Obelisk set in roadside village to the west of Angle church, now surrounded by a children’s playground


Robin and obelisk, Angle

The standard histories of Victorian death, burial and commemoration revolve around the emergence of garden cemeteries from the existing tradition of aristocratic mausolea in designed landscapes, and subsequently the rise of cremation, the commemoration of royalty and the urban middle and upper classes. James Curl’s The Victorian Celebration of Death sets a high standard in this regard.

However, while important in characterising the changing mourning and funerary cultures of the Victorian age, these new spaces and memorial forms repeatedly and somewhat unduly dominate historical narratives over the contemporaneous transformation of existing churchyards and graveyards in rural contexts. Equally under estimated are the memorials raised throughout the nineteenth-century in landscape and public locations away from cemeteries. The Victorian age saw the rise of the garden cemetery, but it also saw the rise of the cenotaph and the war memorial in town and country.

One relatively neglected dimension of Victorian necrogeography is the cenotaoph raised to memorialise the landed gentry by their tenants. I am unaware of any dedicated study of these more isolated funerary monuments raised in villages and hamlets to honour landlords. These monuments take typical forms of the Victorian age and readily identified in cemeteries, but they are distinct in being isolated. As such, they are immediate predecessors in form and location to the village war memorials of the First World War.


Kids exploring the obelisk

One such example is at Angle, Pembrokeshire, which at a superficial glance appeared to me to be an obelisk erected to commemorate the parish dead for the First World War memorial. Suspiciously old fashioned, I wondered then whether it was a memorial relating to the Boer War or another late Victorian conflict. I was wrong. So I explored more closely. In actual fact it is something else again. The inscription reads:











A.D. 1864.

Therefore, rather than a war memorial which it both resembles but palpably pre-dates, this memorial commemorates the chief landowner in the parish. As recently discussed on this blog for Paxton’s Tower, patriotic memorials to Wellington and Nelson punctuated the early and mid-19th-century British landscape. Equally, there are a large number of relatively uninspiring, almost boring, and rather nauseatingly servile monuments like this one that naturally escape attention. Still, it is monuments like this that are a useful barometer for commemorative continuities and changes in rural Britain.




The exhibition in the south transept viewed from the crossing tower


Pearsons’ tomb from ground-level


Pearson’s tomb from above

A further advantage of being in Chester Cathedral this afternoon as part of the Speaking with the Dead exhibition was that I got a chance to take a tower tour. This was great fun and with an expert guide. In addition to a fabulous set of views of the cathedral building itself inside and out, there were mortuary dimensions as you might expect!

An archaeodeath advantage of the tower tour was a chance to view the exhibition during my ascent up the crossing tower of the cathedral; our large display boards are dwarfed by the space of the south transept. This is a good thing; since our displays do not impede movement around the space or access to the tombs, memorials and chapels.

I also got a different take on cathedral tombs and memorials during my ascent. It allowed me to look down upon the Victorian memorial to the 17th century bishop and theologian Pearson, situated in the north transept. I include here views of this monument from the ground as experienced by the visitor and worshipper, and the striking view as seen from above, a more exclusive gaze onto the memorialised dead.

Also, it was fascinating to see mural monuments from above, as I did at Birmingham Cathedral. They seem so high from below, but again, their scale and design do not operate from the distances and height of the tower. Perhaps an obvious point, but one that reminds us of the careful consideration for scales and angles involved when these monuments were designed and located (or relocated as in many instances).

Furthermore and conversely, it was an opportunity to see some of the Victorian memorial stained glass up close as well; text intended to be seen from down below. There was also historic graffiti on the walks up to the tower; another commemorative dimension as discussed at Coventry Cathedral.

I also got a chance to see the bells – a commemorative material culture in their own right – and a commemoration of their first ringing in modern times.

On the outside, I got to view down onto the cloister garth – itself a commemorative space. Further afield, I got to view out over the city from the vantage point of the tower and in very high winds to my home in North Wales!

A further form of commemoration is encouraged by Chester Cathedral: tower selfies. My selfie was a bit naff since I angled it too high and blotted out the view, still, here it is.


