Still only just back from the EAA Istanbul conference and I am still enthusing about the papers I heard. I have just written 3 blogs thus far about sessions (a) my own session Dead Ends, Funerary Flops and Monumental Failures: Archaeologies of Mortuary Disasters, (b) an archaeorant at the MERC session and (c) the review of the rich range of mortuary archaeology sessions on offer.

In this post, I want to briefly shout-out thanks to a superb EAA session: T06S027 – Burial Communities in Long Term Perspective (Organised by Julio Escalona Monge, Orri Vesteinsson and Inai Martin Viso)

Note: If anyone objects to these photographs accompanying this article, I will remove them immediately at the request of the session organisers or speakers.


Tys with fabulous burial evidence from the Frankish lowlands

This was an exciting and far ranging day-long session, it wasn’t the ‘general burial session’ I expected it to be. Furthermore, it was mainly comprised of historical archaeology case studies rather than the usual domination by prehistoric studies. Moreover, the discussion at the very end proved very fruitful thanks to the direction of the organisers and a superb question by Jan Bill.

Unfortunately, I missed the early afternoon slot of the papers while I was away attending the MERC round table (wish I had stayed put). Still, in what I saw there were useful overview papers by Therus on changing burial practices in Viking Age Uppland (Therus had by far the best moustache at the EAA). Tys then explored parish formation in the Frankish lowlands from a burial perspective, rightly pointing out the contrasting approaches to this phenomenon by archaeologists and historians. Julio Escalona Monge looked at 10th-11th-century Castile and pushed a new hypothesis for the relationship between bishops, monasteries and territories from a burial perspective.


Vigil-Escalera on different burial treatments for early medieval Christians, Jews and Muslims

These three early medieval papers were more than enough to satisfy me. Yet there was more. Novakova explored the Hellenistic Polis and mortuary archaeology as power legitimisation. Lelekovic looked at changing burial practices in Roman Illyricum including fabulous bustum cremation graves; he was repeating a paper he gave at the Pilsen EAA but justifiably so since the session he had been in was a complete disaster and most papers had been cancelled. Souquet-Leroy took the discussion into the modern period looking at burial practices of Protestants in 16th to 18th-century France and their choices and customs for burial; challenging and confirming aspects of the historical record.


Zoega on the amazing evidence from conversion period family cemeteries on Iceland

Given my interests in early medieval archaeology and mortuary archaeology, the above papers all hit the mark nicely. Still, my personal favourites were four presentations: Vigil-Escalera discussed the burial together in cemeteries of Muslims, Jews and Christians in early medieval Iberia because this paper challenged assumptions about religious segregation in death usually back-projected from later centuries.


Rock-cut graves of possible post-Roman date in the Duero Basin

I also really liked Rubio Diez looking at fabulous and not-directly-dated rock-cut tombs in south-western Duero Basin attributed to the post-Roman period and creating a hypothesis to explain and explore their location in the landscape as ‘peasant monuments’.

I was taken by surprise by a stunning paper by Zoega looking at pre-churchyard family cemeteries in conversion period Iceland because of their neat circular boundaries that reminded me of early medieval western British and Irish sites and the evidence that graves were exhumed systematically but not completely when churchyards were established. Finally, Sian Anthony finished the session with a superb paper on the Assistens Kirkegaard in Copenhagen as it emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The papers I missed looked equally exciting, so I am disappointed I chose to miss them.

On a selfish and self-indulgent note, I particularly liked this session because the presenters had the good sense to quote my work explicitly on at least two separate occasions. Only minimal bribery was required! Go me!

Also, one of the paper unwittingly gave me a brilliant idea for a paper since I find myself in disagreement with their interpretation of the Viking Age and its burials… So a truly inspiring session and a rich range of burial case studies to be heard.



My favourite powerpoint slide from the funerary EAA sessions

In previous posts I have reviewed my own mortuary archaeology session on the Archaeology of Mortuary Disasters at this year’s EAA – the 20th annual conference of the European Association for Archaeologists, held in Istanbul, Turkey. I have also outlined some thoughts about the MERC roundtable on medieval archaeology.

Many papers incorporated aspects of the archaeology of death within other themes. For example burial evidence was integral to papers I saw by Mitchell and Pluskowski, part of the fascinating session ‘So Many Countries, so Many Customs: The Everyday Experience of Religious’. This was a rich session that went far beyond burial archaeology, but it serves to illustrate how burial archaeology was incorporated into other session themes.

