Archaeology, Mortality and Material Culture

Dirty Heritage! A Contemporary Archaeology of Inaccessible Spaces Part II


Panoramic view from Conwy’s town walls


Conwy’s town walls

Recently I spent a splendid day out visiting two Cadw-managed 13th-century Edwardian castles in North Wales. First I visited the wonderful castle of Rhuddlan – my favourite castle site. As well as exploring the ruins, I got to meet a Cadw inspector who was lurking around the ruins. I then went on to walk around the town walls of Conwy before exploring the castle itself.

Previously I’ve blogged about the archaeology of inaccessible spaces here; spaces you can see but have no public access. This are personally disturbing for me, since they accumulate rubbish that is dropped and cannot be picked up. They are womble-free spaces and I hate it!

Conwy’s town walls are some of the best-surviving 13th-century town walls in Europe and in the base of the one of the towers over which you traverse as one promenades around the wall-walk, is a space one cannot get to, but where things can get to. Inside is a snapshot of a summer’s detritus of tourists’ accidental losses including plastic bottles, drink cans and even a child’s umbrellas. If seeing litter on the street distresses you, this is a self-contained rubbish nightmare of out-of-place, inaccessible waste. The horror!


The horror of heritage litter!

And yet there is comfort here also, something proudly subversive about the rubbish amidst the manicured heritage landscape: a little bit of tawdry grot. At Rhuddlan Castle there is pigeon poo to subvert the cleanliness and cause problems. At Conwy Castle it is herring gull mess. On Conwy town walls, it is the inaccesibilty of this tower’s lowest recesses that brings home the futility of attempting heritage perfection.

I’m guessing that they seasonally, or perhaps even monthly, clean it out. Yet we have here a perfect snapshot of the stuff that might otherwise be scooped up by conscientious wombles like me if dumped on the street, or else by an employee of the local council. In this case, I was denied and I found it incredibly disconcerting and comforting in a crazy mix.

Beowulf and Archaeology

IMG_3036I am pleased to announce my second article published this year.

Two years ago, I went to Pilsen in the Czech Republic to attend and present 2 research papers at the European Association for Archaeologists annual conference. I was invited by the organisers to contribute to the proceedings of the EAA Pilsen conference session ‘Outstanding Biographies: The Life of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe’ discussed here. 

Since I had presented on my collaborative work with Project Eliseg which is destined for a monograph, I instead offered them something else for the proceedings. The editors and anonymous referees liked my idea and submission. The editors did a great job with the book and it is now just published with Oxford University Press entitled The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe. You can find more details here and excerpts are available on Google Books here.


I decided to write a paper that reports on my work on the literary and archaeological perception of the past in the Early Middle Ages. My chapter presents a new interpretation of the significance of the ‘megalithic tomb’ that, since the 19th century, archaeologists have asserted is being described in the poem Beowulf. 

This is a spin-off from my ongoing research with the ‘Past in its Place’ project in which I am exploring the significance of Wayland’s Smithy and its landscape context, as well as the significance of smiths represented on early medieval stone sculpture.

It is not incidental that this gave me an excuse to write a paper legitimately called ‘Beowulf and Archaeology’, one of a series that have done so. However, in my paper I pay specific attention to the literary biography and materiality of the ‘stone barrow’ in which the old king dies fighting the wyrm.

Title and Abstract

IMG_20150723_150618Beowulf and Archaeology: Megaliths Imagined and Encountered in Early Medieval Europe

The dragon’s lair in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf has been widely interpreted to reflect engagement with Neolithic megalithic architecture. Embodying the poet’s sense of the past, the stone barrow (Old English: stānbeorh) of the dragon has been taken to reveal mythological and legendary attributions to megalithic monuments as the works of giants and haunts of dragons in the early medieval world. This chapter reconsiders this argument, showing how the dragon’s mound invoked a biography of successive pasts and significances as treasure hoard, monstrous dwelling, place of exile, theft, conflict and death. Only subsequently does the mound serve as the starting-point for the funeral of Beowulf involving his cremation ceremony and mound-raising nearby. The biography of the dragon’s barrow is a literary one, in which inherited prehistoric megaliths were counter-tombs, antithetical to contemporary stone architectures containing the bodies of kings, queens and the relics of saints.

