???????????????????????????????My pal from the world of archaeological art and Facebook – Kelvin Wilson – recently directed me to this fabulous website with photographs of some of the desks of the greatest writers and artists of recent times. I like my work office but my home office – my archaeoden – has been demolished to make room for child sleeping space. Instead, I am in the garage or mobile on a laptop.

Still, I cannot help but yearn for a Temple of Peace like William Ewart Gladstone had at Hawarden Castle. Here’s a picture of his desk, and below it, a photograph of him using it or a similar one. At least Gladstone had the sense to have the earliest impressions of the Archaeological Journal on his shelf, a publication I am proud to be editing my fourth volume of at present.???????????????????????????????



Pennant Melangell church

Recently I posted about a visit to Pennant Melangell and the shrine of St Melangell. Well, it must be said that this is a fascinating site for its church and internal memorials, but even more so for its churchyard.


18th-century graves: Pennant Melangell

Many urban,suburban and large rural churchyards (whether in use or abandoned) have very complex patterns of memorialisation with multiple foci to them. In such environments, the bodies of the dead compete with each other, jostling down the generations within the restrictions of limited space. From the 19th century in particular, some churchyards bear signs of a new trend of expansion rather than reuse.


19th-century gravestones – the dead go vertical

This expansion of burial space is because of a mix of factors: rising demographics, increasing social and economic wealth, a professional funerary culture, the industrial revolution facilitating the transportation and hence availability of stone for memorials, as well as the rising social and aesthetic desire to be memorialised in stone among both the middle and working classes. In this context, we can chart not only shifts in the form of memorials, but also a clear horizontal stratigraphy away from the church. Often, the oldest gravestones will be close to the building while the most recent with the furthest away, perhaps in one, two or more stages. Further complex patterns occur where there is no space to extend the churchyard because of existing restrictions and so separate cemeteries may have to be used.


19th and early 20th century gravestones

Horizontal Stratigraphy

The churchyard at Pennant Melangell presents a simple but different phenomenon from those mentioned above. In this circular, large space there is a clear horizontal stratigraphy but it operates in an arc around the church rather than increasingly distant from it.


Modern inhumation graves

This spatial progression is partly because of the size of the churchyard boundary combined with the small scale of the burial population the church served. As such it is a brilliant example to share with students, since CPAT conducted a full churchyard survey and can map out the shift in commemoration over time. The earliest gravestone dates to 1619 in the south-east quadrant. Here we see no graveyard extensions but instead a clockwise movement of the dead from the south-east to the south, to the south-west to the north-west of the churchyard. In the 19th century gravestones go vertical, then become more modest again as they progress ever west and northwards.

And then there is the north of the churchyard. Excavations revealed unmarked graves to the north of the church, but this was clearly a sheltered and unfavoured spot for burial; a phenomenon recently discussed in print by Bob Silvester of CPAT.


The empty north side of the churchyard, populated only by the most recent inhumation graves


Garden of remembrance and the cremation burial plot

Cremation Switchback

Despite the relatively little competition for burial space in this rural Welsh churchyard, Pennant Melangell displays a far broader phenomenon I am researching with regard to cremation burial zones and gardens of remembrance.

First this involves the bifurcation of the cremated and inhumed dead into separate zones. So at Pennant Melangell this means that the most recent graves are in two locations, the inhumation graves are north-west of the church at the furthest extent of the clockwise progression of burials, while the cremation burials are in a separate location south of the church.

Second it involves a switchback: with cremations added in older areas of the churchyard and/or closer to the church. In the case of Pennant Melangell, the garden of remembrance is on the south side, in an area last regularly populated with new memorials in the early 20th century.

What this tells us is that while the cremated dead may undergo very similar funerals, they have a very different spatio-temporal trajectory both during the funeral (bearing in mind that the nearest crematoria is probably Wrexham or Shrewsbury) and afterwards (with cremation burials located separate from near-contemporary inhumed individuals). There are undoubtedly many lessons here for archaeologists studying ancient cemeteries, but also this is a largely overlooked, varied and complex, yet very significant shift in how we utilise churchyards and cemeteries.


Cremation burials at Pennant Melangell


Garden of Remembrance



Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire

I recently visited Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire, a site managed by English Heritage and staffed that day by one of its most friendly of employees.  Beside the River Severn, this is a perfect ruin of a 12th-century Cistercian house, suppressed in 1536 and adapted into a secular mansion.

