In an earlier blog postings here and here, I discussed a session I co-organised at the 2012 European Association for Archaeologists conference in Helsinki, Finland with Jessica Cerezo-Roman (University of Arizona) and Anna Wessman (University of Helsinki). After one-and-half years of hard work has gone by and I am delighted to post that following rigorous peer-review and editing, we have now crafted a book from the proceedings. Below is an update of the contents: previously circulated versions have been revised, with the addition of two chapters (one I accidentally missed out of the previous post and one added to fill an important niche in the coverage of the book).

We have also got a new draft book title: Archaeologies of Cremation: Death and Fire in Europe’s Past (although the focus is European, we have two chapters that explore North American case studies).

Jessica has just submitted the draft manuscript on our behalf to an international academic publisher and we are eagerly awaiting their judgement. Here is the draft contents:

  1. Introduction: Archaeologies of Cremation by Howard Williams, Jessica I. Cerezo-Román, and Anna Wessman
  2.  Interpretation of Burned Human Remains: Lessons from Modern Forensic Case by Douglas H. Ubelaker
  3. Cremation and the Use of Fire in Mesolithic Mortuary Practices in North-West Europe by Amy Gray Jones
  4. The Emergence of Cremations in Eastern Fennoscandia: Changing Uses of Fire in Ritual Contexts by Jarkko Saipio
  5. Pathways for the Dead in the Middle and Late Bronze Age in Ireland by Gabriel Cooney
  6. Building the Bronze Age by Stone and Bone: The Handling of Cremated Remains in Late Bronze Age Sweden by Anna Röst
  7. Land of the Cremated Dead– on Cremation Practices in Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Scandinavia by Lise Harvig
  8. Rediscovering the Body: Cremation and Inhumation in Early Iron Age Central Europe by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury
  9. From Life to Death: Dynamics of Personhood in Gallo-Roman Funeral Customs, Luxemburg Province, Belgium by Jessica I. Cerezo-Román, Koen Deforce, Denis Henrotay and Wim Van Neer
  10. Come Rain or Shine? The Social Implications of Seasonality and Weather on the Cremation Rite in Early Anglo-Saxon England by Kirsty E. Squires
  11. Two of a Kind: Conceptual Similarities between Cremation and Inhumation in Early Anglo-Saxon England by Ruth Nugent
  12. Building for the Cremated Dead: Ephemeral and Cumulative Constructions by Anna Wessman and Howard Williams
  13. ‘Fiery Technology’ and Transformative Placemaking: A Contextual Examination of the Aztalan Site in Wisconsin by Lynne Goldstein
  14. The Contemporary Archaeology of Urban Cremation by Howard Williams and Anna Wessman



In a previous post I discussed an Amerind Seminar I attended and a forthcoming book project resulting from it, edited by Ian Kuijt, Colin P. Quinn and Gabriel Cooney. I am delighted to tell you that the book is now out and available for pre-order here. I have a paper in it about the relationship between cremation and inhumation practices in early Anglo-Saxon England. There are many great case studies from North American and European archaeology, as well as many fresh theoretical approaches and methodological debates. The flyer can be downloaded here:


This Easter Sunday I celebrated this news by wearing one of my Amerind t-shirts!


Ash, bone, and memories are all that remains after cremation. Yet for societies and communities, the act of cremation after death is highly symbolic, rich with complex meaning, touching on what it means to be human. In the process of transforming the dead, the family, the community, and society as a whole create and partake in cultural symbolism. Cremation is a key area of archaeological research, but its complexity has been underappreciated and undertheorized. Transformation by Fire offers a fresh assessment of archaeological research on this widespread social practice.

Editors Ian Kuijt, Colin P. Quinn, and Gabriel Cooney’s volume examines cremation by documenting the material signatures of cremation events and processes, as well as its transformative impact on social relations and concepts of the body. Indeed, examining why and how people chose to cremate their dead serves as an important means of understanding how people in the past dealt with death, the body, and the social world.

The contributors develop new perspectives on cremation as important mortuary practices and social transformations. Varying attitudes and beliefs on cremation and other forms of burial within the same cultural paradigm help us understand what constitutes the body and what occurs during its fiery transformation. In addition, they explore issues and interpretive perspectives in the archaeological study of cremation within and between different cultural contexts. The global and comparative perspectives on cremation render the book a unique contribution to the literature of anthropological and mortuary archaeology.

Editors’ Details

IAN KUIJT is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His interests include mortuary analysis, the forager–farmer transition, the ancient Near East, and Irish historical archaeology.

COLIN P. QUINN is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan, where he works at the Museum of Anthropology.

GABRIEL COONEY is the Professor of Celtic Archaeology in the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, Ireland. His research interests focus on Ireland in the wider European context and include early farming societies, particularly prehistoric use of stone and mortuary practices.

On Sunday, the Cambrian’s Easter conference saw three papers before the conference closed.

Bob Silvester:‘The Brute family and other country masons in 18th century Brecknock’.

