The Armed Forces Memorial at the NMA

Recently, I revisited the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) with students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester.

I have previously posted about my archaeological interest in the NMA, located near Alrewas, Staffordshire. Constructed for the millennium in a disused gravel quarry, it is ‘where our nation remembers’, so says their website and literature. I am interested in the archaeological dimensions to the memorials; the overt design of memorials using manifold antique media, and the reuse of specific artefacts and materials to evoke the subjects of commemoration. See my posts on the archaeology of the NMA here and here. If these interest you, perhaps have a look at post-print versions of my publications on the NMA here and here.

Every time I return to the NMA, I realise how many of the memorials receive additions and sometimes major rearrangements. This is not only a space where the arboreal dimensions change with the seasons and grow over the years, but also the monuments themselves evolve. In my recent visit, I noticed a series of these. I would suggest these are monuments that proved to be inadequate in their original design, or are re-dedications of existing memorials and gardens.


The focus of the Dunkirk memorial


The Dunkirk memorial commemorates the battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in May/June 1940 through Operation Dynamo.

It has been reworked since I last visited. Indeed, when I visited in 2014, the area near the entrance where the Dunkirk memorial was situated was being completely reworked and memorials had been removed. The memorial is now back and doesn’t look like it has ever left. Yet it is completely different and repositioned. It is now more central within the zone between the road and the carpark.

Many of the components are the same and the principal focal point remains identical: a Tommy hat balanced on a Lee Enfield rifle, powerfully evoking the concept of a temporary burial on a beach.

This feature has now been augmented with large replica groynes and a wider expanse sand which together create a sense of the Dunkirk beach from which the evacuation took place.


Personal memorials on the groynes

This is one of a few of beach reconstructions at the NMA; others are the RNLI memorial and the D-Day memorial; all are remarkably evocative if incongruous given how far Alrewas is from the sea in any direction of travel.

The original sand was imported from Dunkirk but it is unclear whether this material allusion to the beaches of northern France have been retained or fallen to the wayside.

The rather bizarre model of a German Stuka being chased by a British fighter remains, but is now set to one side.

Another dimension that is new are memorial plaques to individuals as well as to the campaigns themselves. There is also a memorial bench with the name ‘Dunkirk’ added to it.

In summary, we have a reworked memorial that is relocated, expanded and reorganised to create the collective campaign focus and spaces for personalised memorialisation of the battle and evacuation. What is also worth noting is that the Dunkirk memorial is at the front of the NMA, beside the car park and somewhat in limbo as a result. It is not a comfortable place to dwell, somewhere to encounter on your way in and way out. Somehow it remains somewhat dislocated: a point of arrival and disembarkation, just like the Dunkirk beaches.


A landscape still under reconstruction



My students investigating groynes and sand



The principal campaign memorial plaque



Memorial bench


The Falklands Memorial Walk

Part of the Allied Special Forces grove opened in 2003, this is an interesting one, since I am quite sure this used to be dedicated by the Western Front Association. Now, broadly contemporary with the dedication of the Falklands Conflict Memorial elsewhere at the NMA, it seems the Falklands Conflict has replaced it from March 2014.

There are a series of memorials here: a memorial assemblage. There are plaques to commemorate the three Falklands civilians killed in the conflict, individual servicemen, and memorials to commemorate the Falklands Islands Resistance and the memorial way itself. These are distributed in a grove of trees with borders and within a path and a large cane goose or swan sculpture that pre-dates the Falklands Walk. Incorporated into this path is the Pegagus Bridge memorial (D-Day) and various other elements. So this is a bizarre memorial environment in which the Falklands is linked to various Second World War resistance memorials and other earlier commemorative associations.


Within the Special Allied Forces gazebo


The detail of the SAS memorial


Inscribing a new memorial association on an existing structure


Detail of the Currass memorial sundial


Personal memorial sundial


The Falklands Memorial Way with memorial goose


Memorials to the three civilians who died in the bombing of Port Stanley on the left


Commemorating resistance to Argentine occupation


Commemorating commemoration


Personal memorials to those who died in the Falklands


The Never Forget Memorial

The third monument that has been significantly reworked is the poppy memorial – the Never Forget Memorial – which is the Royal British Legion’s own memorial focus (the RBL now run the NMA). For £2 per month, you can have a dedicatory poppy added to the memorial.