It is truly a ‘perfect ruin’, together with woodland walks down to the river. It was a great stop-off en route back from Oxfordshire to North Wales. For me this was a real nostalgia visit, since I last went there as a kid myself. Here are some general pictures of this superb ruin with the neatly trimmed grass that typifies EH sites.


The Chapter House


The nave


The cloister


The tile floor in the Chapter House at Buildwas

I have previously aimed a broad criticism at many heritage sites for their denial or suppression of death: both with regard to the funerary uses and reuses of the structures and remains subject to study and the reluctance to incorporate memorials at these sites to the modern dead.

I noticed only two areas of medieval funerary activity displayed for the visitor. Neither are labelled or find discussion in detail. First, there is the outline of a grave in the Chapter House floor: this building would of course have been a focus of very prestigious burials of abbots and lay patrons.IMG_2538

Second, in the south aisle of the nave of the monastic church were some further fragmentary memorials, presumably of very late medieval date.




IMG_2590 What strikes me is how this so markedly fails to convey the funerary roles of these sites within the societies of the 12th to early 16th centuries; their role as foci of patronage in exchange for chantries and burials of the secular elite. At some Welsh Cistercian sites, like Strata Florida and Valle Crucis, and some of the Yorkshire monastic sites, one can get a fuller sense of this funerary dimension. This is conveyed either by monastic graves/grave-slabs on display, but also museum displays showing funerary-related finds from excavations. Buildwas has none of these.

This is not a criticism of the manner in which Buidwas is displayed, but it is still an important issue for thinking about how these sites operated. The standard narratives of Cistercian monasteries focus on the religious and economic lives of their inhabitants, and the ‘lives’ of the above-ground ruins.

I would suggest that our narratives struggle to connect and convey the mortuary and commemorative dimensions of these prominent and important institutions in the later medieval landscapes of the British Isles.

Likewise, while some other Cistercian monasteries, as ruins that attract affinities from visitors there are memorials to those whose ashes are scattered in the grounds. Here, as at many EH sites, there are none.

So does this mean that Buildwas Abbey, at least in so far as it is presented to the public today, is a death denying landscape? Is Buildwas a landscape of forgetting the many dead interred beneath its burial grounds, buildings and passage ways? Have you encountered similar well-managed beautiful ruins that not only evoke the timeless romance of entropy arrested, but are complicit, and sometimes very active, in refusing death - and mortality more generally - to get a look in?

Still, my death obsession put aside, these were fabulous ruins to walk around, run around and for the kids to climb on, defying the warning signs telling them not to. Sorry EH: there’s no stopping them!



IMG_8480IMG_8479Having just explored the memorial culture of a modern secular heroine, I wish to complement this with a discussion of an early medieval female saint.

The link is that both create a distinctive pairing of person and thing. With Grace Darling it was her female form with an oar. In this case, it is a human-animal connection because I want to focus on the cult of St Melangell – possibly an eighth-century Irish princess – at her church at Pennant Melangell. In this beautiful, simple church set within a large circular churchyard in a very isolated location in mid-Wales we find a distinctive set of modern memorial culture associated with Melangell herself.

IMG_8482The story of Melangell is ridiculously simple and stylised. She protects a hare from hounds and the nobleman who is hunting the animal is so impressed by her deed he gives her the valley. That’s about all we know and it probably didn’t happen.

Melangell was of course a holy woman and the nobleman’s reaction was justified. Modern dog-owners rarely show the same awe and wonder when I lift my kids out of the way to stop their ill-trained beasts from gnawing at my young children. Still, I live in hope that one might one day be inspired enough to give me a valley. I guess things were different back then.

When and who Melangell really was is another story. If she is an historic figure at all, she probably was an exceptional woman in many other ways; perhaps setting up and organising a religious community with all the complex socio-political, economic as well as religious dynamics this involved. Unfortunately our sources tell us nothing of the remarkable lives of most early medieval people and Melangell is no exception here.

Today, Pennant Melangell is a focus of worship and pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Melangell which is a remarkable structure in itself. The church and churchyard have been subject to, managed and adapted in response to, archaeological research, but it is the many images of the hare and Melangell herself that dominate the interior. Consequently, another reason why this is of archaeodeath interest is that the current building and environs are a direct result of archaeological intervention.