Roman columns reused in the Romanesque architecture of the Norman cathedral


IMG_20141021_160841 Memorial stained glass, seen up close


Memorial stained glass


Another commemorative dimension: bells names


medieval tombs, stained glass windows, memorial trees and plaques: the memorial space of Chester Cathedral cloister garth and walks


the cathedral’s largest bell


View from Chester Cathedral tower towards my home in North Wales


View from Chester Cathedral Tower


My tower selfie



With mural monuments behind, here is the principal banner for the exhibition


We have been attentive to positioning our displays to frame tombs and memorial chapels


The Speaking with the Dead exhibition in the south transept of Chester Cathedral

Having spent a morning with Ruth and Paty setting up posters and our table, I spent this afternoon in Chester Cathedral talking to visitors to the Speaking with the Dead exhibition. I won’t be there every day, but it has been fascinating to watch people reading the displays and asking about the project and the website and where they can find out more about our project, including staff of the cathedral itself.

I have learned a great deal about the interest in the tombs and memorials and how they are a complex, almost bewildering and challenging assemblage for any visitor as well as those working and worshipping regularly within the cathedral church. I ended up being led off to view and interpret other memorials and engage with a range of questions about death, burial, commemoration in cathedrals from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Remember to visit before Sunday 26th October!



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Lacey’s tomb, Exeter Cathedral


Lacey’s tomb

Bishop of Exeter, Edmund Lacey died in 1455 at his episcopal palace at Chudleigh and was buried ‘in the north wall of the choir of his own church’. Following his death, miracles happened at his tomb, attracting pilgrims. Clearly this was a cult of saints in the making cut short by the Reformation. He may have had his own pilgrim’s badge.

As part of our exhibition – Speaking with the Dead - at the Chester Cathedral until this Sunday, we have some replica artefacts on display found concealed within Lacey’s tomb. These are fascinating fifteenth-century ex votos wax images found in Exeter Cathedral in September 1943 and reported on in the Antiquaries Journal vol. 29 in 1949.

These replicas are not valuable but are a means of complementing the poster displays and giving visitors something to handle and think about acts of medieval devotion at tombs in cathedrals.


Our display of the Exeter (replica) wax votives in Chester Cathedral

They were found during repair work following the May 1942 air raid in which the cathedral received significant damage. They had been concealed in a wide open joint of the masonry behind the cresting of the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey.

The wax artefacts were found together with splinters of stone, oyster shells, slaked lime and broken pieces of glass. They were clearly cast in moulds and there was no sign of painting. They were also string and some had holes, suggesting that these were for suspension from the railing enclosing the tomb. Perhaps these were suspended from the tomb and then tidied away are regular intervals, with some, for reasons unknown, hidden in this crevice. They comprised of:

  • horned cattle
  • pigs
  • horses
  • arms
  • legs
  • heads
  • hands
  • fingers
  • rings
  • feet (bare)
  • a foot in a pointed shoe
  • a complete female figure

Of equal interest to the project is how these have been written about. In her Antiquaries Journal article, Radford describes one of the female figures in the following evocative terms:

‘She stands on a base made by the fluting of her long skirt; her hands are joined piously over her buttoned bodice, her hair falls over her shoulders and is covered by a veil behind; as she leans graciously forward, her wide-open eyes have looked into the future for almost 500 years. Young, eager-faced men and old men with beards once kept her company; she has companions exactly like herself as well as two ladies in an elaborate Henry VII head-dress.’

Wax is a fabulous substance; at one level simply a cheap means of moulding and ‘mass-producing’ a portable three dimensional artefact. At another level, wax was key votive material with many sacred uses and associations. Its materiality is powerful. It is ephemeral yet enduring, soft and warm like the human body, its scent, being potentially moist and vibrant. I need to read more about medieval perceptions of wax as a material and associations with corporeality; any suggestions?


Another blog writing about these is here and Radford’s article can be found here.

Radford, U.M. 1949. The wax images found in Exeter Cathedral, Antiquaries Journal 29: 164-68

This morning Paty, Ruth and I set up the Speaking with the Dead exhibition in the south transept of Chester Cathedral. Previously, the exhibition had been on display at Exeter and St Alban’s cathedrals.

