Archaeological Research Group
Derbyshire is a county that is rich in evidence of past human activity: Traces of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic occupation, dating from 50,000 to 9,000 years ago, have been found at Creswell Crags in the far east of the county. Neolithic monuments have been identified from the air in the form of the cursus monuments at Willington and Aston-on-Trent. You can visit one of the county’s Neolithic monuments in person by visiting the henge at Arbor Low, the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, or Minninglow chambered tomb. The north of the county has a wealth of Bronze Age round barrow and Iron Age hillfort earthworks. That’s only the county’s prehistoric legacy, Derbyshire also has a legacy of three Roman forts and numerous medieval castles, abbeys, priories and friaries.
Derbyshire also has a long history of archaeological research: In the early 18th century the great antiquarian William Stukeley made a record of the upstanding remains of the Roman fort at Little Chester. However, those who dug into the county’s archaeological remains before the 19th century failed to leave any account of their investigations. We had to wait until the pioneering work of Thomas Bateman in the 1840s, ‘50s and ‘60s before we have any kind of record of an excavation that took place in the county. During those years Bateman excavated over 100 burial mounds in Derbyshire along with numerous other archaeological monuments around the county. Unfortunately, Bateman died tragically young, aged 40, in 1861, some 17 years before the Derbyshire Archaeological Society was founded.
Once the Derbyshire Archaeological Society was founded in 1878 it soon became involved in archaeological fieldwork across the county. It was involved investigations as far apart as Glossop, where excavations took place on the site of a Roman fort, and Repton, where the Saxon fabric of the crypt was examined. Many of these late 19th century and early 20th century investigations might not have been to a standard that we would find satisfactory today.
By the mid-20th century the study of archaeological remains was emerging as academic discipline and the first professional archaeologists made an appearance. As a result, the Society was for the most part involved either in small-scale investigations, carried out under its own auspices, such as the unproductive trial trenching in the allotments at Darley Abbey looking for traces of the medieval abbey, or else in assisting larger-scale rescue or research excavations directed by professional archaeologists. An example of a rescue excavation led by a professional archaeologist in which the Society was involved was the excavation of the Victorian church of St, Alkmund, which identified the remains of a Saxon minster including unearthing of a carved sarcophagus. Whilst the large-scale excavations at Repton, led by Martin and Birthe Biddle, is the probably the best-known example of a research excavation in which members of the society participated as volunteers.
In the final couple of decades of the 20th archaeological investigations have increasingly become the preserve of professionals. Today archaeological fieldwork is often conducted in response to development proposals, and time pressures do not leave space for the involvement of local groups. In general members of the Archaeological Research Group prefer to learn about archaeological research, via talks and site visits, rather than take an active part in it. Nevertheless, small groups within the Society are conducting their own fieldwork, in the form of fieldwalking and resistivity surveys and there are small local groups in Belper and Ticknall who do conduct small scale excavations.