Hares are everywhere; in a gravestone-like slate marker at the entrance to the churchyard and within the church itself.




In addition to all her hares here, there are depictions of St Melangell herself protecting the hare and encountered by the hounds and huntsman. One is upon the heritage board itself and another is a painting within the church.


Heritage board


Interesting Melangell scene



Votive candles

In addition to her medieval reconstructed shrine, in the newly constructed eastern apse, recreated following archaeological excavation, there is a further shrine to her. There is another on a south-facing window sill within the nave of the church.


The eastern apse recreating following archaeological excavation


A secondary focus of votive offerings inside the apse


And then, finally of course, there is her shrine itself: with fragments of original Romanesque elements and with piles of votive messages left for the saint. This is not window-dressing: the shrine is an active focus of worship and remembrance for people today and again creating a focus for the votives is a depiction of the saint with her hare.

Reading some of the messages struck home how personal and emotional the relationships are expressed; those praying that the living heal, recover, resolve their problems, those wishing to come to terms with a personal loss, those remembering loved ones and those who are speaking with the dead.


Votive cards within the shrine of St Melangell, with Melangell again depicted with here hare, painted onto a stone


The shrine at Pennant Melangell


The shrine from the south, with the original medieval elements incorporated into a new reconstruction






Aldworth Church, Berkshire

Aldworth in west Berkshire has a fabulous flint-built church on the Berkshire Downs. Outside is a fabulous churchyard with a cleared, and presumably older, southern side, and a large extended northern side in which the most recent graves are located. The most notable feature on the southern side and approach through the churchyard is the ancient yew. This is of interest not only for its claimed antiquity and focus of ‘pagan’ worship (not too sure of that), but also the fashion in which it has been kept on arboreal life support and given its own sign.


The ancient yew in Aldworth churchyard


The sign with the yew

Close to the yew on the southern side are the redisplayed collection of 18th-century gravestones with their cherubs and other neo-classical ornaments.


Back-to-back memorials

On the eastern end of the church is the war memorial, a distinctive location for a modest memorial that I have seen at a number of churches.


The war memorial, Aldworth church

Another feature of interest in the churchyard is the presence of some iron grave-markers, something which I have a particular taste for given their rarity and distinctiveness as a memorial medium during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I cannot think of any particular reason why iron would be opted for here, other than the relative proximity of the Great Western railway allowed ready transport.


Iron memorial, Aldworth


Iron cross, Aldworth

Within, the church, there are only a handful of post-medieval memorials. Instead, the entire space is dominated by the effigy tombs of the knightly de la Beche family. This collection is not particularly notable for its quality of survival; there are many better-preserved 14th-century memorials elsewhere. Yet these tombs are interesting because of:

  1. their number and cumulative impact on the church space.
  2. the possible back-projection of commemoration down the family’s generations from the mid-fourteenth century to the late thirteenth.
  3. the male dominance of the assemblage. This is hardly surprising, but it does serve to illustrate the selectivity and masculine focus of the commemorative programme of this Berkshire aristocratic family.
  4. A further point of interest lies in the tomb which may reflect the giant stature of one of the family members, posed leaning on his right shoulder rather than on his back so his legs can be bent to allow him room to fit within the niche. He has a dwarf rather than a dog at his feet. This may possibly serve to commemorate the fashion of his appearance at court with a dwarf servant to further exaggerate his height. The likelihood is that this is an idiocryncratic portrayal rather than a stylised representation, especially as it contrasts markedly with the rest of the effigies.


    Giant and dwarf – the effigy attributed to Sir Philip de la Beche


Aldworth church dominated by its effigies

Together these monuments dominate the church space and create a strong, exclusive sense of family history they could not achieve had they opted for a more prestigious burial location.IMG_2445   These tombs have suffered in two distinctive ways. Firstly, they represent Parliamentarian iconoclasms in the seventeenth century: the limbs of many of the effigies have been hacked off. and the whole or tops of heads too. Treated like peoples, the tombs have punished in a comparable fashion to traitors. Second, many have subsequent graffiti, particularly I noticed attracted (for reasons that are not clear) the male effigies. The graffiti is not arbitrary, but is added to respond to the physical form of the human body and the knightly clothing and armour. A further point in this regard is one memorial where the graffiti – deliberately or by happenstance – serves to gouge new eyes for the effigy…


Graffiti-covered and armless



Mostly armless



Graffiti-gouged eyes…


Note how the graffiti responds to the folds of the female effigy’s dress


The only intact female effigy at Aldworthy


Legless and partly armless

Grace Horsley Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy. Reproduced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Darling

Grace Horsley Darling (1815-42) is one of the Victorian era’s premier heroines and her story is well told by the website dedicated to her memory. Grace was born in a cottage next to St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, Northumberland.