Exploring dimensions of the long-term uses and reuses of cathedral spaces for the commemoration of the dead, our exhibition is the work of our Leverhulme Trust funded project Speaking with the Dead. This is itself part of a broader project exploring the history of memory from interdisciplinary perspectives: The Past in its Place.

It was exciting to set it up and already see people reading the displays and combining this with detailed scrutiny of the memorials in the south transept. Like all poster-displays, we don’t expect people to read them all, but hope that some of what they read allows them to look afresh at the tombs within the cathedral space itself. Here are some pics of the opening stages.


The introduction to the exhibition


Our exhibition table where you can leave comments, with the Duke of Westminster’s effigy tomb behind.


Chester Cathedral’s south transept with the display boards and exhibition table


The life histories of effigies poster


Posters on saints and moving memorials


Posters on cremation in the cathedral and memories of destruction


Visitor looking at the exhibition


IMG_9537IMG_9543Neolithic dolmens are an iconic archaeological component of West Wales. This blog entry relates to one of them: Carreg Samson. I reluctantly tread into wild Neolithic territories in my blog, but I would like to comment briefly on this monument in general terms and invite Neolithic archaeologists to qualify and update my comments.

Anyway, let’s start by annoying Neolithic archaeologists who now are dogmatic in denying that these are ‘tombs’ and ‘burial chambers’, citing that burial was a ‘function’ that might be only one of many uses to these monuments. Yes, ok, but they do reveal mortuary remains (see below) where not disturbed. Moreover, the argument that they are as much about the living as the dead is certainly true but applied in a wrong-headed fashion if intended to imply that this denies a funerary association. I say this because tombs are always about the living as much as the dead so please get over yourselves on this point Neolithic bods! Whether primarily to commemorate dead individuals and groups (‘ancestors’) or serving other functions, these monuments were constructed in the 4th millennium BC across western Britain and Ireland and were unquestionably associated with mortuary practices.

IMG_9550Carreg Samson is named after a Welsh early medieval saint who apparently single-fingeredly (if that is a term, which it probably isn’t) balanced the capstone. Samson purportedly travelled in Cornwall, the Channel Islands and died in Brittany. The connections with the western seaways of Atlantic Europe, even if here legendary, does reflect real contacts known from the 5th to 7th centuries linking West Wales with Cornwall, Brittany and SW France and Iberia. The antiquity of this association remains unclear although I welcome any views. The maritime location is, however, indicative of Christian medieval and modern communities well-versed in contacts with western Europe and throughout the Irish Sea zone.

Carreg Samson is served by popular websites of megalith enthusiasts: the Megalithic Portal, the Modern Antiquarian and Landscape Perception.

The locations of megaliths have been much discussed by archaeologists, including their relationship with seascapes, mountains and rock outcrops including the work of Chris Tilley, George Nash, Vicki Cummings and Alisdair Whittle. Within the tradition of semiotic and phenemenological archaeologies, Neolithic dolmens such as Carreg Samson have received sustained attention over the last two decades. Located on sloping land overlooking Abercastle harbour, the monument enjoys a situation with views over land, sea and land beyond (Strumble Head). George Nash has postulated a Neolithic linearity to the monuments on Strumble Head of which Carreg Samson might relate to this.

IMG_9540It is generally presumed that most or all of the stones were originally covered with stone cairns, subsequently robbed away revealed the uprights. If so what we see today of these monuments is a ‘skeletal’ core with the ‘flesh’ and ‘skin’ of the monument robbed away. See here for a recent CGI reconstruction of Pentre Ifan to afford an idea of how Carreg Samson may once have looked. Therefore, we are very much looking at only elements of a larger monument, and elements that may have only been partly visible on completion of the monuments in the Neolithic and via firelight within confined dark or semi-dark spaces.

IMG_9563Carreg Samson comprises of six upright stones and a vast capstone over a chamber of 2m in height and 3.5m by 1.7m in area. Its composition is understood through excavations by the great Frances Lynch who identified the location of a seventh upright stone and a pairing of stones either side of a NW passage used to enter into the monument.  Cummings et al. have discussed the careful deployment of asymmetry in these monuments in terms of both composition and location, and this certainly applies to the Carreg Samson monument.Carreg Samson’s composition involves some contrasting geologies, which Vicki Cummings has argued might be deliberate juxtapositions. Certainly, the veins of quartz in some stones and their contrasting shapes and sizes made each stone unique and distinct. Furthermore, the entire monument was situated in a pit, suggesting that a natural erratic was raised up on its original position to create the burial chamber. This site was associated with a Neolithic bowl and traces of cremation practices.