This monument was present here at my first visit five years ago but in 2013 it was raised up from ground level and afforded with coherent memorial walls and with a poppy-shaped stone plaque explaining the memorial’s function and significance. What is interesting is that this constitutes something of a rewriting of history because the news article in the Daily Telegraph makes no mention that there had been a memorial of comparable size present on the site before. This is a delicious irony for the ‘Never Forget’ memorial…


Never Forget!



The problem with these memorials is that they look static, timeless and coherent. Yet only through multiple visits is it evident just how fluid some of these memorials actually are. Archaeologists talk about monument biographies with regard to long-term augmentation and reworking of monuments over time. Yet here we see an active forgetting of the past but obscuring their augmentation as rededication. Is there an archive recording these micro and macro-transformations of the NMA’s memorials through a relatively short history of creation and use since the millennium? It is a stark warning against anyone studying 20th and 21st-century memorials who thinks they constant static and permanent monuments. The NMA’s memorials are always in motion it seems.





Before Easter, I spent c. 9 hours over three days, supervising level 6 (third-year) students record graveyard memorials in Chester’s Overleigh cemetery as I have blogged about before here, here, here and here. I came back to work this week to learn that a member of the public visiting recent graves in the cemetery while we were conducting the survey has complained to the University about our presence and behaviour.

I take this complaint very seriously. I can well imagine how upsetting it must be when trying to visit a grave and finding the presence of others causing an interruption or distraction, even if we were working away from recent graves. There is no doubt in my mind that the complainant felt deeply upset by our presence.

I have discussed it with my line manager and the Dean of Students and I have spent an hour discussing the complaint with my students and situating it in relation to broader issues and challenges we face as archaeologists working in and around mortuary contexts and environments.

My line manager has asked me to write a letter to the complainant via the Dean of Students. While that communication will remain private, I feel I want to share an edited version of parts of this letter on my blog. I do this because the broader issues addressed might help explain the nature of the work to others, as well as to express my sincere desire to cause no upset to those using modern cemeteries.

IMG_6583The OCAS 

Our third-year (level 6) archaeology degree students have the option of taking a module called ‘Death and Burial’ which explores how archaeological research (the study of human societies through the material remains they leave behind) can reveal the complex, deep and varied human responses to mortality from earliest prehistory to recent times. This far-ranging course aims to expand and enhance student appreciation of past human cultures and their relationships with death, the dead and ancestors as well as how they vary and change over time and space. It also serves to cultivate an appreciation of heritage sites and museum collections which relate to graves, cemeteries and commemorative culture.

In the final part of this module, we conduct an exercise in systematic archaeological graveyard recording at Overleigh cemetery with the permission of Chester and Cheshire West who manage the site. This is a non-intrusive survey that aims to record memorials, not to dig or disturb graves. It is a more detailed practice than simply photographing memorials and recording the names upon them; the students have to sketch the memorials and record details of ornament, the choice of stone, the size and shape of memorials, as well as the details of the text (including what is said and the font used). They also have to record whether the memorials commemorate single individuals or are augmented over time to remember the lives of many family members by the addition of further inscribed names and monumental components. It is also important to state that the students are conducting this survey on the older graves in the oldest part of Overleigh cemetery: memorials first raised in the period from c. 1880 to 1910. This year, as with previous years, we have worked for 3 days, for only 3 hours on each day. The students recorded over 200 memorials of all kinds, most dating to the end of the 19th and very early 20th centuries in a core area of the cemetery removed from the most recent graves and memorials.

By recording these memorials, we are hoping to preserve them by record for posterity and encourage student and public awareness of their historic value, as well as promote respect and understanding for the cemetery as a memorial landscape. We try to explain our work to anyone who comes and asks us what we are doing.

IMG_6892Student Behaviour

Before they begin the survey work, the students get a tour of the cemetery as a whole, and are given clear instructions regarding the health and safety issues pertaining to working in the cemetery. They are also given clear instructions regarding their conduct and the volume and choice of language that is appropriate in a cemetery which is still used by mourners.

In my view, the students treated their work seriously and worked hard. In doing so, they enjoyed themselves and this involved verbal discussion of their work in the cemetery. It also involved students joking and laughing. I regard this as an inevitable part of the teamwork dynamic. I am confident the students were working well and acting respectfully to the memorials and environment in which they were operating.


I understand that a mourner witnessed my students conducting their survey c. 25-30 m away from the grave they were visiting but within earshot. This happened when the students were nearing the end of their third and final survey session. I was in attendance as the students’ on-site supervisor.

I am extremely sorry that the presence, noise and actions of our group seemed disrespectful to the character of the cemetery environment. I am also deeply upset and regretful that our presence disrupted a mourner visiting a recent grave.