Hauen’s Cross? Introducing Nevern 4 (P73)


Nevern 4 faces A and D, 2014


Nevern 4, faces C and D, 2013

Ever since I first encountered this fabulous free-standing ring-headed cross comprised of two sculpted stones in c. 2000, I have been a fan of its striking form, ornament, patina and position.


The tops of faces B (in shadow) and C of Nevern 4.

Nevern 4 is not in isolation, it is situated as one of nine early medieval monuments known from Nevern (Nanhyfer) and one of four from St Brynach’s Church. Later to acquire a substantial castle, it is likely that Nevern was an early ecclesiastical centre. As such, it is a key piece of evidence for any researcher interested in early medieval stone sculpture and what it reveals about the history of the church and society in these islands.

This discussion follows closely on that found on pages 396-401 of Nancy Edwards’ superb Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume 2 (2007, University of Wales Press), in which she numbers it ‘Nevern 4 P73’ (Pembrokeshire 73). Her detailed appraisal is accompanied by fine black-and-white photographs of the monument far superior to my snaps here. I would recommend anyone seriously interested in this monument to acquire or loan Nancy’s book.


The cross in relation to the church

Nancy dates the monument to the second half of the tenth or early eleventh centuries AD (i.e. late Viking Age).

The modern location of the cross is important because Nancy regards it as probably in situ. In other words this might be a rare example of an early medieval monument that has never been moved subsequent to its 10th/11th-century erection.

In this regard, it is just like the Pillar of Eliseg. However, in this case it was probably situated right next to a pre-existing early Christian place of worship. This scenario is unproven and the church might have come later. However, the presence of two inscribed stones – Nevern 1 and 2 – both dated to the fifth or sixth centuries, might be taken as evidence that this was a persistent place in the early medieval landscape that accrued a church at the same time, or centuries before, the raising of the cross. If the cross really is in its original location, it might have flanked the southern side of a smaller, earlier structure in a similar fashion postulated for the Llanbadarn Fawr cross and the Bewcastle monument.


The lower half of face C of Nevern 4, with the text-panel with the possible personal name ‘Hauen’ visible in roman-letter book-script

Nancy provides a full and detailed description of the ornament which I shall not repeat. She notes that the ‘Viking influence’ in the interlace and fret patterns find parallels with a range of other crosses from South-West Wales, particularly Carew 1. She goes so far as to suggest that, given that some of the stone used for Carew 1 is from the same source as the Nevern 4 monument (Carn Wen, Preselis) that they were made by the same hand(s).

What is striking is the striking different widths of the cross-shaft  and the cross-head, neck and shoulders set into it. This difference in thickness is mediated by a projecting panel at the top of the shaft on face A. This feature further emphasises the arguments made by many that early medieval stone sculpture often emulates features found in other media, in this case contemporary ecclesiastical metalwork. Such ‘skeuomorphic’ dimensions might, however, be simultaneously alluding to multiple media, and metalwork, woodwork and manuscripts are perhaps just some of the options for interplays of designs and their execution in stone.


Nevern 4, top of face C

This monument is not fully ornamental however, and abstract decoration and form are not the only skeuomorphic elements. In addition to the interlace, knotwork and fretwork there are two abbreviated text panels, one half-way down each broad face and thus opposing each other.


Close up of face D

On the western side (face A) there is a rectangular panel enclosed by a perimeter of roll-moulding with roman-letter book-script, with some serifs ‘DNS’. This is interpreted as an abbreviation of D(omi)n(u)s (Lord).

On the eastern broad side (face C) is a matching small rectangulr panel, also framed by roll-moulding with roman-letter book-script with letters and two punctus interpreted as ‘HA[U]. .E[N] but the layout is ‘enigmatic’ as Nancy notes. This is interpreted as Hauen (‘Hauen’) by Nancy, following Macalister.

It is tempting to have a name to connect to this monument even if the interpretation of the text remains problematic. Was this a funerary monument to ‘Hauen’, or was he the commissioner of the monument? Beyond that speculation, what is more interesting is that the text is itself skeuomorphic; translating manuscript writing into a monumental medium rather than adapting more easily inscribed linear letter forms.

