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!

IMG_8793IMG_8810 IMG_8798IMG_8826IMG_8803

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


View of the abbey ruins from the lakeside path

Driving home from a trip to St David’s, Pembrokeshire, through horrible rain, I made a detour to see the ruins of the late-12th century Premonstratensian (White Canons) foundation of Talley Abbey, a Cadw operated site in Carmarthenshire. The site was fabulous in heavy rain and low clouds, most mysterious!

Founded by the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth between 1184-89, it was to be the only Welsh religious house of this order. Disputes with the Cistercian foundation of Whitland who forcibly ejected the canons leading to a protracted dispute, and later the fall off in patronage following Edward I’s invasion of Wales created circumstances in which the plan for a large church was abandoned for one of reduced size and without a north aisle.  The Welsh language of the canons and their Welsh patrons, together with the isolated location might have also, collectively, had an impact on the abbey’s receipt of patronage. There were also accusations of loose living: those loose canons….

While relatively poor, the house remained supported by Welsh patrons and the Lord Rhys’ great-grandson Rhys Fychan was interred in the church in 1271.

Stephen W. Williams conducted excavations at the abbey in the late 19th century. Up until that time, the site was occupied by a farmhouse and homestead. Excavations revealed details of the building now on display, plus some indications of the fittings such as evidence of glazed windows from stained glass fragments.


Plan from the 1897 JBAA report


View from the lakeside of ruins and church

Today, this is a splendid ruin, partly the product of the 19th-century ‘excavation’, it comprises mainly the church and part of the cloister. Built following the Cistercian plan, key notable elements including the crossing tower and the transepts, three chapels in each. The setting is between two lakes in a sheltered valley, fitting both religious ideals and the needs of the monastic economy. The site has new bilingual heritage boards.


The Cadw heritage board – I like the photos!


View of the crossing tower from the NE


View of the crossing tower from the NW


Williams’ 19th-century section through the abbey; note the depiction of a loose canon!

Displaying Loose Living?

For the ruins themselves, Williams also noted not only the reduction in size of the original church, but also the move from freestone to local stone. Cadw differentiate between the ruins of the incomplete large church designed in the 12th century and the smaller church as completed: the area of the latter marked with shingle as oppose to grass. In this way, the visitor gets to imagine on two levels, what had been and what was planned to have been…. Whatever the precise reasons for the failure to complete, it amuses me to wonder whether this is archaeological evidence of loose living.


The second Cadw board, explaining the reduced size of the church compared to the aspiration of an original, longer and broader nave.


View of ruins from W showing the memorial slab that Rees might be referring to when she states that the reburied medieval burials were memorials by a ‘plinth’.

Reburying Canons or Patrons?

As mentioned above, the church would have contained burials of patrons as well as canons. Williams’ reports make no mention of finding graves, but Sian Rees mentions the discovery of lead-lined graves. The Cadw guidebook makes me reference to these.

Burials may have persisted since, following the dissolution, the canon’s church was converted to serve as a parish church until 1772 when the present church was built to the north utilising the ruins for convenient stone.

Rees mentions that the medieval skeletons recovered were reburied beneath a plinth in the nave. I think she might mean the two grave-slabs which I had taken to be relics of when this had remained a parish church. I couldn’t adequately discern the text on these slabs but they do indeed appear late 19th century rather than 17th/18th century. If so, these are early examples of archaeological memorials to the reburied dead.


I couldn’t make out the text: is this a gravestone or a reburial memorial?


The ruins loom over the graves of the more recently dead, affording a sense of distinction and continuity to the churchyard as a place of burial. These three images make my point:




There were many fabulous dimensions to the church including:

  • Some distinctive memorial types I hadn’t encountered before, in the Gothic style.
  • Some superb restored late 19th and early 20th-century memorials, still in use/brought back into use by the same family with additional names augmenting the original.
  • A war memorial situated outside the western entrance to the church
  • I was particularly struck by arrangements of graves paired with benches on the north-eastern boundary of the churchyard.
  • As always, I was struck by how displaced gravestones are displayed, as discussed in a previous blog for Dyserth churchyard.

Graves and the lake beyond


Two recent graves and a bench commemorating the nearer memorial’s occupant


Fabulous Victorian memorials


Ivory-covered Victorian memorial


Fallen berries


Dislocated gravestones displayed along the inside of the southern churchyard wall


Urn on grave-slab


The war memorial


Pratt, C. and Robinson, D.M. 1992. Strata Florida Abbey. Talley Abbey. Cardiff: Cadw.

Rees, S. 1992. Dyfed: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales, Cardiff: Cadw.

Williams, S. W. 1893. Excavations at Talley Abbey, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 49: 34-44.

Williams, S.W and Taylor, H. 1897. Excavations at Talley Abbey, Archaeologia Cambrensis i5th Series, XIV: 229-47.


