My office was the venue of a deathly conversation today: simultaneously a funerary first acquaintance, a mortuary moot, a skeletal summit, a deathly discussion and an oration of obsequies. There was even some vampiric verbiage.

I didn’t insist on darkened windows. I didn’t confess my nocturnal blood-sucking practices. I never revealed my near-immortality! Quite rudely on reflection, I didn’t offer to share immortality or slaughter our mutual enemies by opening their coffins whilst they slept. In short, it was an interview without a vampire: not much was at stake.

Instead, me and my guest had a cup of tea and sat through a long and interesting recorded interview about my career in, and views about, mortuary archaeology.

Who was my guest? My interviewee was none other than the Manchester mortuary mistress of the macabre herself: Katherine Crouch.

Katherine’s doctoral research is focusing on the fascinating topic of “The role of human remains and mortuary archaeology in British contemporary culture“. Katherine  has been busy interviewing many archaeologists about their experiences and views on the study of mortuary remains including skeletal material. I talked to Katherine about my views on mortuary archaeology, the challenges the subject faces and the discipline’s attitudes towards both the ancient and recent dead.

What did I say? I honestly can’t recall; it was a dazzling whirlwind of waffle. In any case it is supposed to be anonymous.

Having said that, I could have mentioned the challenges of dialogue between physical anthropologists/bioarchaeologists and mortuary archaeologists; I may have talked about questions of the merit of studying palaeopathology and of age and sex determinations from human remains. There was possibly mention of the expense involved, as well as the benefits gained, from the battery of scientific techniques to human remains. I think someone may have uttered views on the challenge faced by the concept of ‘prehistory’, which remains one of the most persistent and negative chronological and conceptual divisions employed in archaeology today which affects dialogue between mortuary archaeologists working on different periods.

Regarding how mortuary archaeology interacts with popular culture, somebody may just possibly ranted about the popular obsession with past mortuary celebrities (I may have ranted about Sutton Hoo Mound 1 and Richard III). I vaguely recall musings over the biases towards the display and study of intact mummified human remains or articulated skeletons to the detriment of disarticulated human remains including cremation practices (specific museums might have been mentioned). There could have been a discussion of my personal engagements with human remains and death more generally from uncovering Anglo-Saxon skeletons, exploring English churchyards, investigating rune-stones and the challenges of dealing with the excavation of a Viking boat grave where human remains did not survive. Absence as well as presence, were key points made.

In summary, it was a fun couple of hours nattering about mortuary matters. I don’t think I’ve been interviewed before about my views on mortuary archaeology. I fear that I probably learned more from the process than Katherine did! Still, I wish Katherine all the best with her research, which is promising to make an exciting contribution to the study of death, burial and commemoration by archaeologists in the UK.


Connah’s Quay and Shotton war memorial. A memorial landmark augmented with texts and with transformed environs

For a blog about death and memory in the human past, I have pledged to keep down my discussions of war commemoration to an absolute minimum rather than add to the zombie commemorative culture of war anniversaries. However, again I find myself inspired to write about ‘typical’ First World War memorials rather than the exceptional monuments that attract attention for their distinctive artistic merit or unusual or national significance.

For those interested, I have posted previously about First World War memorials;

  • once about my local war memorial here,
  • about the commemoration of the First World War in churches here
  • and at the commemoration of the First World War at the National Memorial Arboretum here.

This post has two themes:

  1. The protracted biographies of First World War memorials
  2. The textual slide towards commemorative incongruityof some war memorials

Detail of south face

For these two themes, my case study is the same: the Connah’s Quay and Shotton War Memorial, located on Connah’s Quay High Street. National War Memorial inventory number 7116. Further details about the war memorial can also be found here and here. I visited this memorial when out walking with my twins to Wepre Park from Shotton railway station.

IMG_20140903_091614A memorial biography

From the time of their commissioning and erection, in this case in 1927, First World War memorials have experienced many stages of use for ceremonies and other memorial functions, been subject to erosion and accidental damage, sometimes vandalism and theft, and phases of refurbishment. What is also striking is how, despite superficially seemingly pervasive and fixed landmarks, they can be moved. Even if static, their surroundings re-landscaped and paved; creating changing environments. Memorials are subject to augmented and transformed uses.