Still, there were sessions principally dealing with mortuary archaeology as follows:

  • Neolithic Collective Burials in Europe in the Later 4th Millennium BC
  • A Globalisation of Death? Re-interpreting Burial Practices of the Eastern Aegean,
    9th – 4th Centuries BC
  • The Archaeology of Late Medieval and Early Modern Mass Graves
  • The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion
  • Dead Ends, Funerary Flops and Monumental Failures: Archaeologies of Mortuary
  • Beyond Burials: Transforming the Dead in European Prehistory
  • Medieval Burial Practices in Europe and the Near East: Challenges, Approaches,
  • Elite Burials in Prehistoric and Early Medieval Europe
  • Chasing Death Ways: New Methods, Techniques and Practices in Documenting
    and Interpreting the Funerary Record
  • The Odd, the Unusual, and the Strange: Human and Animal Deviant Burials
    and Their Cultural Contexts
  • Burial Communities in Long Term Perspective

I am sure I have missed some: indeed given the number of sessions, it is unsurprising that many of these overlapped in the timetable. It was really tough trying to work out what to see! In the end, I attended most of two of these in addition to my own:

  • The Archaeology of Late Medieval and Early Modern Mass Graves
  • Burial Communities in Long Term Perspective.

Both these sessions inspire the following observations:

  1. they show the potential of spanning multiple time-periods to reveal broader themes and issues in mortuary archaeological interpretation
  2. many papers advocated a diachronic approach to mortuary archaeology
  3. many papers revealed the complexities of theory, method and data in the modern study of mortuary practices in the archaeological record spanning all of Europe and beyond.
  4. I was also fascinated to observe the polite but firm arguments in the sessions
  5. there were very fruitful debates that took place through Q&A and the discussion sessions.
  6. I was struck by the persistent use of discussions of ‘ancestors’ in some papers without qualifying what is meant, and how social memory is imprecisely explored.
  7. I was particularly impressed by how archaeologists are exploring repeatedly acts of disposal, but also acts of grave disturbance, re-opening and exhumation.

I don’t want to pick out individual papers for praise or criticism, but I would like to celebrate the rich geographical and thematic range of the papers on offer. Also, it is clear that burial archaeology is very much here to stay in European archaeology.

I wish I could have seen more of the sesisons! I was particularly disappointed that I couldn’t also see the ‘Beyond Burial’, ‘Chasing Death Ways’, ‘Deviant Burial’ and the ‘Medieval Burial Practices’ sessions; I do hope that some of this rich range of sessions find their way to publication!


A particularly gruesome slide from one of the papers in the ‘Mass Graves’ session

At this year’s EAA Istanbul conference I attended the Friday afternoon Medieval Open Forum: New Agendas and Directions in Medieval Archaeology. This meeting has inspired me to write some personal thoughts on the relationship between ‘medieval archaeology’ and the EAA.

I consider myself a close colleague of many of those involved and do not wish to appear rude or offensive. I respect their work and endeavours to promote medieval archaeology. However, I went into the meeting indifferent but curious about MERC and left feeling somewhat in opposition to it. Therefore, this blog entry outlines my current view and preliminary impression that MERC is not very relevant for the EAA (at least not for me). Moreover, I fear it is out of touch with what the EAA has already achieved and can offer medieval archaeologists (or perhaps it is simply me who is out of touch).

About MERC

In his introduction to the round table, Martin Carver (not Dries Tys who was in the programme as chair of the meeting) explained the background to the meeting and MERC. The Medieval Europe Research Congress was four conferences, each held 5 years apart in different European cities (York, Bruges, Basel and Paris, the Paris one being the last in 2007).

Personally, only two of these fell within my career duration: Basel and Paris. At the time, I couldn’t afford to attend any of these as a young career scholar. Sadly, these congresses are now defunct. Instead, Martin explained that it has been reformed as a round table and series of ‘approved’ sessions within the annual conference of the European Association for Archaeologists and hence it has finally hit my radar. They have the basis of a committee and organisation and they have a Facebook page here.

The MERC aspiration is to promote medieval archaeology and other historical archaeologies within the structure of EAA meetings into the future. In this new reformed version, it joined the EAA in Helsinki in 2012. Rather than a 5-year congress, the aim is now for an annual event attached to the EAA. Certainly it is a logical development for MERC to attach itself to the EAA, since the EAA has long been a forum for medieval archaeology through hundreds of papers each year and many medieval sessions (partially or predominantly).

Medieval Archaeology and My EAA Experience

Like many active researching medieval archaeologists, I have attended the EAA conferences a number of times over the years. I have found frustrations with the EAA in a number of regards (including the way it is treated as an excuse for a holiday by some archaeologists), but a key strength of this venue is the ability of medieval archaeology to organise sessions on medieval themes, but also to integrate themselves into broad regional studies and cross-period (and sometimes cross-disciplinary) debates using the EAA platform. Not only does this involve regular conversations with medieval and other archaeologists from across Europe (albeit from some regions more than others) but also from farther afield including archaeologists from North America.