IMG_9560I visited the site multiple times with students and archaeologists over a decade again, so it was good to be back again. The site is largely unchanged since my earlier visits. However, on a wild and windy day, my kids sheltered only briefly among the stones before we retreated back to the warmth of the car. Still, the approach gives a fine sense of the Strumble as backdrop. Moreover, from the SE and E, the monument reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld character: The Luggage’. I half-expected Carreg Samson to scuttle off seaward….


Dinefwr Castle, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire: a site of potential death and disaster for any visitor

I have a particular fascination with photographing ruins. While doing so, I cannot help but take snaps of all the heritage boards. I do this as an aide memoire but also as a visual souvenir of my visit and because the images and text are heritage artefacts in their own right. Sometimes they are even a useful for teaching archaeology and heritage, revealing contemporary approaches and interpretations and sometimes fossilising ideas and interpretations of monuments that are decades old.

I confess I also photograph  warning signs of death and disaster at heritage sites; even if it is the same sign I have seen elsewhere, I MUST photograph each one. It is the mortuary trainspotter in me. This is all pretty sad stuff.

Still, they are obviously part of the visitor experience, punctuating engagement with the ruins. Sometimes they are there to be heeded, other times to be ignored. What is equally interesting is that there are no signs for some of the other hazards –  heritage sites don’t seem to have a warning sign for falling off battlements for example or warning of steep slopes that might be a hazard to pushchair and wheelchair users. Nettles are also no hazard it seems. It is main slipping and cracking heads on stone that are their principal concerns.

I wonder if this will change in the future? I would be happy to work up some further designs for them. After all, there are still some surfaces of their protected ruins yet to be plastered with warning signs and new hazards must be created and signs fixed.

Cadw have a fabulous range to warn visitors of the dangers of visiting their sites and monuments but I don’t think I have ever before seen them all utilised at the same site. A recent visit to Dinefwr Castle, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, prompts me to claim that I might have ‘spotted’ most of them! Lucky me! Well, it is certainly a good collection! Here is what I found. Note the different patinas, fixing methods and subtle differences in the designs!

I sincerely hope no-one has visited Dinefwr and hurt themselves. I also sincerely hope these signs have prevented accidents. Particularly, I hope no-one has ever grazed an elbow or hit their head on a sign…. Still, I find them interesting also as a material record of our late 20th/early 21st-century culture of ruin-visiting and accidental avoidance. Health and safety folks!

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IMG_9722IMG_9730In order to operate as sites of memory, war memorials need to be seen and accessible for private visitors and public ceremonies. Some memorials are also situated with close attention to other locational factors, as well as what components of the landscape they look out over. The location of the Angle war memorial in Pembrokeshire is a palpable example. This blog relates to a recent visit and some notes on the landscape and biographical dimensions of this monument.

Land and Sea

There are a number of key dimensions to the monument’s location:

  • Like almost all war memorials outside churches and settlements, the memorial was afforded a roadside location. In this case the memorial is on the west side of the B4319 between Angle to Castlemartin to the north of Broomhill Burrows. Thus, the memorial was provided with an isolated but regularly traversed placement.
  • The site is immediately east of a gun emplacement, PRN 14355, consisting of five circular casemates and a rectangular building, suggested to date to the First World War and providing a significant defence of Freshwater West Bay. In one sense, the memorial ties itself into the traces of the conflict in the Pembrokeshire landscape, linked to land and sea although this might be simply coincidence. The Devil’s Quoit Neolithic dolmen isn’t far away but there is no precise association.
  • The monument is prominently skylined from Freshwater West Bay, and  affords to the visitor a striking vista southwards over dunes, beach and waves. The orientation of the memorial shares this view rather than looking towards the road, apposite for its role in commemorating soldiers and sailors.