In conclusion, the Nevern 4 cross is important example for demonstrating the importance of understanding the location and materiality of early medieval stone monuments. Alongside careful consideration of ornament, texts and images upon them, crosses like this, once originally brightly painted in many colours, were there to impress and become memorable through single and multiple encounters.


The panel in the church about the cross

Skulls in Stone and Brass: Inside Holt Church.

Holt’s parish church has  fascinating and rich archaeological and architectural dimensions. Its interior and churchyard and well worth a visit. The church is part of Wrexham Borough’s open church network and therefore contains solid and helpful heritage displays exploring the history of the village, its castle, the bridge and the location’s Roman station and potteries. Inside and outside, there are many dimensions of archaeodeath interest. Here are but two, both involving skulls.

The Biography of the Memento Mori Stone

The ‘memento mori’ stone was formerly in the graveyard below the central east window beneath loose stones. Upon removing the loose stones in 2006, the slab was seen to have additional carvings. The heritage board suggests it was a mason’s trial piece later reused as a side-panel for an 18th-century chest tomb with its trial carvings facing inwards. Later, it was repositioned again beneath the window. The translation inside in 2006 represents a postulated fourth stage to its biography. Of course, this doesn’t entertain the strong possibility that the stone might have had an earlier stage (or stages) to its life history before it was used as a trial piece!

The folklore indicates that the carved skull denotes where a stone mason fell from the church to his death at some unknown point between the 15th and 18th centuries. Folklore is rarely helpful, but not entirely random; the presence of the stone as displayed up to 2006 up against the very edge of the church would have inspired this particular gruesome story.


The ‘Memento Mori’ stone


Happy skull, crossed bones and heart

The Thomas Crue Tablet

I am confident that memorial brasses were designed to be impossible to photograph! Anyway, this brass tablet was situated on the north wall of the chapel north of the chancel. It commemorates Thomas Crue, d. 1666, produced by his relative Sylvanus Crue, a Wrexham goldsmith. I just love its skulls and skeleton, angelic head, columns and sundials and crown and hour glass. Sorry the photos aren’t ideal. My transcription is uncertain regarding the fifth word on the first line but otherwise the dreary nature of the imagery is reflected in the text.

The life of man ????ntly from the wombe;

Head oneth both day & night unto the tombe

Of mortall life when once the thred is spunne

Man has a life imortall then begunne

A wife man dying lives and living dies

Such was the man that here intombed lies.

Caerfull he liv’d gods sacred lawes to keepe

Religiously untill the Death or Sleepe

Unto a happy life, his soule did bring,

Ending this life to live with Christ our king

The Latin inscription is another brassy memento mori: ‘me today,  you tomorrow’.

Happy stuff indeed!


The Crue tablet

Brenig Archaeology Trail – Archaeodeath in the Landscape


The ring cairn beside Llyn Brenig. Originally a ceremonial monument, it was later filled in with stones and received cremation burials


On the archaeology trail!


At the start of the Brenig Archaeology Trail

It must be said that I have been on more ‘archaeological trails’ in Sweden than in the UK. In the UK there aren’t that many (but happy to be corrected) although see my discussion of the Maelmin heritage trail here and here. Hence, in good weather, today I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally try out the Brenig Archaeology Trail as set up by Welsh Water and Denbighshire Countryside Service. The archaeodeath dimension is clear. Many of the sites are Bronze Age mortuary and ceremonial monuments and hence this is a rare instance where a scattered ‘cemetery’ of mounds across hillsides in North-East Wales has been the focus of heritage interpretation.


The ring cairn with its heritage board. No. 1 on the archaeology trail

Actually this was a second attempt to explore Brenig. The first one being a bit of a disaster due to screaming kids. This attempt was far more successful but the screaming (and this time also vomiting) kids were back, impeding speed and coherent progress but adding all manner of humorous dimensions. The most dismissive and funny comment in this regard was upon reaching the kerbed cairn (7 on the archaeology trail) when my eldest exclaimed something like: “we’ve gone the wrong way again Daddy, you’ve brought us to a field full of only sheep poo”…


The material culture of heritage – the waymarkers with their carved prehistoric pots


Sites 1 and 2 on the trail…


Burial mound Boncyn Arian (mound of money) was a stone-kerbed monument covering a single cremation burial. It was later enlarged and six cremation burials were added with turves placed over. The mound was capped with yellowish clay. No. 2 on the Archaeology Trail.