Summarising many years of surveying church memorials – c. 900 memorials in total – in mid-Wales, Bob reveals the broader context in which the vivid and flambuoyant ‘Brutes’ created their memorial tradition during the eighteenth century. Looking systematically at so many churches on a regional scale, Bob has been able to explore the chronological and spatial evolution of the Brutes’ memorials alongside other competitors.

This talk was rich in detail and contained many points that deserve detailed consideration in approaching post-medieval memorials elsewhere, including the value of thinking about why memorials were signed by sculptors. Bob was of the opinion that the memorials were only signed where they could advertise the skills of the sculptor to new audiences: in churches close to their centre of work, or on memorials in ‘cul-de-sac’ locations, few are signed.

Another point well-made is that the sample suggests that the Brutes, and other leading sculptors, were not simply producing intramural monuments; there are examples where their graveyard memorials also survive. Furthermore, colour has survived adhering to both intra- and extramural memorials.

In social terms, these memorials are also important. None were for the aristocrats of the area and the knightly class. Instead, many were for squires and gentlemen. There were even examples memorialising yeoman farmers and artisans and their relatives. Bob cited examples of a blacksmith, carpenter, a cordwiner, a midwife, a weaver, a daughter of an innholder and a daughter of a shoemaker among his sample of memorials spanning the era from 1766 to 1820.

For the Brutes themselves, there were three generations of sculptors and plotting their distribution allowed Bob to show the increasingly restricted zone of their work in the face of stiff competition: with each generation the geographical distance for their work decreased from 20 miles, to 10 miles to 9 miles from their workshop in Llanbedr.

Bob’s talk was also interesting in revealing the consistent failings of some sculptures, such as Aaron Brute’s spelling errors and inability to set out text. In further instances, the attentiont decoration gave no room for the deceased’s name! In one further case, the sculpture Giles Duke put so much effort in advertising his work, that his name in capitals out-sizes the name of the memorial subject: the name of the three-year-old daughter of one M. Williams of Sharpal. I find it hard to believe that nothing more than ‘words were said’ about this to the mason, because a subsequent memorial commissioned by Williams from Duke omits the mason’s name completely!

Me on the Pillar of Eliseg

Next came me, talking about the Pillar of Eliseg. You can read about that here. All I would add is that I got a generous introduction by Sian Rees and some serious, important and challenging questions from the audience regarding our work on Project Eliseg.


Richard Haslam – ‘Renaissance tomb sculpture – an introduction to the Myddleton monuments at Chirk’

Finally, last but not least was the superb Richard Haslam who outlined eloquently the wider context within which local Welsh aristocrats, like those that were his focus – the Myddletons of Chirk – experienced and engaged with the Italianate tomb designs that arose from the Renaissance. As well as sculptors visiting, living and working in Italy and other European destinations, London was itself a focus of inspiration for the regions. The use of Latin was argued to be not simply exclusive, but a useful lingua Franca in memorial expression.

DSCN9501The expressive language of the human figure was another focus of Richard’s talk, using the memorials in St Mary’s Chirk as a focus. The striking depicting of standing and reposed figures, staring out at the audience, created a form of memorial theatre within church space, demanding attention and engagement, and overtly secular themes within the chancel of the religious space.

DSCN9531Richard focused on the pairing of memorials conceived together at Chirk, both sharing baroque allusion of curtains drawn aside to reveal the images and text, including the emotive depiction of a young lady suckling her infant.

Summing Up

Sadly, I missed some of the conference: I neither saw Rhianydd Biebrach’s talk on ‘ Effigies of Bishops in south Wales ‘ nor Andrew Richardson’s talk on ‘The Architecture of Commemoration’ focusing on Anglesey in the 14th century. I also missed the opportunity to go around Llangollen church and St Mary’s Chirk with the Cambrians.

Still, I must say I was thoroughly delighted and honoured to have been invited by the organisers to attend, serve as a guide when visiting the Pillar of Eliseg, and have the opportunity to present on that topic. I want to conclude these reports on the Cambrian’s Easter Conference by thanking the organisers and honouring the great Lawrence Butler who envisioned the 2014 conference to focus on church monuments.

I have now decided, inspired by the great talks, fine company and tasty food, to join the Cambrian Archaeological Association. Yes, I am now a Cambrian!

Having explored Corwen churchyard and its two early medieval monuments, the Cambrians went inside to explore its memorial delights. There was a possible twelfth century font, some fabulous eighteenth-century urns, one with a terrifyingly large-headed cherub upon it. Moira and Brian Gittos also gave us a detailed introduction to the one medieval monument: a ‘semi-effigial’ memorial to a priest. For this posts, pictures say far more than words, so please feast your eyes on the Corwen memorial delights!

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The Cambrian Archaeological Association Easter Conference on ‘Church Monuments in Wales’ visited Corwen on Saturday afternoon, and got to see two early medieval stones in the churchyard. These are both catalogued by Professor Nancy Edwards in her A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III North Wales and these comments derived from her research. But first, let’s discuss a weird stone in the church porch wall…


Corwen cross-shaft with Corwen College behind


MR 3

In the exterior west-wall of the south porch of the church is an intriguing shard of stone, that might just possibly be a reused prehistoric standing stone or early medieval monument.