I have now discussed the complaint with my students and they are all very disappointed that their presence caused upset. They learned a great deal, and thoroughly enjoyed the memorial survey. In positive terms, this complaint was very useful as a means of discussing with them the ethics of working in public environments and dealing with spaces set aside for the burial and the commemoration of the dead, both today as well as in the past. 

In future, I will renew efforts to ensure our brief presence among the older graves and memorials in the cemetery to survey memorials is less intrusive to mourners using other parts of the cemetery. My students presented some practical actions that will help me do so . I am now discussing how to put these changes into effect.


Reginn working in his smithy? Halton, Lancashire

Just to say, I actually never liked the band ‘The Smiths’. If you care about ‘The Smiths’, don’t bother reading this blog entry.


The fragment of Weland in his flying machine from Leeds Museum

Instead, the smiths I want to talk about are the archetypal medieval ones; Reginn and Weland. Both appear in stories that are deeply set in Germanic mythology and both are plausibly interpreted as appearing in tenth-century stone sculpture from northern Britain.

As part of the Past in its Place project I am conducting a re-evaluation of the Wayland’s Smithy place-name and its connection to a Neolithic chambered tomb, situated on the Berkshire Ridgeway in what is now Oxfordshire. I have discussed this here. In order to do this, I am also re-appraising the Weland legend and the wider significance of legendary smiths and their material and spatial manifestations in the Anglo-Saxon world of the seventh to eleventh centuries AD.

The story of Weland is one of retributive sexual and murderous violence, not one about a famed smith who made precious things. This is the basis of my rethinking of the material dimensions of the story. This inevitably involves the Reginn story too, where this smith is the foster-father of Sigurd and who is killed by the blade (Gram) of his own making by his foster-son. Here again, revenge and violence are the narrative, the smithing is catalyst for the story, not its core.


The smith’s tools within the Weland flying machine scene from Leeds minster

So at the recent RMMC conference, I decided to present my preliminary ideas on the power of the smith and the smithy, but also particularly the cyborgian relationship between the smith and his tools as key to the retributive narratives and their sexual, technological, murderous and animistic dimensions. For me, the power of the smith’s assemblage, and the smith’s products (treasures and weapons), as well as the human bodies he defiled and transformed into ‘gifts’, are key to the reinterpretation of the significance of scenes found on tenth-century stone sculpture, including the Weland in his flying machine scene from Leeds Museum and Leeds Minster, as discussed here and here. For each smith, I presented some new views on some familiar stones.

For the Leeds minster and museum scenes, I focused on critiquing the interpretation of the scene as Weland’s escape from his smithy, instead I suggested it focused on his transformative and violent power within his smithy.


My happy son last year, saying hello to Gram, Reginn and Sigurd at Halton, Lancashire

I also suggested that the Reginn scene at Halton, Lancs., might be provided with a new interpretation. I suggested that the scene might reflect an envisioned future that Sigurd foresees after sucking his thumb and ingesting the dragon heart’s juices (as depicted in the scene above). If so, then the body at the top right of the scene might not Reginn killed by Sigurd, but Sigurd killed by Reginn. The scene is about the latent murderous violence of the legendary smith prior to him receiving a taste of his own medicine, killed by Gram the sword he fashions for Sigurd to kill Fafnir the dragon.

However, reinterpreting specific sculptural scenes was not my main point. The principal aim was to bring the tools depicted, and the binding, biting and grasping of bodies and things as key to the narratives and significance as smiths as feared cyborgs: part man, part machine. This concept is not transhistorical, it is honed to explain the specific artistic depiction and archaeological evidence for selected legendary and real-world high-status artisans in the early medieval world. In this specific context, I suggest that smith’s imagined and ideologically constituted identity was regarded as distributed between tools, treasures, his smithy and the male and female bodies he inflicts different kinds of violence upon.

I look forward to writing this up as a research paper in due course. Still, for the moment, I hope this serves to whet your appetite for the cyborg smith.


Don’t wake the dead! Mortuary selfie for absolutely no good reason other than it seemed appropriate at the time and it reminds me of my own immortality

I love Gresford church. Situated in Wrexham borough, it is a complex and long-term place of worship with many dimensions to its commemorative history. Today, I visited the church and churchyard with my current MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students. We hoped to use Gresford as a case study of the complex interaction of space and materiality in the commemoration of the dead and the writing and rewriting of the history of place.


Atropos and her shears of doom

The past is navigated through architecture and monuments at Gresford.