By way of illustration, let me give you a list of my EAA contributions at each event and where (in many but not all cases) the papers and sessions have reached publication. As you will see, I can hardly claim to be a die-hard EAA obsessive, but I have found it a very useful venue over the long term, more than medieval congresses, from my student days to the present:

  • Gothenburg 1998 – paper presented on Anglo-Saxon barrow burial in session on early medieval burial (subsequently published in a book edited by Martin Rundkvist: Grave Matters, 1999)
  • Bournemouth 1999 – paper presented on cremation in early Anglo-Saxon England in session on shamanism (subsequently published in a book edited by Neil Price: The Archaeology of Shamanism, 2001);.
  • Cork 2005 – paper presented on Pictish burial as part of a session on barrow-burial (subsequently published as 2007 article in Cambridge Archaeological Journal). 
  • Krakow 2006 – paper on community archaeology in a session on public archaeology (subsequently published in Public Archaeology journal, 2007) and paper on hair and the body in early medieval Europe in a session on head/skull modification in Europe and the Near East (subsequently submitted for publication but declined and reworked and expanded into other articles submitted elsewhere, including my contribution to the book edited by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz: The Oxford Handbook for the Archaeology of Death and Burial, 2013)
  • Malta 2008 – organised session on the historiography of barbarians in European archaeology and presented paper on the Victorian origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology (subsequently published in the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 2013).
  • Helsinki 2012 – co-organised session on cremation in European archaeology (with Finnish archaeologist Anna Wessman and American archaeologist Jessica Cerezo-Roman) and co-presented a paper (with Anna Wessman) on ephemeral architectures in early medieval cremation practices (book in press)
  • Pilsen 2013 – co-organised a session on material citation in the Viking world (with Swedish archaeologist Nanouschka Myrberg Burstrom) and presented a paper on hogback stones (currently in press as special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology I am editing).
  • Istanbul 2014 – co-organised session on archaeologies of mortuary disasters (with my doctoral student Ruth Nugent and Austrian archaeologist Estella Weiss-Krejci) and presented an introduction and paper on this theme applied to hogback stones and evidence for early medieval grave re-opening.

Escaping the Medieval Ghetto

My point would be that in most cases (with the exception of Pilsen 2013), my papers has been presented alongside others dealing with topics from a range of chronological periods from prehistory to the modern world. Furthermore, the other sessions I attend at the EAA regularly contain papers presented on other periods and regions to those I am interested in and some of the best sessions are those that straddle multiple time-frames and regions. Even when I organised a session on the Viking period, it had a pan-European focus and had significant input from medievalists but also those from other perspectives and backgrounds. It wasn’t because the session was exclusively relevant to ‘medieval archaeology’ that made it fruitful, but because it addressed a theme, using the Viking Age as a case study, that spoke to archaeological data-sets from many periods and regions of Europe and beyond. Presumably the EAA think so, since they have agreed to publish the session in their journal: the European Journal of Archaeology.

Obviously given my research interests,  I seek out medieval presentations and those on funerary topics in the EAA programme, but not exclusively. I also confess that I gravitate towards papers addressing the regions of my interest relating to the British Isles, north-west Europe and Scandinavia when at the EAA, but again not exclusively. Like any delegate, I can freely search the programme for things that interest me, medieval or no. Furthermore, I would say though that the repeated exposure to presentations and themes outside of my existing interests is part of the broader educational experience of the EAA. Because my aim is to grow as an archaeologist by engagement with theoretical, methodological and thematic connections within and beyond medieval archaeology, I find EAA a superb venue. The great thing about the EAA is escaping a medieval ghetto and engaging with young and established academics on an equal footing from across Europe.

The Istanbul Meeting

So attending ‘medieval sessions’ is so far down my priority list in attending EAA conferences that, for me, attributing specific sessions to an imaginary ‘medieval congress’ is close to irrelevant. Still, I was verbally encouraged by colleagues to attend the MERC meeting and even encouraged to speak from the floor at it. I didn’t want to be blinkered to the possibility that I may have simply missed the point about MERC so I attended.

Sadly, I now find myself actively critical rather than indifferent to MERC. Consequently, I fear the recreation of a medieval ghetto (and one that seemed particularly self-deprecating and theoretically backward), or at the very least, celebrating medieval sessions over those sessions that incorporate themes of wider application and importance whilst including the Middle Ages.

What also struck me about the meeting (beyond the fact that it certainly wasn’t a ’round table’ and it certainly didn’t involve a discussion of future research directions and agenda) was that the unscheduled papers presented addressed issues about the rural landscape and European towns that were not particularly, and certainly not exclusively, ‘medieval’ but were relevant to other proto-historical and historical archaeologies. This made my only point very well for me: why should the Middle Ages be singled out for dedicated discussions when the neglect and challenges for archaeological theories and methods applies (for example) as much to the Ottoman period as the Byzantine? Why should the medieval period warrant specific attention when historic landscapes are being neglected which evolved from the medieval period and persist to the present day?

Worse still, I am sure not intentionally, the discussion at the round table was something of a kick in the teeth to those that have been actively organising sessions with core medieval themes and approaches to be told that medieval archaeology is not adequately addressed at the EAA and requires a special strand of branded sessions. This was especially the case when many of them were going on whilst the MERC meeting took place. To my mind, the meeting did not recognise that inter-period and inter-disciplinary debate involving medieval archaeology is already at the heart of many EAA sessions.

