Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

Manx Counter-Memorials and a Triple Entendre at the End of the Line


The counter-memorial bench


Located ‘at the end of the line’

I’ve come over to the Isle of Man for work, staying in a hotel in Douglas and enjoying an evening of sea views from my hotel window.


Looking up to Onchan where I sat eating my haddock and chips

Already I’ve found an Archaeodeath memorial, or one might say, counter-memorial (perhaps a counter-death memorial?). It is a memorial installed specifically to celebrate those that help those in trouble and need and to stop people dying at that location.


Happy Prof eating chips, haddock all gone

I had walked along the promenade, up to Port Jack and along the cliff top at Onchan and back. I then explored the Port Jack Glen, had some fish and chips, and then returned via the beach to my hotel.

In the Port Jack Glen there were pretty standard memorial benches. There was even a ‘Millennium Shelter’.

However, the bench I had sat on to eat my food was different. It enjoyed splendid views over Douglas (as did the fish bar close by it must be said). Moreover, it was a counter-memorial plaque, commemorating the work of the Samaritans and perhaps also intending to encourage those who might think of taking their own life on the cliffs to reflect again.


View from the memorial bench

Sitting on this counter-memorial bench, installed to commemorate those that help many people who find themselves losing the will to live, combating thoughts and acts of suicide, I felt very happy.


Many reasons.

I had haddock and chips on my lap, splendid views over the bay, the sounds of wind and sea. I also enjoyed watching crows, jackdaws, herring gulls and fulmars fly by.

All this was wonderful. However, these weren’t sufficient to convince me of the joys of life. For that, I have the Sarmaritans to thank.

This is because I was amused by their double entendre of the phrase ‘always at the end of the line’ being enhanced by the bench’s location. As well as the Sarmaritans being ‘on the line’ in response to individuals who feel they are at the end of the line, the memorial bench isn’t far from the southerly terminus of the Manx Electric Railway. This bench is also always at the end of the line…

Therefore, I believe triple entendres are something worth living for…


Derby Castle terminus of the MER: a few hundred metres from the counter-memorial bench


The cliffs below the counter-memorial bench

Death, Fire and Forgetting


The Summerland Disaster Memorial, Douglas in 2015

I’m off to the Isle of Man soon for the second time. Sadly, my teaching and other work commitments, not to mention the family ones, mean that I won’t be able to go long enough to see anything further of the island’s wonderful landscape and heritage sites beyond the small snapshot I got for the first time last year.

My trip will be taken up with going to the Isle of Man College to do some teaching, have some meetings in my role as the Dept of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester’s link tutor for the BA History & Heritage run through the college. I will also be giving a public talk about my research on early medieval smiths.


2016 view of the memorial looking south-west

I’m thinking back to my visit of last year when I got to see Maughold’s early medieval stones, Balladoole Viking boat-burial and the Manx Museum.

I also encountered a striking memorial to a unique and harrowing fire that took place on the outskirts of Douglas 40 years ago: the Summerland disaster of 2 August 1973.

The innovative hi-tech leisure centre was opened in 1971. It went up in an ‘inferno’ on the evening of 2 August 1973. The disaster was facilitated by multiple failings, including a failure to evacuate immediately, no call for the fire brigade for 20 minutes and some locked fire doors. The building itself was inherently problematic; employing flammable materials in its design, with numerous open spaces and other architectural dimensions facilitating the rapid spread of the fire. A stampede for the main exits caused many deaths by crushing and trampling. Details of the disaster can be found here, here and here.


View from the memorial garden with the passing horse-drawn trams and the Irish Sea beyond

50 children, women and men – many holidaymakers – were killed. Recent articles do not list the numbers injured. It has been described as the biggest civilian fire in these islands since the Blitz.

The fire has a prominent place in the island’s history but is regarded as something of a ‘scar’ and a ‘shame’ on the Isle of Man. Fire regulations for buildings were changed but there were no prosecutions for a fire started by teenage smokers in an adjacent kiosk.