The trail takes in elements of a rich archaeological upland landscape explored by work done ahead of the construction of the Llyn Brenig reservoir in the 1970s. The fact that these parts of the landscape are not submerged is because plans for a second stage enlargement of Llyn Brenig were never completed.


Hafotty Siôn Llwyd – 18th-century farmstead rebuilt in 1880s

For superb details of the trail and the archaeological sites along its way, I need not reiterate, but reference the walking trail available here on the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust website. There are a series of heritage boards and waymarkers that help to explain and guide you through the space. I can also strongly recommend the audio trail on Denbighshire County Council’s website narrated by the superb Frances Lynch: one of the directors of the archaeological work. Access it here.


The platform cairn – covering a cremation burial inside a kerb of large stones in-filled with stone. A large stake-hole was centrally situated, now marked by some quart boulders.

Meanwhile, at the Llyn Brenig visitor centre there is a very strange mock-up of how Bronze Age ceremonial activities might have appeared against a backdrop of contemporary huts, with a board explaining about the activities of ‘Bronze Age man’ in the area.


Bronze Age ‘man’ at the Llyn Brenig Visitor Centre


Fascinating representation of a Bronze Age funeral

Starting at the car park, we did part of the trail in a counter-clockwise direction. Because I was guiding 5 small kids, we decided to miss out the farthest Bronze Age kerb cairn (6 on the walking trail). Because the waymarkers have been taken down, we missed out on seeing the medieval sheep fold Hen Ddinbych (5 on the walking trail). Due to my son and eldest daughter attempted a bit of geese-droving, I managed to miss the early modern hafotai (3 on the walking trail).


Kerbed cairn (7 on the archaeology trail)


Annex to the platform cairn covering a pit containing a deposit of charcoal and urn (but no bone)

Reflecting on the experience, I would say it was superb. I got to see a burial mound, ring cairn, kerbed cairn and platform cairn, many of which had long series of mortuary and ceremonial activity during the early 2nd millennium BC. I also got to see a 19th-century farmhouse.

Regarding the trail itself, it is in some disrepair. We found two abandoned waymarkers dumbed at the kerbed cairn (7) and the toilets at the car park was closed. Still, the heritage boards – two different kinds, reflecting two stages of investment, were clear and give the walker a balanced nsight into a rich long-term archaeological history of the landscape from the Mesolithic to the 19th century as well as the wildlife to the observed in the area.

From an archaeodeath perspective, I must comment on the fact that most of the monuments resulted from long biographies of monument-building interspersed with (mainly) cremation ceremonies and the deposition of the cremated human remains. Deposits of charcoal were also recovered. Together this suggests the key significance of these monuments was fire and the transformation of the dead by fire. It strikes me as odd in this context that the heritage displays neither discuss nor visualise cremation practices or other fiery technologies in the Bronze Age. This is a great pity, since the varied and multi-staged practice of cremation was more than a ‘burial rite’.

Finally, I want to note that a further dimension of my interest in Brenig is the work I have done at the Pillar of Eliseg, where work with Nancy Edwards and Gary Robinson (Bangor University) has shown that the ninth-century cross had been installed upon a prehistoric burial mound of early 2nd millennium BC date. Seeing the mounds at Brenig made me reflect on the similarities between their forms and locations.


Sad disrepair of the waymarkers

Death by Toilet: The End of Western Civilization?


Archaeology without convenience

What will future archaeologists see as the earliest indication of the beginning of the end of Western civilization? My theory is that it will be revealed in the way we go to the loo.

Using sophisticated remote sensing and dating techniques, future archaeologists will be able to explore a vast amounts of complex and rich data relating to our abandoned cities, towns, villages and countryside. They will investigate our military sites, our transport systems, our supermarkets, our hospitals, our technology, our dress, our shopping centres, our cinemas, our landfill sites, our drains and our cemeteries. They’ll even investigate the internet!

Among all of this, where will the earliest signs of decline be registered?

If you think about it, there is only one answer. Civilization can be defined in many ways, but the management of civic amenities and hydraulic engineering are key. Hence, my guess is that future archaeologists will find the earliest indications of decline in the late 20th and early 21st-century closure of public toilets.