I also found that the MERC people did not recognise as valid comments made from the floor about how sessions were selected and merged for the EAA Istanbul conference. This affected the visibility and presence of medieval archaeology and the integrity of both medieval and cross-period themes proposed.

Finally, I was disturbed by the near-colonial mentality of the British archaeologists present in their desire to impose a model onto other parts of Europe for studying the Middle Ages. There are surely examples of best practice that can be transferred across Europe in the study of the Middle Ages, and this was what was presumably meant. However, it all cam across badly and I sensed (and was explicitly told by some afterwards) annoyance at the British presence and I haven’t felt that in a long time. It was particularly rich since some of those presenting were brand new to the EAA whilst most in the audience, British and from other countries, students and established scholars, were long-term attendees.

The Future

I wanted to air these views here openly rather than witter my thoughts to a few individuals and have them misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t really know what else to do with them!

I think that MERC could make a positive contribution, creating a support network for scholars working wholly or in part on medieval topics through the EAA. This is unquestionably positive. Still, I struggle to see how creating a ghetto of medieval-focused sessions will improve the situation. Surely research outputs, dialogues and debates are more important than dedicated sessions. I propose some kind of effort in advising archaeologists on possible collaborations for grant applications, session organisation, debates over key controversies and helping to guide research outputs are ways forward. Particularly, promoting cross-regional, cross-period and cross-disciplinary projects is the priority.

Unfortunately, it remained opaque to me following the meeting what is the precise situation with the EAA that needs improving. Why are more medieval sessions required? Why does medieval archaeology need special attention and support compared with other prehistoric, proto-historical and historical archaeologies (e.g. Roman, post-medieval, industrial and contemporary archaeologies), public archaeology, the history of archaeology and heritage? Personally, I’d like to see more medieval archaeology at the EAA, but also more post-medieval and contemporary archaeology as well. There can never be enough burial archaeology and the Istanbul EAA had more than enough of this to keep me happy.

In summary, sorry friends and colleagues, but for the moment I am going to steer clear of supporting MERC until it works out precisely what it wants to do. I will of course continue to participate with the EAA as and when I am able. I hope that I am able to continue dialogue with medieval and other archaeologists at the EAA to the full, despite my clear reservations about MERC as it now operates.


The session had an adequate, if quite low, attendance, c. 25


What happens when it rains on the funerary parade? How do mourners cope when a memorial collapses? What happens when enemies gate-crash the wake? What if there are so many deaths from famine or disease there are not enough people left to conduct the funerals? How do you cope when the deceased proves not to be dead and gate-crashes their own funeral? Unexpected, embarassing, humiliating and distressing, and perhaps in some cases emotionally and/or socially earth-shattering. When death is a time of mourning, loss and socio-political crisis, ensuring funerals and monuments go to plan can be fraught with difficulties and challenges. Sometimes funerals and memorials fail.

A range of agencies – environmental, geomorphological, vegetal, animal, human and material, can affect the progress of funerals and memorialisation in unexpected ways. The lack of resources and people, including the presence or absence of key survivors, and the absence of the cadaver (i.e. lost at sea or killed away from home), can also motivate different mortuary procedures. So while we tend to assume funerals were ‘planned’ and monuments ‘designed’ in the present and in the past, the choices and realisation of plans and expectations often shift and adapt. Sometimes funerals and memorials have to be fully revised in the harsh reality of multiple pressures and circumstances. Furthermore, funerals and memorials emerge as much out of conflict as consensus, and can be the focus of all kinds of disruptions as a result of discord.


We had to reschedule due to cancellations

Hence, funerals are not mechanical factory-lines, nor are they ad-lib performances. They demand rules, expectations and procedures, and informed by the knowledge of participants and funerary specialists, and can be guided by the wishes and expectations of the wider community. They also reveal the universal human ability to adapt in response to unexpected events and circumstances.

The EAA session rationale

These issues were the focus of a recent session I co-organised with Ruth Nugent and Dr Estella Weiss-Krejci. This took place on the first morning of the Istanbul EAA – the 20th annual conference of the European Association for Archaeologists. The session was entitled ‘Dead Ends, Funerary Flops and Monumental Failures: Archaeologies of Mortuary Disasters‘. The abstract and preliminary details of the session were outlined previously on this blog here.

The session aimed to look beyond funerals as intentional and designed sequences of events, but instead to foreground the expedient, incomplete, ill-conceived, rushed, disrupted and discordant aspects of mortuary practice and mortuary commemoration. The session challenged archaeologists regarding how we might identified and interpret ‘mortuary disasters’ in the archaeological record. Mortuary practices are almost always interpreted as meaningful and discursive, and while this is important for archaeological interpretation, the practical, contingent and unexpected disruptions to mortuary practice fail to get the attention they deserve.

