, to such extent that the marks remain even now in the bones. A drinking cup, broken and friable was thrown away too, like a modern emptied takeaway coffee cup; this was the only artefact other than the rocks from the wobbly defences above. Sixteen skeletons or partial remains were removed from the trenches. There may be four hundred more – let them rest there.

Fin Cop Massacre

Skull from Fin Cop. Photo credit: Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.

The removed bones have been subject to a variety of investigation. Amongst my favourite pieces of information is of the woman with caries in her teeth: clearly she liked honey, the best and easily available natural sugar. My imagination wanders with her as she steals it from the pots, licking her fingers and the residual taste on her lips; as she follows the bees back to the hive so that she can plan to harvest the comb.

But ominously, as I say, these are all women of child bearing age and children. With Liverpool’s John Moore’s University, we have tried to capture the face of a teenager who died, whose early life had been blighted by injury, illness and hunger.

What happened?

We can never know. We can surmise, but there will always be doubts.

However, as discussions for the deposition of these remains continued at the museum, I had occasion to be listening to the radio. Likely it was Woman’s Hour, because the conversation was topical, sympathetic and a women’s story. Two women from the Balkan states, refugees now in Britain (and I apologise here for my sloppy memory) were recalling horrific events they had witnessed during the war there at the end of last century. One day, their female relatives – was it mother … aunt … sister, even – were forcibly pulled away from them, walked onto the bridge, made to perch on the parapet … at which point the two surviving witnesses watched the drunken soldiery shoot these women, and their bodies falling into the river below.

How do they reconcile this memory with their grief?

Is this what happened? A falling out amongst communities? The men and older women, all the possessions – animals, looms, utensils, clothes, everything – cleansed from the site, just leaving this youthful generation, and possible evidence of a genocide. Did these women and their children have any protection, any clothes? Unlikely – clothes, blankets – they can all be reused. But just as the new male lion does, these offspring and potential offspring were wiped from the record. The killers’ will have their own children, their DNA lines, with their women, only.

After that, from what we can see, no-one except the ghosts returned to Fin Cop. But oral memory is long; the footpath to Ashford is known in Old English as the Way of the Young.

The birds still sing; hazelnut shells, rosehips and hawthorn berries bear witness to the berries these iron age women may have gleaned.  It is a meadow of extraordinary beauty, whose history can only really be imagined.

You can see Lullaby of the Larks, admission free, until Saturday 24 November. Plan your visit here.

You can listen to Amanda’s composition here.


Buxton Museum & Art Gallery, Terrace Road, Buxton, SK17 6DA

Tel: 01629. 533540