Here is a blurred glimpse of the recent past that I think heralds the beginning of the end. This public toilet isa well-built slate construction, well maintained and well-positioned to support leisure activities at Llyn Brenig, Denbighshire. In actual fact, it is at the beginning of the Brenig Archaeological Trail! It is now out of use.

It isn’t simply the fact that it is shut, it is the fashion by which its closure is articulated: a wooden board as a replacement door and a typed notice stated it is closed ‘until further notice’. The nearby signposts still denote an active Ladies and Gents toilets at this location.

Visiting with a family of five kids and another adult, this was less than convenient. It feels like a post-apocalyptic scene and perhaps it will be. I hope I’m wrong, but it felt like I was looking into the abyss as I was denied a glimpse of the toilet bowl and urinal.

This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the last 30-40 years, I’ve seen many abandoned public toilets, some subsequently bulldozed away. What makes this one eerie is the superb quality of its construction and its apparent newness.

Death by toilet?

At least I didn’t find an bog bodies!

Holt! Who Goes There?


Holt Castle and one of the new heritage boards

I did and so should you!

This morning I visited Holt Castle, Wrexham.

This is a distinctive and important castle and it is worth writing about for both its historical significance and its new heritage interpretation.

Holt Castle was built by John de Warrene family after Edward I gave them lands in the Vale of Llangollen and neighbouring territories in Maelor Saesneg previously held by Gruffydd ap Madog who had built Castell Dinas Bran. Construction began c. 1277 and continued to 1311. The adjacent planned town developed with its church (to be discussed elsewhere). The site chosen was on the River Dee, from which it could resupplied in a siege.


The rock-cut cliff defined the inner side of the original pentagonal inner ward

The castle withstood the burning of the town by Owain Glyndwr’s forces in 1400. The castle fell into disrepair in the 16th century but was refortified and saw sustained sieges. It was first garrisoned by Royalists, taken by Parliamentarian forces, then re-taken and then endured a 9-month siege before being handed over by the Royalists to the Parliamentarians in January 1647. Given its effective use, even against 17th-century cannon and musket, it is unsurprising that the castle was deliberately slighted to prevent its future refortification.


The new approach to the castle – stairs allow access into what was the inner ward’s courtyard for the first time

Holt Castle has recently received new archaeological excavations led by Stephen Grenter, Heritage Service Manager for Wrexham County Council as discussed on the BBC website. I was excited to see the work done by Wrexham Council to improve access and provide new heritage displays as well as additional conservation work informed by the discoveries of the excavations.


Another view of the castle from a new bench and allowing contemplation of the relationship between ruins and original construction

This castle’s material remains leave so much to the imagination. The outer bailey has completely gone; covered by modern housing. The inner ward has only modest footings, the result of post-Civil War slighting and stone-robbing. What you see today are the inner walls of the inner ward castle and the impressive rock-cut moat, once fed by the adjacent River Dee. The site has, until recently, received limited heritage interpretation but multiple stages of conservation and some restoration of the stonework.


Inside the inner courtyard, bench and heritage board evoke the pentagonal structure

Since so little has survived; heritage interpretation is especially crucial. The new heritage boards are large and striking, evoking the pentagonal shape of the castle and situated to afford the visitor with reconstructions from the perspective of their location. Moreover, large benches encourage pause for the visitor to look over the boards and ruins in dialogue with each other. There is also an interactive board for the partially sighted (although sadly all are positioned too high for very young children to access and full engage with). These new boards do a very good job of filling in the gaps and allowing the visitor to better understand both what remains and what was once there.


The relationship between castle and borough is very effectively articulated, as is what we don’t know about the outer ward!

Access is now much improved: previously one could only walk around the ditch, but now new metal railings and stairs allow visitors safe access into what was the inner courtyard of the castle. The access is ugly: the bare silver-metal fences and stair cases are a stark contract to the red-coloured sandstone gravel selected in an attempt to blend into the stonework and rock-cut edges of the moat.


The interactive board on the approach to the castle

The relationship between heritage boards and online information also deserves commendation. Holt Castle is also well-served by its Wikipedia page here, which includes a 3D reconstruction allowing a tour of the castle courtesy of the Castle Studies Trust, allowing a richer sense of how the castle might once have appeared. Wrexham County Borough Council’s website is also worth looking at here.