View of the memorial in 2016

The horror of the incident is enough to make anyone want to forget. Collective shame also breeds forgetting. Moreover, the profit motive of tourism breeds a culture of forgetting too surrounding the deaths of tourists. The Summerland fire could be seen in these contexts, and it has been regarded as among the most trivialised disasters in the history of the British Isles.


View of the site of Summerland today, having been rebuilt it closed and is now a part-ruin propping up the cliff-face


toys and flowers tied to bollards beside the Manx Electric Railway at the entrance to the former Summerland

The centre itself is now a ‘scar’. The centre was rebuilt in 1978 but it is now an empty space following demolition a decade ago.

It is also not completely gone but instead it is a part ruin: its west wall still in place for fear that its removal would cause the cliff behind it to collapse. Perhaps its redevelopment will facilitate ‘closure’/’forgetting’, but for now, there is at least finally a memorial.

There are toys and flowers presumably left for the kids that died, along the bollards on the approach to the ruin, between the Manx Electric Railway and the road.



2015 view of the memorial


Memorial to Sir Hall Caine

40 years after the disaster, a monument has been raised to commemorate the fire. It was unveiled on the evening of Friday 2 August 2013, situated within the existing Kaye Memorial Garden in Douglas, a space opened to commemorate Alderman Kaye in 1955.

It is close to the sea and close to the Summerland site. Notably, the site chosen for this disaster memorial was an existing memorial environment in an angle between the coast road (King Edward Road) and Summer Hill Road.

IMG_20160503_181831The gardens have a biography of memorialisation within them. There is a statue to
the memorial augments a memorial environment and there is a small plaque set up to commemorate the 25th anniversary.

Subsequently, a plaque was placed on a small low stone beside the plantings commemorating the 25th anniversary of the disaster in 1998. The choice of location was therefore building on a clear precedent established in 1998 for commemorating the disaster at this location.

The opening ceremony was attended by families
of the victims (see also this report), the names of victims were read out, and some perceived it as bringing closure in itself.


View of the memorial gardens from the promenade

The monument is granite and comprised of a trio of stones set within a raised circular walled garden; a garden within the existing memorial garden.

The names of the dead are inscribed on the faces of the flanking stones, the cut surface creating the slanting angle used so often by memorial masons to denote lives cut short. The top of the central stone is also cut at a similar angle. Powerfully, their age of deaths are also recorded next to each name. The main central stone contains the following text:




ON 2 AUGUST 1973

Erected by Douglas Borough Council

and dedicated on 2 August 2013 on the

40th Anniversary of the Tragedy

We will not forget

Cha jeanmayd jarrood

Beneath the memorial is the town’s crest, and two triskeles (three armoured legged symbols that are the centrepiece of the islands coat of arms) are present too.

There is a sense with such disaster memorials require a discourse of neglect before memories can be rehabilitated and an anniversary ‘closure’ can occur. On this occasion, the discourse seems fully justified. I cannot imagine what 40 years feels like for the families of the victims, other than ‘way too long’. The lack of memorials can breed a shame of their own, growing alongside that of the disaster itself in public consciousness.

Still, at least this memorial, a tiny garden within a garden, provides a permanent memorial to the tragedy. The choice to ‘buffer’ the memorial by locating it within a pre-existing memorial landscape is not a unique strategy for connecting memories of tragedies to previous memorial environments. Churches do this all the time. This might be seen as having a dual role, providing the new memorial with a meaningful context, but also ensuring its memories are ‘managed’. The choice of stark megaliths arranged together, as well as their angle, creates another sense of transtemporality because this form suggests the eternal, links to the island’s prehistory perhaps…

Playing Dead in the Park

IMG_20160411_131718In previous posts I have discussed the complex locales in our present-day landscape that become a focus of votive offerings, ash disposal and memorial plaques. These are a varied spectrum of semi-permanent to temporary, from monumental to ephemeral. Some are located to be public, whilst many others are in public locations, but their precise character and positioning, their scale and substance are carefully designed to render them private and in some cases almost secret.

From road names to statues, war memorials to roadside memorials, we regularly encounter a web of sites of memory. There are those that are publicly sanctioned, in contrast there are various types of ‘gorilla’ commemoration, attempting to subvert public spaces by memorialising victims of murder, traffic accidents and other violent and untimely deaths.

