Districts of Derbyshire: Amber Valley

Amber Valley is a government district and borough of Derbyshire, situated in the heart of the county. Amber Valley takes its name from the River Amber, a tributary of the River Derwent. It is a semi-rural area, which is home to the towns of Belper, Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley, as well as a number of villages including Duffield, Heage and Swanick.

The Amber Valley area has been inhabited by humans from the Stone Age. This Mesolithic flint flake (DENO-AFA6D5) dates from around 8,300 years ago, at a time when nomadic tribes roamed the tundra as hunter-gatherers, and was found near the village of Mackworth.

Mesolithic Lithic Implement
Mesolithic flint blade (DENO-AFA6D5). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License: CC BY-SA

During the Iron Age, south-central Britain was incorporated into trading links with the Continent, and this sculpture from near Duffield (DENO-B69D3A) suggests that such connections may have influenced Iron Age Britons as far north as Derbyshire. The carvings on each of the faces closely resemble those found on the ‘Kermaria Stone’, a contemporary pillar stone from Finistere in Western Brittany.

Iron Age 'Pillar Stone' or Stele
Iron Age ‘pillar stone’ or stele (DENO-B69D3A). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License: CC BY.

Before the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, most of the East Midlands was inhabited by a tribe known as the Corieltavi. Amber Valley is situated just outside the area that is traditionally associated with the Corieltavi, but this gold quarter-starter (DENO-D9B7E3), dating to c.60-c.30 BC, was found in Belper. It suggests that Corieltavi territory may have extend further than is traditionally thought or it could indicate that there was trade between the Corieltavi and their neighbours. This is the second most westerly recorded coin of its type, but other Corieltavi coins have been discovered as far away as Wales.

Iron Age Quarter Stater
Iron Age North Eastern Lindsey Scyphate Quarter Stater (DENO-D9B7E3). Copyright Derby City Council. License: CC BY

When the Roman Empire teetered on the brink of collapse during the Crisis of the Third Century, Britain was thrown into turmoil and two coin hoards from Amber Valley offer a glimpse into the fragmenting power structures of the time. One hoard from near Ripley (DENO-658F16consists of three silver ‘radiates’, a denomination introduced in the 3rd century AD. The ‘radiate’ may originally have introduced as a double-denarius, but only weighed one and a half denarii. The decline of the Empire at this time is marked by the rapid debasement of the coinage, as the silver content in ‘radiates’- around 50% in c.238 – was reduced to as little as 1% by the end of the century, with copper-alloy becoming the primary material. In some cases the lack of financial sustainability drove people to take matters into their own hands; in the Amber Valley Hoard (DENO-A6AE06), all but four of the 3631 coins are ‘barbarous radiates’ – locally produced coins intended to fill a gap in the supply of official coins to Britain.

Radiate coin hoard from Ripley
Radiate coin hoard from Ripley (DENO-658F16). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License: CC BY-SA
Roman Coin Hoard
The Amber Valley Hoard (DENO-658F16). Copyright: The British Museum. License: CC BY-SA.

Found in Hazelwood, DENO-90F223 is one of many examples of medieval coins uncovered in Amber Valley. This silver penny dates to the period AD c.1280-c.1282, during the reign of King Edward I. At this time, Hazelwood was one of the numerous towns and villages that formed Duffield Frith, an area of Derbyshire which had become part of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1266 and been appointed a Royal Forest in 1285. King Edward I hunted in the forest personally between AD 1290 and 1293.

Silver Medieval Penny of Edward I.
Silver medieval penny of Edward I (DENO-90F223). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC BY-SA.

Belper is known for being one of the earliest mill towns, home to the world’s second-oldest water-powered cotton mill. But before the Industrial Revolution, the spinning of textiles was carried out by hand. The use of a spindle whorl, such as the one found in LVPL-D80A36, was a crucial part of this earlier process, as it could increase and maintain the spin of the spindle. Whilst this particular one is made of lead-alloy, spindle whorls were common throughout the world and so could be crafted from a variety of local materials, including chalk, limestone, antler and even coral! 

Medieval Spindle Whorl
Medieval lead-alloy spindle whorl (LVPL-D80A36). Copyright: National Museums Liverpool. License: CC BY-SA.

Just as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution grew from such towns as Belper, then so do objects discarded by Britain’s declining industries in the competitive modern age find their way back to Amber Valley. This lead-alloy seal matrix (DENO-3BFC06), found in Holbrook, from the Crane Foundry in Wolverhampton, is one such example. This seal matrix dates anywhere from 1847, when the foundry registered its own trademark, to 2006, when the company went into liquidation. Objects like these prove that, thousands of years after the first settlers made their home among the hills of Amber Valley, its people are still leaving behind little pieces of history for future generations to find.

Crane Foundry Seal Matrix
Post-medieval to modern seal matrix of the Crane Foundry, Wolverhampton (DENO-3BFC06). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License: CC BY.