She grew up a lighthouse keeper’s daughter upon Brownsman Island, one of the Farne Islands. Adept at sea and familiar with seabirds and island life, she then moved aged 10 into the newly built Longstone Lighthouse in 1825.

On 7th September 1838, she observed the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire and subsequently rowed with her father in a storm to their rescue. Grace was a young woman who lived a relatively isolated life who through her heroism became a worldwide early Victorian celebrity.

The Victorian obsession with this female celebrity (including fascination from clergy as well as laypeople) was replete with Christian spiritual allusions connecting her residence and acts and the deeds and habitations of the early saints Aidan and Cutbhert who inhabited the Farne Islands. Grace also embodied the adventurous romance of the sublime isolation and dangers of this maritime environment.

Yet the affinity for Grace manifest itself in the deeply, material and corporeal one desire to possess her body. People wrote fan mail to Grace, wished to kiss the paper and post it back, send locks of her hair, asking her to appear at public events as a ‘token’ and almost as an living saintly icon. People travelled to see her and there was a desire to have her act of bravery depicted by artists. Also, portraits of this lady were taken and widely distributed. Grace embodied the virtues of English Christian virginal womanhood. Whether it was the pressure of her fame alone, Grace died only four years later, aged only 26, on 20th October 1842. Perhaps she was hounded to an early grave by her public exposure; near her end she was fearful of imagined eyes watching her. Still, she was ultimately diagnosed with tuberculosis and died from that condition.

Grace Darling gravestone. After Wikimedia Commons. By Nicholas Jackson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Grace Darling gravestone. After Wikimedia Commons. By Nicholas Jackson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After death, Grace was doomed to be corporeally consumed by the public. Her funeral was public and widely attended, but her grave received a rather standard memorial as a family grave to herself, her mother and father, and other family members.

Yet soon after a more grand monument, a cenotaph, was constructed to her memory in the churchyard of St Aidan’s Church. Upon an elaborate canopied tomb-chest was a full-length effigy of Grace in simple gown with a coble’s oar lain on her right shoulder. As such Grace was afforded an aristocratic neo-Gothic memorial of comparable scale to those of aristocrats and bishops within contemporary cathedrals.

Yet her memorialisation has an interesting biography. For the Portland stone rapidly weathered in the open-air with views over the North Sea and it was brought inside St Aidan’s church and situated in the north aisle of the nave in the 1880s. A modern sign adjacent to it implores the visitor to pray for the souls of sailors and seafarers alike. Adjacent to this memorial is a small floor plaque marking the burial spot in 1903 of her relative and namesake Grace Horsley Kidd (born Darling).

By Nicholas Jackson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

St Cutbhert’s chapel memorial. By Nicholas Jackson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The extramural cenotaph was this replaced in 1885 by a new effigy upon the original chest tomb. The canopy was soon replaced as well, having been damaged in a storm in 1893.

The detail of the memorial is interesting. In addition to the presence of her oar over her right shoulder, she sleeps on a mattress that itself is upon kelp.

So Grace’s memorialisation was distributed between three loci: her grave, her extramural cenotaph and her intramural cenotoph. Both cenotaphs contain effigies of her with oars.

Further memorials proliferated. A stained glass window in the church beatifies her once again, and again she is depicted with a single oar. A memorial was established for her at St Cuthbert’s Chapel with a poem honouring her valiant deeds in the face of the stormy seas.


The RNLI Grace Darling Museum opposite St Aidan’s Church

Grace has been memorialised in song, in art and also in the landscape of Northumberland sea rescue. The Seahouses lifeboat is called ‘Grace Darling’ and the RNLI Grace Darling museum is opposite St Aidan’s church, adjacent to the cottage in which she was born.

Yet despite this proliferation of memorial media, it is clearly her female body, through representation, that is the focus of popular desire and binds together disparate memorial projects.