The aim was less about identifying individual cases where funerals and memorials ‘failed’ as to understand the relationships between failure and success in past mortuary practices. Furthermore, the aim was to explore risk-management and fail-safe strategies in mortuary practices in the human past, and understand the range of agencies affecting mortuary variability and mortuary change which can often be driven by, and inspired by, fear of failure and by unexpected disruptions.

Together, these themes aimed to foreground the distributed agencies involved in mortuary practices and explore methods by which archaeologists can explore failed funerals, mortuary aberrations and monumental anomalies beyond the anecdotal.

In the end, one of the organisers and two presenters from the final line-up couldn’t make it to Istanbul. The final contingent comprised of 7 papers, two posters and an impromptu Introduction by my good self.

The Introduction

I kicked off proceedings with an unscheduled Introduction in which I tried to draw together some of the broad dimensions of the session’s parameters and foci. My conclusion was that an archaeology of mortuary disasters is not about identifying when things went wrong, but charting how past human communities dealt with and responded to unexpected events. From mass-burials associated with catastrophes in the human past (plaques, earthquakes, famine etc.) or the affects of a landslide in revealing partly decomposed corpses, from responses to collapsed tombs to dealing with a body that won’t burn on a pyre, we are not looking for simply things going wrong, but for how failures were averted, and how they were tempted in cases of increasingly complex mortuary procedures. Such examples reveal the complex interaction of human and non-human agencies, habitus and happenstance, in dealing with death in the human past and the human condition.

The first three papers gave us contrasting perspectives on mortuary disasters, and disaster aversion, from prehistoric settings.


Catriona Gibson pointed the way


First up, Catriona Gibson presented ‘Curst Be He That Moves My Bones’. Rest in Peace or Rest in Pieces. She explored the re-opening of Bronze-Age burials and the manipulation of human remains, focusing on commercial excavations in the Stonehenge landscape. Less about failure, her paper identified the range of ways in which ‘inhumations’ were subject to multiple post-burial engagements including the removal and manipulation of bones. As well as identifying the rich range of evidence for engaging with the dead post-burial, Gibson also suggested a new interpretation for the capping materials situated over these graves. The dynamic between burial and re-opening was evidently one that pre-occupied Early Bronze Age communities and demands further attention to both the grave-cuts themselves (and evidence of re-cuts) and the ways graves were sealed and marked.


James Johnson: are you not entertained?


Through his paper Recipes for Success or Failure? James A. Johnson focused upon gender differences as revealed in assemblages of grave-goods. He outlined a theoretical approach to considering ‘success’ and ‘failure’ within the Iron Age mortuary practices of the Ukraine. Again, Johnson was reluctant to identify what constituted a ‘failed’ burial in his particular cultural context, but he did challenge our presumptions regarding what constituted a ‘success’ and by putting anomalies in context.


Polanyi and a familiar quote


Next, Tamas Polanyi addressed ‘Indoxicating Death‘: building a framework for understanding the micro-politics of death using as his example the Bronze Age cemetery at Kajaszo, Hungary. His approach was intended to embrace the practical ‘becoming’ of mortuary traditions on the local scale, an approach that has considerable merit. Polanyi was thinking of local variations between individual graves and how these need not relate to status in life, but to unfolding sequences of mortuary procedures within and between funerals.

With Gibson looking at post-burial manipulation, Johnson exploring grave-good assemblages, and Polanyi engaging with cremation practices, each study challenged and extended our engagement with mortuary programs as contingent and variable in response to potential stresses and circumstances. Together, they set the scene for more specific discussions of failure and flop in the archaeological record. Subsequently, we left prehistory and moved into proto-historic and historical archaeologies.


My paper then proceeded after the break and moved the discussion into the early medieval period. Entitled The Disruptive Early Medieval Dead, my focus was upon looking at early medieval graves as locales for disruption of the dead by the living, and as sites of memory where the dead can disrupt the social fabric as inhabiting presences long after the funeral. As such, my focus was equally less about ‘failure’ per se, and more about how fear of failure and fear of the dead may have driven mortuary practices and commemorative monuments.

The paper focused attention on Viking-Age hogback stones from northern Britain as an architectural form that created the sense of a solid space – encouraging disruption from the living to engage with the dead sealed within their spaces, and yet simultaneously affording the sense of a  potentially disruptive corporeal presence in the tenth-century churchyard. Then, I showed how the hogback stone at West Kirby, Wirral, reveals features that suggest it was a failure, or perhaps more appropriately it might have been rushed to avert failure. This questioned not only our assumption that incomplete or poor-quality mortuary monuments reflect limited socio-economic resources or crude artistic capabilities, but sometimes that are better understood in the context of the mortuary fail-safe technologies.