The only surviving steps down to the Water Gate

Holt Castle presents a real challenge to the modern visitor who are forced to use their imaginations. Still, the new access, conservation and interpretation work helps considerably to provide a much fuller sense of how the castle might have originally appeared. Sadly, to my knowledge, the castle still lacks a slick guidebook and detailed up-to-date academic publications. I hope both of these aspects will be remedied shortly.


The new steps are really ugly, but do the trick. At least the gravel is read and tries to emulate the stonework and bedrock.


Moving away from the heritage interpretation, the best display of medieval labour is the rock-cut ditch itself.

Manx Vikings 1: Balladoole


The reconstruction of Balladoole’s Viking boat-grave in the Manx Museum

I have been so in awe of this site-visit I haven’t mustered the confidence to blog about it yet. Back in May, I had the privilege to visit the Isle of Man for the first time on University of Chester business. I got to briefly look around the Manx Museum in Douglas, to explore a few of its many fabulous ancient and historic monuments, and also to meet and chat with some friendly and supportive archaeological major celebrities. In this post, I wish to present the well-known site of Chapel Hill, Balladoole, a site protected by Manx National Heritage.


The hillfort ramparts from the site of the Viking boat-grave, looking out to sea

Situated close to the very south of the Isle between Castletown to its east and Port St Mary and Port Erin to its west, this modest hill with views out to sea has produced many archaeological finds. It is the site of Bronze Age burials, an Iron Age hillfort reused as an early medieval burial ground and chapel site. The early Christian cist-graves date to before the ninth or tenth century (they were overlain and cut by the Viking boat-grave) and an early Christian keeill is dated to around the tenth or eleventh century. There is a small area for visitor parking and a short walk up to the hill to see the hillfort ramparts, Bronze Age cist and the keeill are displayed in traditional low-tech fashion with superb antiquated metal signs.


The Bronze Age cist


The keeill

The Viking Burial

The most famous archaeological feature on the site is also visible for the modern visitor. Is is a late ninth/early tenth-century boat-grave excavated in 1945 by Gerhard Bersu and published in 1966 by Sir David Wilson.


The Ancient Monument sign

The clinker-built boat c. 11m long containing the burial of an adult male with grave-goods including a shield boss, horse bridle and stirrups, knives, strike-a-light and a whetstone. There was also evidence of animal sacrifice and the possibility has been raised that a female burial from the boat was a sacrifice too. When the boat-grave was constructed, it cut through the west-east orientated cist-graves and disturbed some of them, prompting debate regarding whether this is evidence of accommodation between Christian natives and incoming Norse elites or alternatively the supplanting and deliberate slighting of the earlier graves.

A valuable introduction to the Viking furnished graves on the Isle of Man has been written by Leszek Gardela in a new popular book edited by him with Carolyn Larrington: Viking Myths and Rituals on the Isle of Man but Leszek focuses on two other graves from Ballateare and Peel. The boat-grave is widely discussed by archaeologists and you can see displays about it with its finds in the Manx Museum in Douglas.


The on-site sign, confidently asserting human and animal sacrifice

Reflecting on Death and Memory

This was a special visit for me. In my 2006 book Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain I discussed the Balladoole burial as evidence of the mnemonic importance of the sequence of ritual actions involved in the boat-grave funeral. I wrote this coterminous with having excavated a Viking boat-grave with Martin Rundkvist, students and local volunteers, at Skamby in southern Sweden in the summer of 2005.


The boat grave from within the hillfort

I have subsequently published a series of discussions of rich Viking boat-graves as studies in themselves and as counterpoints to debates regarding furnished burials found elsewhere and at other times in the Early Middle Ages. My point about Balladoole was to regard it less as a ‘burial’ (implying a single moment in time and a single ‘act) but as a technology of remembrance involving the sequence of displays and consignments involving bodies, material culture and monument-building. This kind of approach is not exclusively mine: it has been considered and developed by others and is evident in the recent chapter on Manx burials by Gardela, which is accompanied by two fabulous reconstructions of the graves from Ballateare and Peel. Anyway, looking back at what I said, I do think it adds to the debate, and still has pertinence 8 years later for how we approach furnished burial in the early medieval world.