Intriguing stone in porch wall

MR 3 is built into the exterior south side of the chancel where it has been positioned since the Victorian restoration. Before then it was above the church door. Made of local stone (Silurian Siltstone) it is a rectangular pillar with a linear Latin cross. The folklore is that this was the imprint of Owain Glyndwr’s dagger or sword. It is thought to be 7th to 9th century in date. This monument was difficult to view through the grill protecting the church’s heating system; not conducive to a group visit, but the Cambrians all got a look.

MR 7 is a cross shaft and base that bears some similarities to the Pillar of Eliseg. The base is circular, the shaft is quadrangular in section and tapers towards a projecting collar at the top, scalloped on the lower edge. The collar has interlace and plait decoration. The shaft is bear but for a cross on side C and some possible lightly incised runes on side D that might read ‘ITHFUS’ but it is not clear if this is a personal name or not. Edwards is convinced by the runic inscription and suggests that the earliest phase of the monument dates to the tenth or eleventh century.

This amazing monument was the focus of much musing and much cynicism by the amassed Cambrians. Some were not convinced by the runic inscription, and the complex subsequent treatment as a churchyard cross in the later medieval period, and the addition of a new bizarre post-medieval inexplicable feature (no longer present) also was the focus of musings. Below are some photos of various Cambrians interacting with the stone.


The west side of the Corwen cross-shaft


The cross on the Corwen cross-shaft


David Longley and the Corwen cross-shaft


Maddy Grey and the Corwen cross-shaft


Bob Silvester and Frances Lynch contemplate the possible runic-inscription.

Following a Friday evening lecture and a three Saturday morning lectures, the Cambrians headed for Valle Crucis Abbey, focusing their interest on the grave-slabs in the Abbot’s House. The coach then encircled in the car park of the Abbey Grange Hotel before stopping briefly at the gate of the field containing the Pillar of Eliseg. I gave a brief synopsis of what we know about the Pillar on the coach to those unable to access the monument, and then I added further information at the monument itself. I am speaking about the Pillar today (Sunday), repeating a paper I gave at the EMWARG conference last month. You can read this here.


The Cambrians at Corwen church


Corwen Church, Denbighshire

We then headed on to Corwen church and churchyard, passing back the motte of Owain Glyndwr. Sian Rees mentioned the consolidation work by Cadw necessary to prevent the further erosion of the motte into the River Dee below it.

Having passed by the current terminus of the Llangollen Railway, we saw the newly reinstated steam railway extension. Work is well advanced and due to be open this summer.

At Corwen, we passed by the 2007 statue to Owain Glyndwr and entered the fabulous churchyard. Corwen church was probably an early medieval mother church and there are thirteenth-century suggestions that this status was preserved. It is a large, dark church with transepts: itself a possible sign of a church of high status in the Welsh medieval landscape.

The churchyard at Corwen is an amazing collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century slate churchyard memorials: ledgers, gravestones and d chest-tombs. The earliest are seventeenth century. Mainly these memorials are now out of their original context, being re-arranged in a clear display by the sides of the main path to the south entrance to the church. The paths around the churchyard were also composed of reused graveslabs.

We were met here by Bob Silvester of Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and who was able to give us an expert review of the site. Bob pointed out Corwen College behind the church and an empty zone without memorials near the western entrance to the churchyard – the entrance from the direction of Corwen workhouse. Bob suggests that this was the pauper’s burial area.

Bob also pointed out the footstones with twin, and sometimes triple depressions on their tops, were used by descendants to awkwardly kneel and pray at the graves of their ancestors. The Cambrians were not fully convinced by this and others suggested they were simply shaped footstones and couldn’t have practically been used in this way: perhaps it is folklore?


Foot-stones – did worshipers kneel on these in prayer at the feet of ancestors on their way into church?

I simply want to add some photographs here to give an impression of this fabulous memorial space, before, in further blogs, discussing the early medieval stones and the church monuments. Below are some photographs of details from the slate memorials that struck me on this particular visit.

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Brian and Moira Gittos with the Cambrians looking at the east range of the cloister at Valle Crucis Abbey

Brian and Moira Gittos with the Cambrians looking at the east range of the cloister at Valle Crucis Abbey

I have previously posted on Valle Crucis Abbey but our visit there with the Cambrian Archaeological Association on Saturday afternoon as part of their Easter Conference, led by Brian and Moira Gittos, was a special treat. Upstairs, in the Abbot’s House, is an unprecedented collection of late medieval grave-slabs on display, found elsewhere in the excavations and clearance of the abbey, but also monuments reset into the post-medieval rebuilding of the East Range. What made the visit with the Cambrians such a special treat was the rare opportunity to view the cross-slabs in the Abbot’s House normally not accessible for public viewing and covered by trapdoors.

In addition to the complicated dynamic of showing a large group of people the details of these tombs, Moira and Brian were able to photograph the memorials for their own research. Below are some of the pictures of the visit. Looking as a group at grave-slabs out of context but covered by trapdoors was very reminiscent of numerous scenes I have witnessed in the excavation of human graves. The difference is that this is a ‘re-excavation’, without trowels, but with torches and exploring not an original context, but a first-floor repository of grave-slabs.

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