Face c, top

IMG_7780Recently I visited Bewcastle church, now in Cumbria and historically in Cumberland. Situated in a remote corner of the English north-west close to the Scottish border, this was the site of a Roman fort, Anglo-Saxon monastery, medieval castle and church. Historically, it is situated on important land routes and so its remoteness today is (partly at least) deceptive.

As an early medievalist, I am aware of Bewcastle first and foremost for its famous for a collection of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture. The most prominent of which is the Bewcastle Cross (Bewcastle 1). The survival of such a remarkably fine piece of eighth-century sculpture might be taken to indicate the status of the site, but perhaps also the geographical distance of the monument from centres of Norman power and early modern puritanical iconoclasm.

The literature on the Bewcastle Cross is extensive. Here, I want to simply write a blog that introduces the reader to the key salient features and follow it up with some preliminary thoughts. I do this because (a) I visited and (b) I am thinking about it. No promises, no research project, just thinking. Obviously thoughts that are clear and insightful, possibly even pure genius, but just thoughts nonetheless.

Where is the cross located? The monument is thought to be in its original position to the south of a church that may overlie a pre-Conquest predecessor. In this position,  it would have been prominently situated for anyone approaching through the entrance of the Roman fort from the south.

It is presumed to have once been a cross although it only survives as a cross-shaft. There is a debate about this that goes beyond the evidence to the paradigms and approaches we take to early medieval sculpture. Still, despite the lack of evidence either way, I think this remains the most likely scenario to regard the monument as a cross-shaft.


Face B, south

Details can be read on the website of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Furthermore, Cramp has already written extensively summarising the interpretation of the monument here. Its precise date is uncertain, but it might plausibly be seen as a royal commemorative monument, possibly made by craftsmen from the Jarrow workshop and working in the same generation as the equally famous Ruthwell monument.

IMG_7865West Broad Face (A)

The west face might be regarded as the monument’s ‘front’, with three human figures identified as St John the Baptist, Christ in the Desert (standing on two beasts whose paws are crossed) and a secular portrait of a man holding a rod or stick with a hawk or eagle. A panel of runic text is situated above the portrait and below Christ. While there are other runic inscriptions, this fragmentary and hence unclear main panel, above the portrait, has been taken to be a commemorative text, honouring the dead person depicted below.


West face (A)

East Broad Face (C) 

The opposite face to the human figures is taken up with ‘inhabited vinescroll': a series of birds gnawing at grapes within scrolls of vine stem.

South Narrow Face (B)

There are possible runes at the very top, then a panel of interlace, below which is a plant trail inset into which is a sundial. Below this is another panel of interlace and then complex medallion scrollwork and finally a third panel of interlace at the very bottom.


Faces B (south-facing with sundial) and C (east-facing with inhabited vinescroll)

North Face (D)

This face is least worn but difficult to see with a bright sun. There is a complex plant trail, below which is an interlace panel and then a chequer panel. Below these is a panel of interlace and then medallion plant scroll.


Face D (north facing)


Faces A and D

I don’t want to wade into the detailed iconographic debates about this monument but I do have some thoughts.

Archaeodeath Musing 1: Context

What strikes me about this monument is that it is unquestionably mortuary dimension, and yet I cannot simply imagine it operating as a grave-marker. It is therefore commemorative, but potentially a cenotaph, memorialising individuals living and dead who reside elsewhere close by in a mausoleum or grave, or perhaps at another locale in the ecclesiastical landscape. As Cramp notes, we cannot be sure that just because it is in a churchyard now, this was the original context; the graves are all post-medieval now and this needn’t be part of the minster burial ground.

Archaeodeath Musing 2: Time

Whatever its precise function, I would suggest that this is a monument intended to be engaged with during processions, to be walked around, looked up at, and interacted with during ceremonies, as well as serving to mark time during the routines of daily religious life and the passing of the seasons. The vegetal art also might be seen as part of this temporal, seasonal dimension.

The key thing about the monument is that it each side is distinct; as Rosemary Cramp observes, this is only matched at one other site in the historic kingdom of Northumbria: the cross from Easby. Indeed, it is a monument that cries out for isolation, at least in immediate terms of proximity. Otherwise, some of its sides might not apprehended let alone engaged with.

Furthermore, this distinctive quality makes us question whether it really does have a ‘front’ and ‘back’ but arguably three (possibly four) ‘fronts’. As such, it is a marker of time and space for those moving around it, and as a sundial, it marks the passage of the day and perhaps also the seasons. It is a monument for all seasons.