Looking south-west along the line of the boat-grave

Reflecting on Balladoole

However, I do think there is more to say about Balladoole. Having visited the site and considered its topography, I do think there is more to be explored about this fascinating site and its landscape than is evident in its published literature.

I do not want to go on record with these ideas here, since I need to appraise the literature properly and decide whether my observations compare or differ from those of others. However, for me, I will say that I don’t think the relationship of the boat-grave with the hillfort and the early Christian graves has been adequately interpreted, nor do I see its maritime and territorial context in the same fashion as that designated in the published literature. I am hoping to revisit the interpretation of this site in the future.

I was also impressed by the antique heritage signs: a key dimension to the site in itself worthy of attention regarding how mortuary landscapes are presented to the public.

Does Football Really Remember?


Football Remembers – hands clasped within a giant football frame

This post discusses a very new memorial opened at the National Memorial Arboretum, near Alrewas, Staffordshire. The NMA is one focus of my interests in memory and material culture in the past and in the present. I have blogged about the NMA previously here, here and here.

The memorial subject is ‘The Christmas Truce 1914 Football Remembers’ and the memorial was opened just ahead of the 100th anniversary of this event. It is at the far end of the renamed Falklands Memorial Way, close to the railway line. It is comprised of a shelter containing a series of information boards explaining the historical events of the Christmas Truce as a positive message for peace and reconciliation. It has further messages explaining the memorial and its historical context, including football’s relationship with the recruitment of soldiers for the British Army.

Outside, the main focus is a large metal sculpture of two clasped hands with a spherical (football-like) frame, denoting friendship between the British and German troops who came out of their trenches and met in No Man’s Land for Christmas 1914 to (among other things) play football.

As such, the memorial celebrates and immortalises one of the great stories (embellished and manipulated by literature, legend, song and even tasteless Sainsbury’s advertisements last Christmas) of the First World War and the fact that both football supporters and footballers were among the dead and wounded of the conflict. Moreover, it helps to promote understanding of the events and their potentially positive message about the nature of the human spirit and the nature of war.

The selected design is moved above reproach in two fashions. First, it was designed by a child: 10-year-old called Spencer Turner. Second, the ‘seal of approval’ came from the Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and footballer Theo Walcott selecting Mr Turner’s winning design.

In its final form, it was opened in December 2014 by Prince William and supported by four principal organisations: The Football Association, The Premier League, The Football League and the British Council


The hyper-realistic giant hands within the football frame. Peace is swallowed by the greater goal: football!

Celebrating peace and friendship between men and nations inspired by the celebration of Christmas, even in the maelstrom of bitter fighting, it might be difficult to be critical of such a powerful memorial and its subject. You can see about its opening on the BBC website here.

Every organisation in the UK tried to find ways to suitably mark the centenary of the start of the First World War as well as specific events within the early stages of the conflict. I do not wish to criticise the attention to the anniversary by all and sundry in this particular blog. What I do feel needs stating is that memorials such as this one are problematic.

I feel it is somewhat self-serving and insidious as a memorial because of its use of the rhetorical assertion through sculpture that an inanimate spherical artefact can ‘remember’. Of course when the memorial says ‘Football Remembers’ this isn’t precisely what is meant in a literal sense; it means that the ‘game’ remembers: its organisations, its players, its supporters, its places. ‘Football’ remembers. Still, it is claimed that ‘football’  remembers, but doesn’t state what is remembered. It also sets up ‘Football’ as somehow a ‘player’ in the conflict and now a custodian of its collective memory. Moreover, it elevates the act of remembering in itself as the important thing, not what is remembered. This form of memorial serves to sublimate our attention away from more important issues to focus simply on the act of remembering itself. To prevents us from exploring who and what is remembered, and (most important of all): why is it remembered! 

This memorial prompts many questions in my mind at the time of the centenary of the First World War and the use of material cultures in its commemoration. Among my questions are the following:

  • Is this really a memorial for peace, or celebrating a moment of peace within a war that is itself seen as noble and necessary?
  • Is this really about remembering the Christmas Truce or about promoting football today?
  • Is ‘football’ apologising for its institutional support for the wars past and present?
  • Is it actually also (or more) about legitimising the obscene wealth and corruption of a national and international sporting industry that creates wealth for a tiny minority: a situation even die-hard football fans frequently find impossible to justify and condone?

