The Fin Cop Burial by Gordon Maclellan

Those of you who have visited Buxton Museum and Art Gallery lately and/or read the blog will know about the recently-excavated site called Fin Cop. Collaborative artist Gordon Maclellan aka The Creeping Toad has had time to explore and contemplate the mysterious place and write this thought-provoking response.

He also provides some handy links if you want to know more about Fin Cop.

Thanks Gordon!








Ghostly Echo of Fin Cop

Following an exhibition about the Iron Age hill fort of Fin Cop near Buxton in the Autumn of 2018, a lady who used to live locally got in touch to relate a strange experience by a man called Gordon Phillip Cave :

A few months or so ago, a friend of mine told me of his father’s experience whilst out driving his car in the Peak District area in 1965. Mr Cave heard the frantic screaming of women, children and the shouting of men and the sounds of weapons. His experience so chilled and frightened him that he never drove down that road again. Mr Cave actually left written descriptions of what he heard on a dry and sunny afternoon in 1965 quite a few years later; obviously the experience lingered powerfully with him.

DERSR 41493
This 19th century painting from the collection of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery focuses on the viaduct crossing Monsal Dale but Fin Cop looms ominously in the background.

The location of the encounter was near Fin Cop where an archaeological excavation unearthed the remains of a brutal massacre. It is easy to write off the experience as the product of a stimulated imagination until you realise that Fin Cop was only excavated ten years ago; forty-five years later!

Of course, museums are bastions of knowledge and only deal in scientific facts but you could argue that experiences like this are just phenomena that have yet to be explained by established logic and should not be dismissed lightly.

If you have any experiences of Fin Cop you would like to share, ghostly or otherwise, please get in touch. The mysterious site features permanently in The Wonders of the Peak exhibition at Buxton Museum and admission is free. Plan your visit here. 

Lullaby of the Larks: The Fin Cop Massacre

New multi-sensory exhibition Lullaby of the Larks commemorates the massacre at Fin Cop, an iron age Hill fort near Ashford-in-the-Water. Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood explains more:

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

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

But what is the story behind this?

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 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 , 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.

skull from Fin Cop

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 of 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.


Separated by Time and Space: Human Remains in the Modern Museum

This week’s blog was written by a student on work experience at Buxton Museum. Darcy is in her third year studying History at the University of Lincoln but grew up in Buxton. She wrote her dissertation on the subject of human remains in museums and was able to provide us with her expertise on this controversial subject:

Our relationship with viewing human remains on display in the modern museum remains a turbulent and divisive one. The controversy surrounding these exhibits has highlighted the ethical argument over how remains should be displayed, and whether they even should be. Modern museums are still struggling with the fine balance between education and entertainment, whilst trying to frame their exhibits in a manner which doesn’t compromise culture, respect and dignity towards the remains.

Most modern museums are formed from private collections, like the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. With the growth of the museum due to donations, human remains were added along with the popularly collected Ancient Egyptian mummies during the ‘Egyptomania’ phase of the nineteenth century. Currently, the British Museum holds over 6000 human remains from all over the world dating back as recently to the early twentieth-century, to as far back as prehistory.

Due to the huge time difference in the range of human remains, the Human Tissue Act of 2004 introduced new guidelines of how to display human remains and dictated that remains can only be displayed without the permission of kin if they are over 100 years old. For context, 100 years ago marked end of the First World War, which is easily in close memory of the older generation’s parents and grandparents.

Buxton Museum currently has around fifteen examples of human remains on display. The displays include a complete skeleton, skulls, jaw bones, teeth embedded in a portion of cave floor taken from the famous Poole’s Cavern, cremated remains in a Bronze Age urn, and even a fake ‘mermaid’ with real human hair. The age of the remains can be dated from anywhere between 6,000 – 2,000 years ago due to the high level of prehistoric and Roman activity in the area. The only ‘modern’ exception is the ‘Mummified Mermaid’ who is a forgery estimated to be from the Victorian era.


Because of the thousand years which stand between the remains and visitors in the museums up and down the country, the separation in time removes a lot of the humanity and empathy when viewing the displays. Even during the height of ‘Egyptomania’, there was still the separation of thousands of years between the ancient mummies and the Victorian public. But how and where do we draw the separation in time between us and the remains for them to be considered ‘objects’ and not ‘ancestors’? This is still unclear as shown by the Human Tissue Act and opens up new debates on whether 100 years is really long enough to justify the display of remains without the permission of any living relatives.

However, museums are experimenting with ways that present the remains as more than just objects. Labelling and information cards are important to the narrative of the remains, but it is still easy to remain disconnected from this. Instead, technology in the museum space can be utilised to engage more intimately with the remains on a human level to aid in visitor interaction and also in provoking more empathy than before. Digital facial reconstruction has been used on two of the skeletons in Buxton museum from excavations at the local sites of the Iron Age mass grave at Fin Cop and the Neolithic burial at Liff’s Low.

3D printing further aids in the acceptability of viewing human remains. For example, a 3D print of the Fin Cop skull was made to be exhibited in Buxton Museum, as the full skeleton had been found, and to separate and display only the skull would have been inappropriate. Electronic tablets are also stationed around the museum to give visitors the ability to find out more about certain exhibits in depth and seeing them closer than just in the glass case. The tablets in Buxton Museum also provide the visitors with videos of how the digital reconstructions on the skulls were done, and in the case of the Fin Cop skull, an image of the real skull is shown without the need for it to be separated from the rest of the remains purely for the purposes of display.

So whilst the words and the facts of traditional museum information cards help to pull the visitor in, they can feel like too clinical a way of presenting something so controversial. This is why technological advancements like digital facial reconstruction provide a respectful way of initiating empathy and re-humanising the remains to keep them from becoming just ‘exhibits’. Not only does it give a more familiar face for visitors to relate to, but it also helps in closing the thousands of year’s gap in time and space which divides the modern museum goer from the human remains.