We find these everywhere, and they include cemeteries and crematoria themselves, situated alongside the range of formal burial plots for ashes and bodies available. They might exist in parks, gardens and even botanical and zoological gardens. They also operate in country parks and heritage locales, as well as along our roadsides and pathways.

All our landscapes have become mortuary landscapes, significant to someone in the remembering and forgetting of the dead.

Visiting a Playground

Previously, I haven’t considered children’s playgrounds as further sites of memory. I’ve encountered play areas within schools dedicated to children who have tragically passed away. In public parks, I’ve noticed many memorial benches close to play areas before, but not in them. Likewise, I’ve noticed votives close by, but not seemingly positioned in relation to play areas. Child’s play and memorialisation site in uneasy tension.

Then recently I noticed a series of votives tied to a tree right beside the entrance to one of my kids’ favourite playgrounds. Who is being remembered? Whose loss, whose memory, whose love?

These traces touch those that see them, impinge on our routines and our play and these are situated be suspended right from trees next to one of two entrances into the playground.

Are these from a specific religious or ethnic group? Do they represent mourning for a child? How many parents and children visiting the playground notice them? Will they endure or will they be temporary? Private and public intertwined, they frame the approach and no matter how subtle, without text, without names, they represent personal acts of mourning and remembrance, and yet they also attempt to connect the living who know nothing of those loved and lost.

Note: 2 weeks later, I note that these items have now gone…

Raising a Bottle with ‘The Walking Dead’

IMG_20160427_084400Archaeologists who explore death and the dead tend to accumulate gifts and sounvenirs that link in some vague way to their mortuary interests and its popular culture manifestations.

Bioarchaeologists tend to go for, or get given, skulls and skeletons. Others go for coffins and tombs…

I try to avoid this but mortuary paraphernalia, although I am partial to occasional images of antiquarian tombs and urns. Some items do, however, come my way and some are more memorable and valuable than others.

Last week, I was delighted to receive this gift from a grateful ex-student.

Is it apposite, reflecting my enthusiasm for the series: I’ve just finished watching Season 6.

It is also tasteful: a scary zombie mouth!

More than both apposite and tasteful, it is useful! It is a Walking Dead bottle-opener!

More than apposite, tasteful and useful, it is cool. Because it is cool, it makes me cool! A professor who can open bottles with this, is a professor to be reckoned with, feared and honoured!

Indeed, maybe I’ll survive the zombie apocalypse, now I own this! 


Military Commemoration in the Stonehenge Landscape


The Hewetson memorial, situated adjacent to the road from the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to Stonehenge, on the edge of Fargo Plantation

Salisbury Plain has been a military training zone for over a century. This special status has led to the preservation of many prehistoric monuments that might otherwise have been destroyed by mechanised agriculture and other developments elsewhere in Wiltshire and beyond.

Visitors today might think they are stepping back into a well-preserved landscape relatively untouched by recent activities. Yet the military dimensions of the landscape have shaped, and continue to shape, its land use and its buildings. Bowden et al. (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape explores the 20th-century military landscape, with Larkhill being established in 1909 for the early experiments in flying and how it became teh base of the Royal Flying Corps.

Subsequently, from 1917-1921, an aerodrome was constructed between the Larkhill Military Light Railway and Stonehenge. Bowden et al. (2015) even discuss how the aerodrome buildings might have been aligned so as to respect pre-existing views between Stonehenge and Normanton Gorse where quasi-druidical groups had camped from 1913.

Furthermore, it is also a landscape of military memorials, both in its villages to those who served and/or died in wars, and those along its roadsides commemorating deaths during military aviation training.

I have elsewhere written a research article about the commemoration of military training deaths in Devon with Dr Samuel Walls: Death and Memory on the Home Front. Salisbury Plain possesses commemorative dimensions of its own that merit discussion, linked to its significant role in the history of military aviation from 1911.