I’m not a great fan of football, but I would argue that is incidental. The subject of the memorial may be beyond reproach. Its designers are certainly sincere and well-meaning. However, let’s not pretend such memorials are politically neutral and employ material and textual conceits to promote a particular vision of the past in the present.

Moel Arthur: Heather, a Hillfort and a Legend


Moel Arthur – view of the bivallate ramparts on the north-east, west of the main entrance

I’m slowly getting my way through the local hillforts! This morning I visited Moel Arthur with mother-in-law and the famous five-strong sprog army.

We left the car park to its south, where there is a bilingual heritage board informing the visitor about the archaeology and wildlife on the hill. We took on the steep upwards and anticlockwise ascent of the hill in light rain. We made the final approach through the prehistoric ramparts on the hill’s north-eastern side, using its original and only entrance to reach the summit when the rain grew intense. The views were outstanding if obscured by the screen of rain, including panoramas over the Vale of Clwyd, north towards Penycloddiau, south towards Moel Famau and east to Chester and beyond into England.


The heritage board

After a snack, we descended in heavy rain across the ramparts on the northern side and before switching back to descend back to the car. We saw no other walkers, only bilberries, gorse and heather, a few sheep and bees. A striking monolith told us we were on the Offa’s Dyke path (although nowhere near the linear earthworks).


Panorama of the defences and Pencloddiau

The archaeology of Moel Arthur is summarised on the AONB website here. A leaflet for visitors can be downloaded here.

There is supposed to be a possible Bronze Age burial mound on the summit Moel Arthur, but I confess I wasn’t wholly convinced. Three copper flat axes were found in 1962 on the hill. Excavations in 2013 revealed a Bronze Age trackway to the north of the hillfort.


Panorama of the ramparts at the north-east entrance

The hillfort of Moel Arthur itself is an impressive structure for its modest 2ha, with double bank-and-ditch on its northern and eastern (less steep) slopes with a single north-eastern in-turned entrance. Wynn Ffoulkes dug on the hill in the mid-19th century and confirmed its composition involved (in part) drystone walling. He also found arrowheads, red pottery and corroded iron artefacts. Forde-Johnson identified guard chambers inside the entrance. It remains disputed whether the outer or inner earthwork on the northern and eastern sides is the oldest. We know nothing of the precise dating of the hillfort, its sequence of use and reuse. As with Foel Fenlli, was this site used and reused through the Roman and early medieval periods?

Quarrying on the hill’s southern side was probably post-medieval and for stone. Quarrying within the interior doesn’t appear to receive a mention in the HER or AONB websites, so I wonder what is the prevailing interpretation is of the striking scoops into the northern side of the hillfort’s interior? Are these steep cuttings natural, medieval/post-medieval quarrying, or excavations to create platforms for prehistoric habitation and create material for the ramparts? Some might, in part, relate to a legendary, short-lived and fruitless Cilcain goldrush. There is a small modern cairn of stones left by walkers on the summit.

Sadly, there were no ‘archaeodeath’ themes on this particular trip: and it seems I disappointingly didn’t notice the possible Bronze Age burial mound. I will need to go back when I am not busy navigating the feeding and walking of kids maybe, or perhaps it is really obscure.


Modern cairn, possibly overlying a prehistoric mound

A final comment must be given to the Arthurian place-name. This is intriguing since it is isolated in the broader spectrum of ancient monuments attributed to Arthur across Wales. The connections with megaliths are known from Herefordshire as discussed here, and from the Gower (Arthur’s Stone). Meanwhile, the medieval literature situating Arthur at Caerleon are well known as discussed here.

This is the only hillfort in Wales to be attributed to the legendary king and there is no evidence archaeological, historical or literary explanation why this might be. As a small, distinctive and prominent hill with dramatic ancient earthworks, it makes a far more distilled place to attribute the actions of a legendary king than perhaps other, larger, hillforts afforded. Honestly, these characteristics also find paralllels with hillforts demonstrably known to be reused in the Early Middle Ages. Beyond that, I haven’t any clue and invite readers’ comments.


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