In particular, war memorials accrue commemorative texts over time, honouring the dead from successive conflicts and thus recasting each time the relationships between the dead from these conflicts. Sometimes memorials only barely retain their sense of integrity while others have to adapt their form to receive the names of the dead of each successive conflict. The biographies of these memorials are written onto them with multiple texts and material embellishments.


The added stone and plaque commemorating the Second World War dead


Post 1945 war dead

The Connah’s Quay and Shotton is a good example.

  1. On two sides of the pillar are bronze memorial plaques outlining the context of the memorial and where those named fell in the conflict
  2. On the west and east faces of the pillar are the names of over 200 names of the First World War dead;
  3. northern front bears a memorial plaque to the dead of the Second World War, notably with two names appended at a later date;
  4. there is a further plaque commemorating those who died since 1945: three in Korea, two in Cyprus, and one in the Falklands;
  5. The final plaque is to a serviceman killed in Iraq in 2007;

Iraq memorial plaque

Static Biographies

Of course the ‘biography’ of a memorial like this is not simply about what gets added or removed. The static original messages remain, but take on new significances with each generation.

Hence, the Connah’s Quay and Shotton memorial is also valuable as an example for the way in which a original text upon a war memorials, rather than achieving a neutral timelessness, jars with contemporary responses and sentiments towards war. Triumphalism has always been eschewed on memorials, but patriotism takes ever different forms, making some memorials’ texts awkward to a modern eye (at least this is my view, others might read it as of enduring significance…). The quote inscribed on the stone base of the monument is attributed to Rudyard Kipling and represents, to my mind, a chilling patriotism and mindless robustness in the face of mass human death that is difficult to stomach. At least that is how it reads when selected out of context, regardless of whether it held this stark message in its original literary context. Likewise, the incongruity of ‘England’, admittedly close by, is certainly now incongruous on a memorial in a Flintshire town (a part of Wales forever England?):



Almost to add insult to injury, this bellicose text is repeated on both the western and eastern base of the memorial. Was this quotation ever representing a consensus view? What sentiments does this text now offer? It is difficult to ignore how this text is powerful and disturbing in ways perhaps unintended, as the memorial has aged and received repeated textual additions.

IMG_20140903_091536And, of course, nothing could jar more superbly than the latest plaque, added to the railings on the very perimeter of the paved area around the memorial.


A millennium memorial plaque

Prof. Howard M. R. Williams:

An interesting take on the runic pots from Spong Hill

Originally posted on Shine A Light Project:

Today’s guest blog is from Livia Roschdi and features one of our ‘star objects’, the Spong Hill Pots. Livia is an intern with Norfolk Museum Service’s Archaeology Department.

Communication problems: Understanding our Past through Signs and Symbols

As a historical linguist, I am often confronted with the question of how communication over centuries works. Scholars come up with many different readings and explanations of objects from the past and claim to know what they are, what they were used for and even draw (sometimes hasty) conclusions on the respective society. But do we actually understand our ancestors? Do we read the signs correctly or are we just interpreting from our modern point of view?

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist of the early 20th century and a key figure in the study of semiotics (the study of signs), a sign represents or stands for an idea of an…

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IMG_20140821_205925Every heritage site and museum has a gift shop. It is a constant rant of mine that often they contain items that are irrelevant to the site/displays (especially those run by English Heritage) or things I don’t want. Ok, I confess I possess a ridiculous number of site guidebooks that I MUST acquire as souvenirs of my visits. I justify as ‘research’ tools andsome are indeed scholarly and competent, even if others are toilet paper. And yes, I confess again, I do sometimes succumb to purchasing tea towels, jam and even booze (e.g. Lindisfarne mead at the English Heritage shop at the Priory).

Places of historic worship visit are my particular weak spot however. I rarely spend much and I don’t go in for the religious paraphernalia. However, I do leave a donation when I can and I do like a good fridge magnet. Indeed, through my many recent visits to cathedrals, I have amassed a ludicrous number of cathedral fridge magnets. The gift shop at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul didn’t inspire me, although I did leave with two fridge magnets!

However, forget the big cathedrals and other holy places. In my recent travels, it has been St Cuthbert’s church, Bewcastle, Cumbria, that has won hands down for ESSENTIAL souvenirs. I didn’t spot a fridge magnet, but there was so much more.

Now Bewcastle is  well worth a visit for its castle, church, churchyard, museum and most importantly because of its famous eighth-century Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft. Obviously I am biased because I love this monument.