What is striking is how two of them have been fully, and somewhat incongruously, incorporated into the new Visitor Centre and routes linking it to Stonehenge and monuments in its environs. Rehabilitated through association, re-location and restoration, they make the Stonehenge experience a martial one.

They have been discussed by archaeologists before. For example, see Mike Pitts’ discussion and photographs of them here and here and here. As Mike notes, it is almost 100 years since the crash commemorated by the earlier memorial that the new Visitor Centre began to be built. By happenstance, is the Visitor Centre a anniversary martial monument? This is enhanced by a series of other quasi-military dimensions to the English Heritage uniforms and security.

??????????Loraine and Wilson

Between the car park and the Visitor Centre is the first monument: a short stumpy cross first erected in July 1913. The memorial was located nearby and moved in 2012 ahead of the building of the Visitor Centre. Prior to that, it had been rededicated in 1996 and had an additional plaque. I’m not sure where this additional plaque has gone.

In 2012, it was relocated from the crossroads previously known as, and still known as, ‘Airman’s Corner’ to the path between the car park and the Visitor Centre:







ON JULY 5TH 1912.


Loraine and Wilson were the first British Army personnel killed whilst flying on duty. It has acquired its own heritage board explaining it too, and situating the memorial in relation to Loraine’s friend Hugh Trenchard who led the RFC in France and was founder of the RAF. As Walls and Williams (2010) argue, death during military training is a frustrating and ambiguous context for commemoration. It creates a frustration since one has to commemorate those that never even reached the context for heroic battlefield death. This commemorative ‘failure’ needs rectifying and situating in relation to a future timeline of British military achievements. This is quite evident in the fashion the heritage board discusses the deaths of Loraine and Wilson.



The second memorial is located at Fargo Wood, along the route buses take between the Visitor Centre and Stonehenge. When I visited in 2014 with family, I saw it briefly as the bus went rapidly past, but I got the chance to recently walk and investigate it.
The slate memorial plaque is fresh and seemingly a replacement, stating:







This monument therefore commemorates a second early casualty in the army’s attempts to develop its flying potential.

DSC00736As with the Loraine and Wilson monument, again, the new arrangements at Stonehenge have facilitated safe and regular access to this monument, for it is now on a pedestrianised road (apart from the Stonehenge ferry buses).

This taller three-stepped cross has been carefully revitalised by the ‘Wings over Stonehenge’ National Trust volunteer group and the military; they restored the monument in time for the centenary of Hewetson’s death in 2013 with a gravel surround.

DSC00735The geographic rehabilitation of the monument into the flow of people’s lives is about more than the pedestrian access. It is now also a ‘bus stop’ where you can request the Stonehenge buses to let you off and pick you up to explore the Fargo Plantation and Cursus Barrows group and the Stonehenge Cursus.

For walkers and those taking the bus all, or part of, the way to Stonehenge, the memorial is integrated into the heritage dimensions of the Stonehenge landscape. It is therefore encountered by many thousands of people every year. Even if a tiny fraction stop and read its plaque and look at it and reflect, this is by far a more prominent position than many other roadside war memorials across the land.


These memorials feel like preludes, both to the Great War and to its memorials, as well as standing for the events they commemorate. They are commemorating military training deaths, and yet are given temporal and spatial contexts, rooted into the distant past and projected to the military present. In this fashion, they also reveal the intersection of war commemoration and heritage in the Stonehenge landscape; elements that cannot be ignored in narratives centred on prehistory alone. Hence, I’m delighted that the military landscape of Stonehenge, and these memorials, rightly find a place in the latest English Heritage publication on the Stonehenge landscape by Mark Bowden and his colleagues.

Powerful Tombs: The Medieval ‘Living’ Dead

IMG_20160427_125224As part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded Speaking with the Dead project, extended by the Past in its Place project, I have been exploring the mnemonics of tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals from the Middle Ages to the present day. Having presented a version of my research under the title ‘Being Medieval in the Cathedral’ at the Society of Medieval Archaeology conference entitled Being Medieval at UCLan (Preston) organised by Dr Duncan Sayer, I decided to present an expanded version of the paper as a public lecture in the Grosvenor Lunchtime Lecture Series.