Goldstein on Fort Ross


The next paper took our attention to northern Cailfornia and Lynne Goldstein’s excavations at the Fort Ross colonial cemetery of Orthodox Russian settlers and local native American groups. For Goldstein’s paper was entitled Mistakes and Adaptations on the Frontier. She explored the fluid and complex communities in the frontier context, suggesting that they were an ideal environment for exploring how failures were averted and compromises made in mortuary procedures. She developed this argument through the data from her excavations for rules and anomalies in the disposal of the dead in relation to Russian orthodox traditions.

A further dimension of mortuary disaster of note was how the archaeological intervention revealed possible perceived ‘failures’, such as how the cross marking the cemetery cut right through the centre of a grave. This showed clearly how the authorities were able to shrug this off, since the intention of erecting a cross was deemed respectful. In short, it reveals how explicit failures of respect and attention, in the right climate, can be readily dismissed and re-packaged, if authorities and communities wish to do so!


Ljungkvist on Gamla Uppsala


We moved back to the first millennium AD with John Ljungkvist’s Building Big and Sometimes too Fast. He focused on the three big mounds from Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, dating to the 6th/early 7th centuries AD. His first point was that these mounds were structurally ‘risky’, second that they did themselves ‘fail’ because much of the subsequent attention in the Viking Age (hall-building and mound-raising) need not be seen as ‘respect’ but an appropriation of mounds that had failed to retain their specific associations and knowledge of their occupants. Perhaps failure is about forgetting, whether a passive process or an active imposition by successors? His third key point was that the creation of failure was facilitated through the 19th-century excavations of the mounds that compromised their already problematic integrity. Archaeologists it seems can ‘fail’ the very dead that they strive to honour and explore.


Estella and her dateless memorials


The last, but not the least, of the papers was by Estella Weiss-Krejci entitled Reading Intentions. She explored European mural monuments of the 16th to 18th century, and focused attention on cases where the names of the deceased are never filled out but left blank. Through a detailed contextual analysis, she argued strongly that here the identification of ‘failure’ by scholars is a failure of interpretation only. She argued instead that in the complex nexus of memorial creation and funerals, these were sometimes left blank on purpose. Here, we have a clear warning about not imposing our assumptions of what constitutes a ‘mortuary disaster’ onto other times and places where they might be inappropriate.

Sjoling, Prata and Hennius 

There were two posters associated with the session. One that was definitely connected closely to the theme was called Pagan, Christian or Both? It concerned the Iron Age/Early Christian cemetery at Gnista, Sweden, where a poorly executed cremation burial was uncovered: grave no. 5. Was this a deliberate semi-cremation, burnt in the pit in which the remains were found? Or was it a cremation-gone-wrong? Is it an example of religious syncretism, a continuation in the normative use of cremation but with the end-result of an articulated interment?

Venue Disaster

The session venue was a bit of a flop of its own! In addition to the intense heat, the noise of the ineffectual air con making some speakers near-inaudible, and the light streaming through the inadequate blinds made the powerpoint projector screen invisible for large parts of many talks. I was furious that despite all the money, time and energy that speakers put into the talks and travelling to Istanbul, we had such a poor venue. Still, the local conference volunteer helper did his best to help, even if these issues were beyond his control.


There remain many areas where approaching ‘mortuary disasters’. Engaging with funerary flops is more than charting archaeological anomalies. Instead, exploring them can be the basis of a far better understanding of past communities’ choices and adaptations to historical circumstances and unexpected agencies. While the papers presented at the Istanbul EAA only outlined a few of the many avenues for such studies, I think the session achieved its main goal of bringing ‘dead ends’ centre-stage in current debates in mortuary archaeology and did so using a combination of prehistoric and historic case studies.

This year marks the 1,175th anniversary of the founding of the University of Chester. Here’s the proof of this assertion, from outside the Binks Building housing the Department of History and Archaeology:

IMG_20140906_082351Of course the ‘Church of England’ foundation claim of AD 839 might stretch credulity somewhat, but let’s not quibble. And yes, there are always cynics and they might cite all the University’s publications and the recent official history of the institution written by Professor Graeme White, formerly head of the Department of History and Archaeology, and note that 1839 was the foundation year. They might note the many other signs around the University state 1839 and not 839.  Those desperately trying to deny the 1,175th anniversary might invoke the agency of persons’ unknown who they might claim doctored this particular sign. Let’s dispense with such unfounded fantasy: this sign tells us the facts.

So let us reflect on the year AD 839 and the historical context of that great year that saw the birth of the greatest university in the whole of Chester. It was the year of the death of the King of Wessex, Ecgberht who was buried in the Old Minster of Winchester to be succeeded by King Aethelwulf. These were respectively the grandfather and father of King Alfred the Great, possibly the greatest king and worst sous chef in English history.

Likewise, Wessex’s powerful midland’s rival in whose bounds the ruins of Chester lay, Mercia, lost their great King Wiglaf who was interred at Repton, Derbyshire. He was replaced by the short-lived Wigmund and Wigstan: a time of dispute if not turmoil. A time of limited personal name innovation and familial hair-loss.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records this as the year that London, Canterbury (according to the C manuscript) and Rochester endured a great slaughter, presumably at the hands of raiding Vikings of Danish decent but equally from anyone who didn’t like the South-East cathedral universities and their tendency to steal Heads of Dept and promote them to Faculty Deans. (Although 842 is the adjusted date for these raids).