Still, I challenge you not to acquire a fabulous, tasteful and stylish tee-shirt and porcelain mug, both bearing interlace designs inspired by the Bewcastle cross. I don’t get a commission, but I implore you to visit and acquire through payment of UK pounds, these beautiful items to treasure, wear, sup from and display to friends and family.


Hawarden Bridge halt, taking the train home


Bike on the train

One of the many things I love about living in North Wales and working as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester is the commute to work.

I have a number of options that I take but I particularly enjoying taking my bike on the Bidston line to Shotton or Hawarden Bridge and cycling along the old railway line into Chester, coming off at Parkgate Road. This was once the railway line that ran through Blacon and into Chester Northgate station as discussed here.


The heritage reconstruction of Blacon involves mock station signs and level crossing gates

Whether I traverse along the River Dee from Shotton to Chester or along the old railway line, the 7 mile cycle gives me some much needed exercise and time for reflection. Some of my best archaeodeath schemes come to mind whilst cycling. I particularly enjoy the mock railway station signs and level crossing gates when the cycle path enters into Blacon. This is possibly the best way to enter – and leave – Blacon.

Gravestones by the Tracks

Still, there is always an archaeological dimension and an archaeodeath one too. If I take the old railway line, my cycle takes through Blacon and past the cemetery there. Through the old line-side vegetation I can see the common graves but also the Commwealth War Graves. The stark contrast in the level of maintenance between the civilian and war dead is also a focus of fascination for me, and seeing these graves from the outsider’s perspective of the cycle path, where there is no access to the cemetery, and visiting the cemetery itself, offer a very intriguing and distanced engagement with a mass of regulated memorials.


Commonwealth war graves in Blacon cemetery, viewed from the cycle path (the old railway line)

Cremation by the Tracks

This commute cycle also has allowed me to observe the transformation of Blacon cemetery as a landscape of cremation and cremation commemoration. Over the last two years I have observed as I have cycled the demolition of Blacon Crematorium and the building of its space-age replacement beside the Ellesmere Canal. The landscaping of what had been fields into a new memorial environment, with paths, flowers and trees has been equally fascinating. It has still to fully bed in, but it has been intriguing to watch the practical work and decisions made regarding how a crematorium should look and operate in the 21st century compared with its mid-20th century predecessor.


Blacon’s new crematorium viewed from the old railway bridge (not cycle park) over the Ellesmere Canal



IMG_20140924_131537I am pleased to say that I am now well over halfway in my term of office as Honorary Editor for the Royal Archaeological Institute‘s annual journal: the Archaeological Journal. I am learning a lot and enjoying the hard work of editing dozens of journal articles and publishing them to as high a standard as I can manage.

To date, I served as Reviews Editor for vol. 168 for 2011 and then as Honorary Editor for vol. 169 for 2012, vol. 170 for 2013 and just out vol. 171 for 2014. In total, this amounts to editing c. 32 journal articles which report original research dealing with the full span of the human past in these islands and neighbouring regions from the Palaeolithic to the 20th century.

I have also edited two of the RAI’s Summer Meetings reports, written and compiled by David Breeze.

Vol. 172 for 2015 is in production with our new partner: Routledge, and the first of two parts will be published online in December 2014, slightly ahead of the schedule previously advertised on this blog.

IMG_20140924_094815I have received very good news about Project Eliseg. This is a collaborative project between Bangor University, the University of Chester, Llangollen Museum and Cadw. Project Eliseg is investigating the early ninth-century cross-shaft and base known as the Pillar of Eliseg, near Valle Crucis, Llangollen Denbighshire.  Following 3 field seasons in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the project is in the post-excavation stages.

Today I (bloke in purple shirt in office, bottom centre) had a serious and long project meeting via Skype with my Project Eliseg collaborators Professor Nancy Edwards (the white silhouette top-right), Dr Gary Robinson (the whippet on the sofa top-left). We learned that we have the opportunity to apply for funding to complete its post-excavation stages from Cadw.  If successful, we aim to put into practice an ambitious plan to bring together the post-excavation work on the project by February 2015, leading to the writing up of our project during the rest of that year.