Picture3Having previously explored Tombs in Beowulf (exploring tombs within and behind the Anglo-Saxon poem) and Tombs of Terror (exploring the mortuary and material associations and manifestations of the legendary smith Weland), this was my third of a series of three lunchtime talks at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.

Effigy tombs

I thought I would explore a particular category of tombs – effigy tombs – and consider them their materialities and biographies as mnemonic agents in cathedral spaces. I’ve discussed them before here. They were varied on many fronts, set up in cathedrals to commemorate royalty, bishops, clergy, aristocrats, and the gentry. They take many forms, some commemorate individuals, others couples. They represent the dead in an idealised, clothed form, although rarer examples of cadaver tombs also can be found.

Hence my talk’s title; I wasn’t suggesting effigies were or are to be considered as ‘living’ in any literal sense. However, both through their creation, and over the long term, they have come to be interactive – ‘conversing’ nodes for remembering and forgetting because of their sense of being animated and citational to other tombs within and around the same churches.

I regard this as part of exploring how an ‘archaeology of memory’ perspective brings new insights to the study of cathedral tombs, and how cathedrals continue to have special role in mortuary commemoration from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Picture4What did effigy tombs in cathedrals want?

I then set up the question: what did effigy tombs want of their viewers and those engaging with and passing by them? I suggested that, exploring how they had a mnemonic agency when constructed because of the particular tension they set up in material and space. If we ask: ‘what do effigy tombs want?’ we have to think about how they ‘speak’ to us, and to each other, through a variety of dualities inherent in their design. We focus on their active roles in calling for prayers from the living and creating social memories.


Effigy tombs in cathedrals were inherently public and yet simultaneously they spoke to the family and friends of the deceased.


Effigy tombs commemorate ecclesiastic identities and themes but many also might commemorate secular personages (or secular dimensions of ecclesiastical persons).


Effigy tombs deploy text but also a range of images and materials. These not only include the principle idealised representation of the persons commemorated – but also  a range of heraldic symbols, subsidiary figures, ornamentation and material media.


The effigies themselves are stylised and yet show personal details: as such they have an uncanny human and yet inhuman quality. Like mannequins and robots, they have an eerie quality as out-of-this-world and yet in it.


The effigy dead are commemorated in repose, and yet they are awake and alert, usually active in prayer. Eyes are often demonstrably open, looking upwards to Heaven. Yet those viewing and touching them can see they are seeing. They are ocular and sensing tombs.


Effigies imply solidity and yet also imply their hollowness and the bodies beneath/below through their form and the effigies themselves.


Effigy tombs commemorate the elite individual and yet provoke ‘dividual’ concepts of personhood. Not only to they sometimes commemorate couples, but they provoke the prayers of the living and serve to honour descendants.


The tombs were large and augmented cathedrals as monuments. As such, they impeded movement and yet serve to create pauses and punctuating movement through cathedral space.


Effigy tombs cited both the past identities of those commemorated and aspirations for both a this-worldly and otherwordly futures for the decased and his/her descendants (spiritual or biological).

Picture1Biographies – What Did Effigies Want Over Time?

I then went on to suggest that the situation becomes even more complex when we take into account what tombs want over time. Here, further dualities apply and help us explore how effigy tombs gained, lost and reconfigured social memories:


Effigy tombs were architectural and yet potentially mobile – they were moved into, out of and around churches, sometimes gaining mnemonic momentum, sometimes losing it.


Effigy tombs were designed as coherent single pieces commemorating specific individuals or couples. Yet they could be effective in mnemonic terms both as wholes but they can operate when partible;


Effigy tombs were monumental and yet delible, subject to plastering, daubing and inscribing, with graffiti. Again, through this they gained as well as lost memories.


They commemorate named persons and yet can operate when they become anonymous, receiving new, legendary associations. This extends to antiquarian and archaeological traditions of interpreting specific tombs in relation to known historical personages who were buried at, and patronised, particular cathedrals.



This is perhaps the most important point for my talk. Effigy tombs have biographies of their own – as they persist, are damaged, moved, restored etc. And yet they also come to operate as assemblages, part of network of tombs within any particular cathedral. Less by design but by complex processes, tombs are mnemonic agents that ‘talk’ to each other.