Archaeodeath Musing 3: Birds and Air

The third thing I want to say about the Bewcastle monument is that it has many aerial and avian themes. I am not only referring to the inhabited vinescroll and the portrait of a man with hawk in hand; so that both sides of the monument are bestowed with contrasting avian representations. In addition, the sundial that frames both of these avian representations takes us to another aerial theme of the sun’s passage. Linked together, the inhabited vinescroll involves vegetation full of birds, eating, chattering and awaking from the night with the breaking of the dawn in the east. As the sun passes through the sky, the portrait with his hawk is lit. Was there a link here to the time of the day and this activity? It seems to me that ascent and descent and the passage of the sun are key to understanding this monument. It makes me mused whether it is accurate and helpful to regard the male figure with a bird as a ‘portrait’ as such. Rather than a self-contained representation of a living or dead royal, is it instead part of an interplay with other scenes concerning ascension and other aerial themes?

IMG_64216 Lichfield - girlsFrom Tuesday 21st October to Sunday 26th October 2014 in the south transept of Chester Cathedral is an exciting display about the commemoration of the dead from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The exhibition is an opportunity to learn about memorials and tombs across England and Wales, but also to look again at Chester  Cathedral’s memorials with fresh eyes.

Involving researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Chester – Naomi Howell, Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Ruth Nugent, Philip Schwyzer and Howard Williams – the exhibition explores the long-term evolving relationships between the living and the dead in cathedral spaces.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the Speaking with the Dead is a component of the ERC-funded Past in its Place project in which a range of researchers at Exeter and Chester explore archaeological, literary, historical and geographical dimensions to the long term relationships between tombs, places and landscapes and social memory.

Chester Cathedral is now free to enter and so the exhibition is open to all.

Previously, the exhibition was held at Exeter and St Albans and principal investigator Professor Philip Schwyzer has previously posted about the Exeter exhibition here. 

11 The Lord RhysPrevious blog entires about the project include:


Bewcastle, Cumbria

Recently I had the luck to visit Bewcastle in Cumbria, a fabulous borders location in the wild back-roads north of Hadrian’s Wall. Previously, I have written about the fabulous t-shirt and mug I purchased from the church here.

IMG_8019Bewcastle is famous for its Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft or pillar (indicative of a minster church from at least the eighth century AD) located south of the church. Monument and church are both situated within the surviving earthworks of a polygonal Roman fort. Here I want to blog about the surviving medieval fortification: Bewcastle Castle to the north of the church and utilising the NE corner of the Roman defences.


The castle’s interior with heritage board at its centre

Originally thought to date to the 12th century, and said to have been destroyed by the Scots (presumably a timber structure?) in 1327, much of what  you see are curtain walls likely to date to the mid-14th century. It was first mentioned in 1378. The walls survive best on the south and the west.


The south curtain wall and rear side of the western gatehouse

The castle was briefly captured by the Scots in the early 15th century and declined into the early 16th century. It is unclear from the heritage board when precisely the western gatehouse was added.

Bewcastle was briefly refortified by Royalists and destroyed by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War.

Through this duration, its strategic position guarding routes north from Carlisle made it a key node in persistent raids and conflicts down the centuries.


View from SW


Sign on approach to the castle

What is there? If you are visiting, the Roman fort, church, Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft (not pillar, sorry, I don’t buy that argument) and little museum are worth viewing together with the castle. To get to the castle, simply walk north from the church around the farm to the field.

Bewcastle Castle itself is a rectangular fortification surrounded by a moat. It is in a most ruinous state. There was a western rectangular gatehouse which survives to a degree, as do the south and west curtain walls.

These walls display fissures and the classic evidence of stone-robbing of ashlar blocks, thus under-cutting the outer wall-face. It is thought that the castle was built from the ruins of the Roman fortifications but no mention is made of diagnostically Roman sculpture.


Heritage board inside the castle

What is the visitor experience like? This site is managed by English Heritage. In addition to the small museum beside the church which has a display panel discussing the castle, the experience is straightforward and uncluttered. There is simply a kissing gate and two signs, both warning of the inability to ensure adequate wheelchair access. There is a single heritage board inside the castle itself. Oh yes, and there was a warning sign: do not climb on the stonework!


Museum display panel

The joy of this simplicity! With a kid in tow, particular dimensions of this pleasure included being able to forego a gift shop, financial investment of an entrance fee, but also the condescension from on-site personnel (most people are really nice at castles, but I am getting worn down by running the gauntlet of a patronising minority of employees of heritage sites: castes, abbeys and the rest.


It says what it means

What beasts did we meet? I’m glad you asked! Distinctively, the site is patrolled by  many birds and beasts. On our visit, it was guarded by sheep, chickens, ducks and… llamas. The llamas seemed very wary of us and we kept our distance, with one of their number repeatedly peaking over the ramparts to check on our perambulation. Still, they added a new world vibe to this ancient locale in the British landscape.


Llama patrol


Wary llama


Duck! Castle!


Fowl castle


Tobias meeting sheep on the approach to the castle

There was no particular archaeodeath theme about this visit. For me, castles are pleasure, not work as such. Still the castle is situated on a site that for military and symbolic reasons, was a powerful locale over the longue duree in the British landscape.


The western gatehouse looking out