To learn more about Project Eliseg, read my other recent posts, including:

  • here about the online public outreach of the project,
  • here about the monument’s landscape context,
  • here about the public lectures and
  • here about the post-excavation stages of the project
  • here about the new display of our discoveries in Llangollen Museum

Owain Glyndwr statue, Corwen, photographed in 2008

From the novels of Sir Walter Scott to Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit, medievalism takes many forms in today’s popular culture. Medievalists study not only the Middle Ages, but the various reuses and recontextualisations of the Middle Ages into the modern world and up to the present day.

This affects medieval archaeology too. Medieval archaeologists need to be aware of the subtle appropriations and blatant reuses of the medieval past. This is not only a subject of inherent interest, but also because these reuses often involve archaeological evidence – material cultures, architectures and monuments. Furthermore, medievalism can be heavily implicated in the packaging and selling of medieval heritage from monasteries and castles to the tombs of kings and museum displays of medieval life.

For me, medievalism’s most disturbing forms transpire when closely tied to romantic nationalism. One of the most disturbing of recent neo-medievalist statuary can be attributed to this spirit.

In the Denbighshire town of Corwen close to the heartland of Owain Glyndwr’s lands and power, his nationalist legacy is honoured in an armoured equestrian uttering a war cry. I discuss this statue briefly here. Like it or loathe it, passing through Corwen on the A5 one cannot but marvel at the silently howling rider.

What struck me recently as particularly ridiculous is the adoption of this statue by the Wrexham branch of Burger King. Not only is this odd because Corwen, where the statue is located, is 20-21 miles away (depending on which route you take) from Wrexham. Moreover, Corwen is not in Wrexham borough but in neighbouring Denbighshire. The sense of this escaped me at first, a rather random citation to the region’s medieval past.

So hence my instinct is to dismiss this as an attempt by a global corporation to root itself in a local area with insensitivity to the local geography, history and archaeology, let alone a lack of awareness of just how recent and fantastical this statue actually is. Perhaps Burger King did not want to adhere itself to Wrexham’s particular history and its own statuary, including its memorials honouring the 20th-century war dead, memorials honouring the mining heritage and disasters of the area and so on. Instead they selected this pseudo-medieval fantasy and had to go as far as Corwen to do so.

Then, as an archaeologist, I thought: context is everything. Perhaps by choosing a Corwen statue rather than one from Wrexham, Ruabon, Chirk or Llangollen, an attempt was being made to draw ‘My Burger King’ into a regional as well as a Welsh identity, rather than a peculiarly Wrexhamite one.

The photographs of the statue are on opposing faces of a screen – facing both outwards to those entering and inwards to those seated in the restaurant. Perhaps Owain is communicating a complex multivalent message to those working in and consuming the fast-food chain’s premises. Is he offering a challenge to any who tries to steal his Whopper? Maybe he is suffering from indigestion after too many fries and serves as a warning to those who enter and try to eat too fast? Is he calling out to the people of Wrexham to rise up, mount up and mobilise their chicken nuggets for an assault on neighbouring English Chester?

Who knows?

Who cares?

Probably no-one on both counts, but these were the questions going through my mind as I awaited my Bacon Double Cheeseburger meal…

Incidentally, it will interesting to see if BK get in touch with an explanation… I presume they have a legal team who spend their time scouring the internet for negative coverage, so it will be interesting to see if I am asked to remove the picture below:


IMG_20140914_100418‘Animals and Tombs’ is an enduring theme in my archaeological photography. Over the years, I have accrued photographs of sheep under gravestones, squirrels on gravestones, birds on tombs and snails and butterflies likewise positioned. I have a snap somewhere of a horse under a Neolithic dolmen. Then, there is the experience of the dreaded bulls of Bodowyr….

During my recent visit to the European Association for Archaeologists annual conference, I spent 3 days in over-hot lecture rooms listening to papers on death, and chatting and scheming in meetings with archaeologists and publishers. Over the four evenings I spent my time in cafes, a party, restaurants and many hours walking the streets of Istanbul. I also spent one morning exploring some of the sights on the Golden Horn, including the incredible church/mosque of Hagia Sophia before heading back to the airport.

Istanbul is a city of cats, and I was delighted to spot this particular funerary feline lurking in a medieval Byzantine sarcophagus, part of a large exhibition of spolia at Haphia Sophia. Hidden behind a cafe, this sarcophacat looked particularly narked that I had discovered its hiding place. I retreated before it could lunge…

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.