13084102_724918069073_1320006223_nPutting it all Together

So these are some of the issues I raised to frame my subsequent discussion of St David’s and Llandaff as examples of the project’s exploration of tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals. I discussed tombs that remain intact, others that have been moved, are fragmented, rearranged and, in particular, tombs that are repositioned so that they ‘talk’ to each other. ‘Living’ dead in conversation with each other!


All three talks went well, and I’m very grateful to the Grosvenor Museum and its staff, together with Maxine Reed – clerical assistant in the Dept of History and Archaeology – for supporting my three public talks. I’m also really grateful to the audience who listened so attentively and posed many fascinating and challenging questions. For my last talk 50-minute talk focusing on the tombs in St David’s and Llandaff cathedrals, I spent 10 minutes of Q&A and then 25 minutes talking to people afterwards! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.


Tombs of Terror: The Hunt for Weland


The poster promoting the talk


The female figure, drinking horn in hand, grasped by Weland in his flying machine, as depicted on the Leeds Minster cross (10th century)

I’ve presented research seminars on my on-going research interest in early medieval smiths in York and Bradford in 2014, in Glasgow and Dublin in 2015. I’m now going to write this work up for publication.

You can read about my emerging ideas through a series of previous posts, win which I’ve talked about  the literary and archaeological intersections of early medieval smiths and their material manifestations in art, on carved stones and in the landscape:


Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire

Yesterday, I presented my second Grosvenor Lunchtime Lecture on the topic ‘Tombs of Terror: the Hunt for Weland’. This public lecture aimed to pull together various strands of my research on early medieval artisans in literature and material culture, suggesting that considering smiths as cyborgs helps us to understand their associations with fire and transformation, but also with stone, bone and metal in early medieval life and mind.

Focusing on the mythical smith Weland (Volundr), I explored what might be learned about early medieval perceptions of smithing from the 8th-10th century artefacts depicting Weland (including the Franks Casket, Gotlandic picture-stones and the Uppakra mount) and the 10th-century sculpted stones depicting Weland in his flying machine (focusing on the Leeds crosses and the Bedale ‘hogback’).


The crowd gathers for my talk!

Following that, I explored the materiality and landscape context of the Neolithic monument known by the 10th century as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’. My argument was that these do not give us a static, coherent vision of the mythical smith Weland, but represent how material culture and landscape fashioned and guided the stories’ development within shifting cultural and socio-political environments. In particular, I think that the story of Weland is less about his smithing but his retributive martial and sexual violence.

On reflection, I think I will probably be writing up 2-3 different research articles based on this research, one on cyborg smiths, one on smiths carved on stones, and one on Wayland’s Smithy. Watch this space for news of more Prof Williams publications exploring literary and archaeological dimensions to death, memory and material culture.

Note, remember to check out Hannah Sackett’s Prehistories blog where we recreate the story of Weland the Smith.



Tombs in ‘Beowulf’


The audience gathers for my lunchtime lecture

This last week I gave the first of three Grosvenor Lunchtime Lectures organised by the Department of History and Archaeology. My talk was titled “Tombs in Beowulf”. I began by discussing the many material dimensions to the poem – halls, feasting and martial material culture, and burial mounds. I then introduced the challenge and problems of reading history and archaeology from the poem.


West Kennet long barrow: part of the ‘material world’ of the poem ‘Beowulf’?

I suggested that the poem did indeed shed light on an historical ‘reality’ but only in the broadest of terms. It reveals the widespread deployment of dimensions of mortuary practices of the 5th-10th centuries in Britain and Scandinavia, including furnished graves, ship-burial, cremation practices and burial mounds. I also emphasised how the poem’s fascination with imagined pasts is also revealed in the archaeological record, namely the widespread interest in inserting early medieval graves into prehistoric and Roman monuments before and alongside the widespread adoption of Christian burial traditions and mortuary geographies. Furthermore, I discussed briefly how the poem reveals a perception of landscape that chimes with the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the 7th century onwards. Rather than a direct window onto a legendary Migration Period, the poem reveals the rich power of material cultures and landscape in constructing social memories and worldviews for Christian secular elites in the later Anglo-Saxon period, in which the pagan past had a powerful role.