Close to Chester, the power of the Welsh kingdom of Powys was led by the long rule of King Concenn, who erected at some point in his reign a great stone cross to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg: the Pillar of Eliseg. They also invented S4C in this year.

It is unclear whether it was in 839 or the following year, 840, when the University first received its degree-awarding powers, but it is well-attested that its first combined honours degree was in Religious Studies with Anglo-Saxon, allowing for profitable career paths in the nearest available minster churches of Mercia, Northumbria and possibly Wessex and Kent but sparse opportunities in the British church to the west. However, there are rival accounts suggesting that only a fraction of graduates took up a career in the church, many instead going into retail, insurance and pillage.

Given this long 1,175 years of history, it is most apposite that the institution that was born in the year AD 839 should be actively researching the very origins of the kingdoms of Powys and Mercia through archaeological research at the Pillar of Eliseg, the monument raised by King Concenn: Project Eliseg. I hope the University of Chester recognises the importance of continuing this research and providing a multi-million pound grant to facilitate its anniversary archaeological investigations….


Dr Michael Shapland in the Chapter House of Chester Cathedral

This post is dedicated to the great Lawrence Butler, Honorary President of the Society for Church Archaeology.

Over this weekend I have been attending the Society for Church archaeology’s annual conference held at Chester Cathedral’s chapter house. Ruth Nugent and myself have been helping and advising the conference organiser – Michael Shapland – on the conference coming to Chester, and our Department of History and Archaeology sponsored the event.


Ruth Nugent answering questions after her paper

I was unable to attend the full schedule due to family commitments, but I did attend the five papers presented on Saturday morning and early afternoon. Following the welcome by Michael Shapland, Simon Ward kicked off the conference with an introduction to the archaeology of early medieval Chester and its Christian components.


Exploring Valle Crucis Abbey

This was followed by myself, talking about Project Eliseg and the Past in its Place project’s exploration of the Vale of Llangollen. I have already posted about my talk here, when I gave a version of it to the Early Medieval Wales Archaeology Research Group (EMWARG).

Then we had Alan Thacker exploring the early cult of saints in the North-West Marches, noting how very little can be identified with certainty before the 10th century and the spread of cults introduced by the West Saxon dynasty. Then we had Paul Everson and David Stocker outlining their brilliant new theory on the topography of early medieval Chester and the relationship between the sculpture found at St John’s Priory and the Anglo-Scandinavian trading centre on the River Dee. Finally, after lunch, we had Ruth Nugent exploring her doctoral research into the post-medieval church monuments of Chester Cathedral from a new theoretical framework drawing from anthropological theory and archaeologies of the body. The group then moved on to have a tour of Chester Cathedral and St John’s Priory while I had meetings and then headed home.


Toby jumping from grave-slab to grave-slab in the Abbot’s house

The Fieldtrip

Sunday was a full-day’s fieldtrip, visiting early Christian sites in the vicinity of Chester. The Society visited the Pillar of Eliseg where I introduced them to its significance and the results of Project Eliseg. This was followed by a tour around Valle Crucis Abbey, the Cistercian monastic foundation of 1201 with a well-surviving monastic church and east range, monastic fishponds and fine collection of later medieval grave-slabs. I have previous discussed this site here and here.


Madoc ap Gruffudd’s grave-slab

We discussed how the fine collection of grave-slabs, some excavated by Lawrence Butler’s excavations at Valle Crucis, provide a detailed record of the monastery’s patronage by the princes of Powys. Tobias enjoyed jumping from grave-slab to grave-slab, running around the ruins and meeting Lola, the basset hound that inhabits the Cadw shop.

The group then went on to visit the churches at Bangor-on-Dee and Farndon. I had to head home, but I was most touched to be given a round of applause from the Society and a very fine bottle of red wine by way of thanks. The bottle is almost gone (somehow) and it is most delicious.

Because little Tobias accompanied me on the field trip and made it so distinctive, I bought him a new wooden shield to defend himself and our castle from wrong-doers and the ne’erdowells of Chester and Wrexham.


Tobias with his new dragon-shield


The wine


Originally posted on Geographies of Heritage:

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Northumbria a few weeks ago, staying on the English side of the River Tweed, near Coldstream. This is “1513 Country”, through which buildings, villages, and entire landscapes are ‘time-tagged’ according to the date of the Battle of Flodden Field, for which 2013 marked a 500th anniversary.

2014 has seen a good deal of attention directed at the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – Scotland’s most famous victory – with a £10million refurbished visitor centre being opened by Alex Salmond in April. The 500th anniversary of Scotland’s most famous defeat, in which King James IV and many of his leading nobles lost their lives, has not received such a high profile.