When the decision is made to locate war memorials outside settlements in ‘landscape’ situations like this, it is important to think about the memorial’s design, texts and orientations as well as its vistas and spatial relationships with routes and existing military sites.

The Monument and its Biography

This is a fine monument. We are afforded a crucified Christ on top of an octagonal cross-shaft above a two-stepped base, all in a pinkish gritstone. The lowest step is designed as a step, meaning that the monument creates itself as a seat to view outwards from, as well as a focus for remembrance services. Christ therefore looks out to sea, following the orientation of the monument.

There are some biographical elements of note that reveal dimensions of the use of the memorial:

  • In addition to the original text, there are traces of contrasting patinas on the stone. I hazard a guess that these reveal the long-term locations of memorial wreaths.
  • There are two benches, one with a memorial plaque commemorating its pair of donors, one an engineering firm based in Pembroke Dock, the other Merry Men Films (presumably linked to the filming locations for the Russell Crowe flop Robin Hood)
  • The most recent memorial element appears to be a tiny plaque added to the green-painted wooden rail of the steps from the road, commemorating a local Royal British Legion parade marshal.
  • There are also contemporary wreaths and deposits of flowers south of the memorial indicating its ongoing use for private and public acts of commemoration. I cannot be sure, but I wonder if the space is being utilised for the disposal of ashes, either for those affiliated to the British Legion or simply because it is such a beautiful spot.

What the Angle First World War memorial reveals about monument biographies is that, even for memorials that are not augmented by plaques to subsequent conflicts, they can still hold biographies of use and reuse that leave both ephemeral and enduring material traces.


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IMG_8730Llandovery Castle was first mentioned in 1116. This was originally a Norman motte-and-bailey castle utilising a natural outcrop above the river Bran. Recaptured by the Welsh twice and remaining Welsh for over a century, it was taken by the Edward I in 1277. It fell to Llywelyn the Last in 1282 but came back under English control. The masonry that survives – a D-shaped tower and twin-towered gatehouse – dates to the late 13th century. The castle was besieged by Owain Glyndwr in 1403. Its later history of decline is obscure.




IMG_8688IMG_8708IMG_8704Having criticised a statue of Owain Glyndwr in Corwen in a recent blog, I want to use this blog to comment on the medievalism of a statue in Llandovery Castle’s bailey. I first visited it soon after completion c. 2001 in bright sunshine. After a decade it was interesting to come back and view Llandovery Castle in the mirk of a rainy early morning en route to Llandeilo and then St David’s.

Following a campaign that began in 1998, Toby and Gideon Petersen won a public competition to complete a statue to honour of the Carmarthenshire gentleman Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan who was drawn, hung, beheaded and quartered for his loyalty to Owain Glyndwr’s revolt.

16ft tall, this larger-than-life stainless steel carapace sits on a piece of rock brought from Caeo with his name fixed to the front: Caeo was where Llywelyn’s power was based. In stark contrast to the hyper-real statue of Glyndwr, this is an empty shell, allowing all manner of people to populate the armour. Moreover, the armour, spear, shield, brooch pin and torc are ludicrously anti-historical and drawn on pan-Celtic romanticism.

IMG_8693IMG_8711So this is a naive and grandiose piece of nationalist sculpture that creates a ‘Welsh braveheart’ figure of resistance to English oppression. Yes it is ridiculous, like a medieval Darth Vader.

Yet unlike the Glyndwr statue, and despite (or perhaps because) it is not attempting to be historically accurate, I have warmed to this statue over the last decade. In corporeal terms, it is a re-embodiment of the deceased, affording him with a new superhero stature and longevity, thus defying the execution that ripped Llywelyn’s body apart.

The statue’s power and presence are also difficult to dismiss because of its context. Through a corporeal shell, the statue foregrounds absence, making the visitor contemplate on the man who died a torturous death by the castle gates close by. Moreover, the statue creates a reinterpretation of the entire castle ruins, foregrounding the power and conflict the ruins embody and overlooking Llandovery’s principal bus-stop and car park.The statue is thus a powerful prompt for how to read the castle and the many complex stories and conflicts woven around it.