My archaeodeath perspective sees this as:

(a) a classic example of how the dead don’t bury (or memorialise) themselves, and this particular young lady’s memory and reputation was utterly public and completely controlled and suppressed by the cultural ideal into which she was embedded. Both as a celebrity in life, and subsequently after death was a process of ‘dying into’ a form of secular sainthood as Christian heroine.

(b) a fascinating case of the distribution of social memory through a nexus of materials, spaces and places, in which multiple memorials within and without the church form a focus. Here, tombs operate because of their connections, planned or accrued, rather than their singular statements and subjects.


The Grace Darling monument in the churchyard of St Aidan’s church, Bamburgh.

(c) this is an intriguing instance where, to honour a working-class heroic woman, early Victorian commemoration goes way back to medieval sainthood and depicts her with a token of her identity as rescuer and seafarer: the oar. Here, the oar is not literally the object of her martyrdom, but it is a symbol, a visual grave-good, of her singularly saintly and heroic identity in facing the raging storm to save the lives of those in distress.

So the pun of the title is not completely misplaced here. Grace Darling’s body and sexuality is central to her commemorated identity and its public consumption. For this commemorative representation, the oar as physical object is perhaps a symbol of the virtues envisaged in her female form and her deeds. Very much against her will, she was straight-jacketed rapidly and tightly into a female stereotype that she couldn’t escape even in death.

Below are images of the intramural and extramural monuments honouring the life of Grace Horsley Darling. IMG_3801 IMG_3800 IMG_3798 IMG_3795 IMG_3793 IMG_3791 IMG_3785 IMG_3782 IMG_3700 IMG_3714 IMG_3712 IMG_3710 IMG_3708 IMG_3707

This is my fourth and final comment about a short visit to Lindisfarne. The principal reason for my visit was to view the early medieval stone sculpture in the visitor centre and priory. Strip away the archaeological excavations elsewhere on Holy Island, strip away the historical record, the vast majority of the material evidence that this had been an important monastic foundation of the seventh to ninth centuries AD comes from the collection of Anglo-Saxon sculpted stones discovered in and around the priory. It is a fabulous and varied collection as one might expect. I have already mentioned the Petting Stone. In the priory itself is a cross-base with serpentine crosses on its front.

IMG_4017 IMG_4016 IMG_4015

The rest of the sculpture on display is in the English Heritage visitor centre attached to the priory. I have already discussed the stone depicting warriors upon it, a possible gravestone with apocalyptic scenes.

IMG_3850 IMG_3846


The exhibition does a good job of communicating the potential wide range of functions that these fragments of stones might have once possessed, displaying the fragments themselves in categories like: ‘focal point of worship inside’,  ‘marking a well’, ‘market cross’, ‘boundary stone’, ‘grave cover’ and so on.  There is suitable text and (in most cases) adequate lighting although it is disappointing that the stones have to be bound around with metal wire to hold them in place.

IMG_3888 IMG_3878IMG_3873IMG_3904IMG_3893

Unfortunately, many of the stones are ornamented on two, three or more faces, and so many stones cannot be fully viewed. A few are placed in centrally placed display cases, or else mirrors are utilised to help the visitor appreciate the front and back of some stones. Yet for others it is evident that a choice has been made regarding which side to show and which not to show.


The artwork helps the visitor a great deal to place these crosses into a context of human society and landscape context, even if much of this is informed speculation.IMG_3892 IMG_3891

IMG_3923 IMG_3922 IMG_3921 IMG_3920

Name Stones

The collection of name stones are far smaller but far more impressive. Similar stones are known from other Northumbrian monasteries. Their scale fascinated me, for while some might plausibly be gravestones, some are so small I simply cannot envisage their function in this regard. There is a view of the name stones as apocalyptic grave-goods buried with the dead, and I think this interpretation makes far more sense of their scale and detail.IMG_3913 IMG_3919 IMG_3916 IMG_3915IMG_3869IMG_3859

Here we find another strategy for display is a display case with two replicas of the Osgyth and Beannah stones, painted in striking colours informed by X-ray fluorescence of the stones: a white base was covered with red, green and black. For me, this was particularly informative, since it made me wonder how much these stones would resemble caskets and book-covers.

IMG_3944 IMG_3941 IMG_3939 IMG_3937 IMG_3932

I hope these photographs and brief text encourage you to visit Lindisfarne and enjoy the exhibition and priory yourself.