The Battlefield site lies on the English side of the border, and forms the centre piece in the recently established multi-site Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum. Initially developed in France to protect…

View original 591 more words


Lindisfarne Castle, with Bamburgh Castle in the distance to the right


Lindisfarne Castle from the west


Lindisfarne Castle pictured

From Tudor fortress to Edwardian retreat, Lindisfarne Castle is a dramatic landmark for land and sea. Perched on its pinnacle of rock, it commands intervisibility with Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands, the Heugh and Lindisfarne Priory and all the coastal waters around Holy Island.

On my previous trip to Lindisfarne, I never got to visit this location.


Lindisfarne Castle from the east

While there is nothing early medieval to see, and the foundations and presence of the castle will have obliterated earlier traces, there is no doubt in my mind that this would have been a key component of the Anglo-Saxon monastic landscape and seascape.


Views from the castle across the harbour to the Heugh and priory

I went around the interior and found it pokey. Clearly, even before the castle’s building, this was a very restricted space. It was difficult to muster enthusiasm for the mock Victorian and Edwardian fittings. Lindisfarne Castle is all about location however, about looking out, not in.


The Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle from Lindisfarne Castle

I really went to visit the dramatic location and to imagine what kind of lookout post, beacon, chapel or monument might have furnished this rock outcrop during the early medieval period…


Tobias en route to the castle


Lindisfarne Castle and the priory ruins

Without clear evidence for an early medieval presence on this location, what more can we say about Lindisfarne Castle’s prehistory as a place of memory? Even if (for sake of argument) there had been no human-made feature or habitation adorning this spot, I suspect the pinnacle of rock alone would have been a prominent feature, drawn into the memory of maritime navigators and those inhabiting the coasts and islands close by. I hope my photographs speak for themselves, giving a sense of how people today traverse the road from the settlement and priory to the castle along the coast, and how the site interacts with its surroundings.




Anna Mackenzie

Until this year, the annual publication of the Royal Archaeological Institute has been published in print by Oblong Creative Ltd and online editions of recent volumes have been hosted on the Institute’s website. From vol. 172 for 2015, the RAI is moving to a new partnership with Routledge in order to secure a viable online presence for past and new editions of the Journal. Routledge will be assisting in producing the Journal and marketing it worldwide. Back issues vols 1-120 will remain hosted on the Archaeological Data Service website and vols 121 onwards can be found on Routledge’s website.

In this context, a new member of the editorial team has been recruited; Anna Mackenzie is serving as Editorial Assistant for the Journal. Anna’s principal tasks for the Journal are assisting the Honorary Editor with the transition process to Routledge and helping with the editorial process. Anna has been busy contacting referees for submitted manuscripts and checking resubmitted manuscripts for style and grammar. Anna is a Doctoral Candidate and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Chester. She also works as Project Co-ordinator for the University of Chester’s 175th anniversary celebrations.

Vol. 172 part 1 is currently being edited for style and content and Anna is busy assisting with this task, so that copy can be sent to Routledge at the beginning of October.

If you are interested in submitting a paper to the Journal, check out the current call for papers for vol. 172 part 2 here.

This month sees the publication of the 171st volume of the Archaeological Journal: the annual publication of the Royal Archaeological Institute. This is my third edited volume and the third with reviews edited by Kate Waddington.

The volume is uploaded onto the RAI’s website and is accessible to members here. The print volume is being distributed to RAI members and subscribing libraries.

AJ 171 COVER 1


A Bayesian Radiocarbon Chronology of the Early Neolithic of Yorkshire and Humbersider: SEREN GRIFFITHS

Golden Biographies: The Production, Curation, Fragmentation and Deposition of the Amorican-Type Rolled-Gold Bead-Like Ornaments found at Pendleton, Lancashire: DAVID BARROWCLOUGH

The Biography of a Settlement: An Analysis of Middle Iron Age Deposits and Houses at Howe, Orkney: KATE WADDINGTON

Two Roman Britains: DAVID BREEZE

The Wirral Brooch: The Form, Distribution and Role of a Regional Romano-British Brooch Type: FRANCES MCINTOSH

Technologies of Appearance: Hair Behaviour in  Early Medieval Europe: STEVEN P. ASHBY

A Post-Roman Sequence at Carlisle Cathedral: MIKE MCCARTHY

Stonemasons’ Drawings on Building Fabric: Diversity, Form and Function: ROSE HARRIS ADAMSON

Gateways to Power: The Castles of Ranulf III of Chester and Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd: RACHEL SWALLOW

Crossing the Threshold: Negotiating Space in the Vernacular Houses of the Isle of Lewis: CATRIONA MACKIE

An Assemblage of Collegiate Ceramics: Mid-Nineteenth Century Dining at Trinity Hall, Cambridge: CRAIG CESSFORD

Two Exhumations and an Attempted Theft: The Posthumous Biography of St Cuthbert in the Nineteenth Century and its Historicist Narratives: ROBERT MCCOMBE

Book Reviews