The statue allows us to contemplate the man himself but also the many different stories of loyalty, resistance, cruelty and punishment that Llywelyn’s story provokes. Consequently, I feel this statue has a power that takes it out of a narrow nationalist context and escapes the particulars of Llywelyn’s life and cause. Instead, this statue has a power for the specificity of the commemorated person and events, but also as a broader engagement with torture and execution in the human past. In doing so, art re-frames the narrative of the entire castle, redefining a ruinous space in a fashion that deserves our consideration and reflection.











Paxton’s Tower, Carmarthenshire from the south

On Pistyll Dewi Hill, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, is one of my favourite follies: Paxton’s Tower, otherwise known as Nelson’s Monument. Managed by the National Trust, this triangular ‘Gothick’ monument with three towers has three spiral staircases rising to a first-floor dining room. The towers continue but visitors can only ascend to this first floor. Originally the windows had stained glass, adding to the medieval aesthetic. The hexagonal prospect level above has corbelled machicolations


Entrance on ground-floor level


The banqueting hall windows


The National Trust sign

The monument was commissioned by Sir William Paxton of Middleton Hall and (like the hall itself) was designed by Samuel Pepys Cockerell and dates to c. 1805. The story goes that Paxton failed to be elected MPin 1802 by 45 votes and built the folly instead of the bridge he had promised to spite the electorate. However, this is as likely to be part of a landscape of elite hospitality, the folly utilised as a banqueting room for guests. Whether the primary motive or not, marble plaques once above the entrances stated the memorial function of the building: to commemorate the naval victories and death of Lord Nelson. These were in three languages: Welsh, English and Latin.

“To the invincible Commander, Viscount Nelson, in commemoration of the deeds before the walls of Copenhagen, and on the shores of Spain; of the empire every where maintained by him over the Seas; and of the death which in the fulness of his own glory, though ultimately for his own country and for Europe, conquering, he died; this tower was erected by William Paxton.”

Paxton’s Tower is therefore, in part, a mortuary monument: a cenotaph. As such the monument fits a pattern of ‘patriotic’ memorialisation in the late 18th and early 19th-century British landscape. Follies were not ‘follies’, they were statements of power, privilege, entertainment and patriotism.

Austin and Thomas (2012) have recently explored the landscape history of the Middleton Hall estate in some detail, showing its rise to prominence from the 17th century to William Paxton’s take-over of the estate. What they do not address is the relationship between that estate and Paxton’s Tower.


Paxton’s Tower


Today, the folly is set within an irregular hexagonal fenceline. Historically it sat within a slightly larger oval earthwork enclosure. The earthwork can still be visible from Google Earth and on the ground, marking a change in the inclination of the hill-slope. What date is this? The Archwilio and other online discussions of the monument give no details about this feature.

I speculate that this would have originally defined and protected the folly from livestock and presumably from unwanted visitors. Equally though, I wonder whether the hill-top has older origins and the visible earthwork boundary re-defines an earlier prehistoric enclosure? If so, might this have been a component in the choice of monument’s location, embedding Nelson’s monument into a far more ancient landscape?


The earthwork enclosure around the hill-top


The old earthwork runs in front of the modern fenceline


As stated above, above the first-floor triangular banqueting hall is a hexagonal prospect room with roof terraces. Apprehending vistas were clearly central to the social utility of the folly. Indeed, the panorama from Paxton’s Tower is phenomenal. Views southwards are more restricted; the hill is a distinctive knoll upon a larger hill on the northern edge of the Middleton estate and was clearly intended for walks from the great house to afford views northwards. Indeed, it is the beautiful vista over the Tywi valley, and conversely the fact that Paxton’s Tower is skylined for large tracts of the valley, that define the folly’s significance.

More specifically, one acquires striking views over two dramatic sets of ruins: the castles of Dryslwyn and Dinefwr. As such the medieval allusions of the folly’s architecture resonate with the ruins they look towards in no uncertain terms and provide a distinctive dimension to the social memories concocted from the tower for Paxton as much as for Nelson.


Paxton’s Tower from Dryslwyn Castle


Dryslwyn Castle in the valley below Paxton’s Tower


Dinefwr Castle in the distance


Austin, D. and Thomas, R. 2012. A garden before the Garden: landscape, history and the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Landscapes 12, 1: 32-56