Inside is a single piece of Roman sculpture is on display, uncovered near the east of the church, displaying the goddess Atropos with her shears. It is tempting to regard this as a fragment of mortuary monument given her role in cutting the threads of life.

There are medieval effigies and grave-slabs, fabulous early modern monuments and a range of solid and interesting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century memorials. We discussed how many of these memorials are likely to have been rearranged and reused during their life-histories.

Add to this the porch war memorials: those of the parish lost in the First and Second World Wars facing each other and confronting all those entering the church and we have a microcosm of many of the commemorative trends of the last millennium distilled into one building.

If that isn’t enough, there is the churchyard. Towards the south-east are a collection of the oldest, late 18th and early 19th-century, smaller gravestones, rearranged to create a collective display. Later, there are many 19th-century table and chest tombs, some still surrounded by elaborate iron railings. Monumental grave-slabs made of local sandstone can be explored, also dating from the 19th century. Their reuse during the twentieth century as kerbs, borders and paving is equally intriguing, for respect is afforded to their texts despite their dislocation.

Memorials do not persist long into the twentieth century at Gresford church – the most recent date to the 1910s and 1920s. Only far more recently (see below) have the dead come back into the churchyard through the interment of cremated remains.

For the unburned dead, a new extension to the churchyard was opened one field away to the south in the 1920s. Here we find a memorial building and a cemetery with the earliest graves dating to the early 1920s and the most recent dating to 2014.

Gresford is an example of cemetery memorial switchback for the cremated dead: while the churchyard has few new memorials, memorials over cremation burials have re-entered the churchyard since the 1980s. Indeed, Gresford is an example of cremated double-switchback, because the cremation memorials of the naughties interpenetrate 19th-century graves in the churchyard, but they also are situated in a far corner of the churchyard extension.


Visiting the Gresford Mining Memorial

The Gresford Mining Disaster of 22nd September 1934, in which the lives of 266 men and boys were lost, permeates the landscape. As well as the juxtaposition of early modern memorials in the church with the memorial to the disaster, there is a memorial building in the churchyard extension. Before we headed home, we paid our respects to the nearby Gresford Disaster memorial at Pandy. A striking example of the reuse of the material traces as memorial foci. Here the focus is upon the pit wheel reused and made static by being fixed into a slate-built base. There is a plaque listing the names of the dead and a planter beneath it. We reflected on the various memorial locales that commemorate the Gresford Mining Disaster. In addition to the memorial, there are individual memorials in nearby churches and churchyards as well as the memorial building in the churchyard extension and Gresford church itself.

Throughout the exploration of church, churchyard, churchyard extension and mining memorial, I emphasised the complex interplay of building and rebuilding, remembering and forgetting, involved in understanding these mortuary spaces. The students will be using this and other sites to select their own ‘memoryscapes’ to explore in their research.

IMG_7631Attending the RMMC workshop recently, I’ve encountered the stones at Govan for the first time, including Constantine’s shrine, the sun stone and the many other fabulous grave-covers now well-list and displayed around the walls of the church. 31 in total are on view in Govan Old Church.

This was also my first encounter with Govan’s five hogbacks of which I have heard and read so much. These monuments, and this monument type, figured prominently at the RMMC workshop, including new work on their context, date and significance by Stephen Driscoll, Jamie Barnes, Elizabeth Pierce and Victoria Whitworth.

IMG_7636As you will be aware dear blog-reader, I have presented on hogbacks a series of times over the last few years, and I have 4 articles on aspects of them in different stages of completion. The first of these is due out as a chapter in the book ‘Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography and Landscape’, published later this year with Boydell and Brewer. I have briefly summarise some aspects of that paper here.

I have a second paper coming out on hogbacks, most likely in an archaeological journal, looking at the material world in which hogbacks were situated. I presented on this at (among other venues) the Pilsen EAA are discussed here.

I’m also hoping to write up a paper on citations between hogbacks based on my 2013 TAG paper at Bournemouth and a piece looking at the West Kirby monument.

Also, for you who really like hogbacks, I have blogged about my recent visit to see the Brompton hogbacks here.

Given my interest, it was therefore incredibly useful to hear other scholars’ views on them. I’m glad I decided this time to present on a different topic which I will discuss elsewhere.

IMG_7672Among the many hogback dimensions to the RMMC papers, we were given at least two alternative terms to describe these hogbacks. The term ‘hogbacks’ is proving somewhat problematic on theoretical and methodological grounds given the variability and complexity of these recumbent carved stones.