Snape grave 47 – a 6th-century boat-burial from East Anglia. Part of the diverse and complex material world of maritime vessels deployed in early medieval mortuary practice

I then introduced the funerals within Beowulf  and warned of the seductive desire to equate the poem with the furnished ‘princely’ graves of the 7th century exclusively (including Taplow, Sutton Hoo Mounds 1, 2 and 17, and Prittlewell). Instead, I discussed the widespread evidence of varying uses of boats and ships in mortuary practices across northern Europe that provide the background to Scyld Scefing’s funeral at the beginning of the poem.

I outlined how archaeology can not only shed light on the material world of tombs that created inspiration for the poet, but help us to understand the significance of tombs in the poem itself.


Tolkein’s Smaug takes its inspiration from the poem ‘Beowulf’, in which a dragon guards treasure in a stone barrow.

I have recently published an article presenting a fresh perspective on the significance of the dragon’s mound in Beowulf, as discussed here. I argued that the archaeological certainty of a Neolithic megalithic monument being depicted in the epic poem is something of an allusion creating by archaeologists and a desire to fix a categorical material classification to the monument in the poem. Instead, I explore how the monument had a biography in the poem itself and was a ‘counter-tomb’. It might have been regarded as a literary antithesis to the subterranean and semi-subterranean crypts containing the graves of kings and saints in middle Anglo-Saxon England more than it was a description of prehistoric tomb.

In both regards, my point was to try to query an equation between the poem and the archaeological record in terms of any single period, place or practice. The poem does not preserve traces of a pagan past, but draws on the material world to convey a variety of temporalities and materialities.


The Asthall barrow, Oxfordshire: a 7th-century cremation with imported items covered by a prominent burial mound. In broad terms, the funerary practices mirror those described in the poem ‘Beowulf’ afforded to the hero.

Sandwiched between my discussion of Scyld Scefing’s boat-funeral and the dragon’s stone barrow, I also explored the tomb of Beowulf himself in the poem. After his death fighting the dragon, Beowulf is cremated on a headland, closes to the dragon’s mound. His pyre was decked with the dragon’s treasure and the mound raised over the pyre subsequently served as a waymarker for mariners.

I suggested that this funeral needs renewed attention. I suggested that scholars perhaps need to re-engage with the importance of cremation followed by mound-building as described in the poem as a widespread practice in Early Medieval Europe. Rather than trying to pin down a single source of inspiration for the poet, we can instead profitably apply our transformed archaeological and anthropological understanding of cremation practices themselves worldwide, and in the Early Middle Ages in particular, to the poem. Rather than attempting to see archaeology as the material ‘reality’ behind the poem, archaeology and the poem in combination can demonstrate the varying and complex efficacies of cremation performances followed by mound-building in the construction of social memory and for myth making strategies among early medieval communities. Here lies the direction for some future research…

Commemorating Restoration at Valle Crucis


The Victorian ruin that is Valle Crucis; the plaque commemorating its restoration is on the south wall of the nave, on the left of this picture.


View of the 18th-century restored Pillar of Eliseg from the summer lodge at Valle Crucis: both built by squire Trevor Lloyd

Commemorating restoration is a key theme in my research interests at the moment. Notably, the Pillar of Eliseg, near Valle Crucis, Llangollen, has an original 9th-century Latin text, but also a later 18th-century one, recording its restoration and re-erection by T. Lloyd of Trevor Hall.


Essential rations when visiting Valle Crucis Abbey

There is another restoration commemoration nearby that interests me: at Valle Crucis Abbey itself. Once with second-year students, once with Masters students, and a further time with family, I have been visiting the ruins of the Cistercian abbey at Valle Crucis three times recently.

Incidentally, visiting Valle Crucis is tough. I am forced to purchase Tregroes Waffles, and with the Masters students, I felt compelled to indulge in a modest pork bap with stuffing, roast potatoes and apple sauce at the  Abbey Farm Cafe. My life is a struggle.

Anyway, Valle Crucis is an idyllic spot with beautiful ruins framed by the summer house built by Trevor Lloyd who was also responsible for restoring the Pillar of Eliseg. Indeed, his restoration of the Pillar might have been designed to facilitate its role on the near skyline from his summer house.


The late 18th-century lodge and restored fishpond at Valle Crucis

DSC01492 - Copy2

The restoration memorial

In addition to the many dimensions of mortuary and mnemonic dimensions of the ruins and environs, as discussed previously here, there is a striking memorial within the nave. Commemorating the wholesale clearance of rubble (and perhaps also important artefactual and architectural evidence) from the ruins in the 19th century, it reads:

The levelling and clearing out

of this Building

with the permission of the Proprietor

was commenced May 28th 1851

and completed May 14th 1852

Under the superintendence of

Arthur Viscount Dungannon

of Brynkinallt

W.W.E. Wynne, Esq., of Peniarth

R.K. Penson, Esq., Archt. Oswestry.

G. Vernon Price, Valle Crucis Abbey.

This restoration commemoration is an important dimension, augmenting the existing commemorative traditions associated with Valle Crucis; even the wholesale clearance of the ruins was perceived as a restorative act worthy of commemoration. Now worn, its gothic script speaks of Victorian imaginings of the medieval past as reminds us that the ruins are just that: a Victorian creation.

Columbaria – Pigeon Houses for the Dead


National Trust, Erddig’s dovecote, decked out with calling doves for Christmas 2015

newark bird lid 2

Urn with two birds from Newark: early Anglo-Saxon

Archaeologists find it a real struggle to conceptualise ‘columbaria’ past and present. I define them here as collective above-ground architectures built to house cinerary urns in discrete niches and other settings and spaces.

They are well attested in the material record of the ancient Mediterranean world; the use of caves and communal tombs, sometimes housing a mixture of inhumation graves and cremation deposits. Yet in northern Europe there is a standard assumption that they are absent: there is no discussion of their archaeological signature and the term is not used by prehistorians it seems.

They are not as common in the modern world too, situated in the grounds of many crematorium. I would class the recently discussed Long Barrow at All Cannings as an example.

Yet when archaeologists often talk about ‘cremation’ they usually mean it as a crude shorthand for ‘cremation burial’ or ‘cremation grave’. The implicit assumption is that ‘cremains’ are for interment below the surface of the earth. Yet the possibility that in past cultures, many or all cremated remains might be kept above ground following retrieval from cremation pyres is rarely entertained. Yet it was likely a very common practice, not only cremains kept in houses but also in special repositories within funerary. Yet again and again, archaeologists finding structures on cemeteries immediately jump to other interpretations; preparation areas for the cadaver, cult houses for ancestral rites, hearse-houses. Hardly ever do we think ‘columbaria’.

Columbarium comes from the Latin for ‘pigeon house’. Is there a connection between the architectural collection of cremains and birds? In the modern world, the symbolic and material links between birds and cremation is widespread and manifold as discussed in my post about cremation here.


Metal and live bird perch on a memorial in a Helsinki cemetery

In the ancient world, the specific association of cremation with above ground structures are less carefully worked out and considered by historians and archaeologists. Cremation was frequently not explicitly linked only to fiery transformation but also an aerial ascent of smoke that prompts allusions to avian flight. The release of birds and the killing of birds are documented dimensions of ancient cremation practices. The nesting activities of birds and the storage of cremains in rafters and roofs of dwellings, granaries and other structures is a further possible connection. Equally, any kind of above-ground structure in a cemetery and raised over pyres or cremains – a barrow, posts, plantings and trees, standing stones, stone settings, grave-houses etc – might attract birdlife nesting, roosting or simply perching. Deliberately and indirectly, birds need to be considered elements of cremation ceremonies and columbaria past and present.

Archaeologists need to pay careful attention to the aerial and the avian when considering cremation in past societies. Specifically, the association of cremation, birds and architecture might be more intertwined than we usually suspect.


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