First, Elizabeth Pierce, in a paper discussing the archaeological and topographical contexts of hogbacks, suggested we talk about ‘hogbacks and coped monuments’ – HCM for short – in order to provide a more all-embracing term for these monuments. I confess I do love a good acronym.

IMG_7679Immediately after Elizabeth’s talk, Victoria Whitworth presented a paper offering a new chronology and interpretation for hogbacks, focusing on the Govan monuments. She suggested another term for them: ‘body stones’. She argued this term avoids the limitations with the term ‘hogbacks’ and instead emphasises their function to cover human cadavers (i.e. they were grave-covers). Moreover, she suggests this term is appropriate because hogbacks’ many radial asymmetries imply the supine extended human form. So this term has its advantages too, I do admit they may have covered human bodies, and they never covered or represented hogs!

This is not the first time the ‘hogback’ term has come under criticism. For example, for the Winchester monument, Martin Biddle almost three decades ago expressed displeasure with the term and its connotations.

However, for me, they are still hogbacks and I think they will remain so for the public and for most academics. I don’t dispute that the term has numerous inherent problems with it. Still, what attracts me to ‘hogbacks’ is the antiquarian character of the morphological term and its popular familiarity. I also value the focus on the curved back (like a hog’s) and sometimes also the curved sides which a large fraction of these recumbent monuments do display, because this provokes allusions to a range of other broadly contemporary material cultures and architectures which share this comparable feature: I don’t think this is coincidental. Yet perhaps most importantly, albeit the wrong species because hogbacks have really sweet f.a. to do with hogs, the allusion to animals is powerfully animating. I think this resonates with dimensions of their early medieval significance. Beasts prove to be such an important part of many of the hogbacks with illustrative panels as well as those with ‘guarding’ end-beasts and monsters trailing along the ridges of these stones. Decoration aside, they size of hogbacks makes them animal-like; they are the size of big-boned beasts. Therefore, I would argue that hogbacks were and are ‘beasts’.

IMG_7673There is a final argument I would make for retaining the term ‘hogbacks': their bestial qualities are endearing. The Govan stones illustrate my point; they are like large, ugly, chunky huggable pets. Ok, perhaps they are cold, monotone, unaffectionate and sullen pets that only an RMMC nerd could love. Still, at least after a few whiskies, they do provoke the near-irresistable desire to give each of them a big cuddle and ear-ruffle. I did resist I should add…

In many ways, they are the kind of pets everyone should have about the home and, thinking about it (which I am now only just starting to do), there are many advantages to keeping hogbacks over other common household pets. At least with hogbacks you don’t have to change their water, buy them canned food and take them for walks. They don’t yap, foul footpaths or scuttle off to breed with neighbouring hogbacks if not spayed (at least I hope not).

Having said all that, I suggest they could be quite dangerous and trip you up unexpectedly if you forget where you left your pet hogback around the house. Yes, this worries me now, especially after Dr Forsyth’s keynote lecture at the RMMC workshop, delivered within a short distance of the hogbacks in Govan Old Church. She discussed the many Irish heroes and heroines who seemed to have ended their days tied to, or cracking their head against, a big stone. Therefore, on reflection, I would caution any potential hogback owner to consult in detail the specialist publication ‘The Hogback Owners’ Guidebook’ by the late James Lang. At the very least pop into W. H. Smith and pick up a copy of ‘Hogbacks for Homes’ monthly magazine before embarking on the dedicated task of keeping a hogback as a pet.

Remember, hogbacks are for life, not just for Christmas…

So personally I think hogbacks are just too lovable for a name-change, even if their interpretation is now shifting from multiple perspectives. What they do really need though is love and attention. I think each of them should be given a nice warm blanket and a saucer of milk before their bedtime.


Stones on display at Govan


Dr Forsyth giving her keynote address in Govan church

I’ve just returned from a specialist interdisciplinary international workshop of the RMMC (Runes, Monuments and Memorial Carvings) hosted by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Glasgow and deftly co-organised by Anouk Busset and Dr Elizabeth Pierce. We enjoyed two days of papers on a wide range of topics exploring mainly early medieval memorials and monuments from Scandinavia and the British Isles, as well as a few papers from farther afield in time and space. There were many highlights so I won’t pick out any specific papers.

Ok, I guess I should mention an interesting paper by my Chester colleague Dr Adrian Maldonado; he gave an excellent appraisal on the hitherto neglected early medieval simple cross-incised stones from across Scotland. Adrian’s paper stuck in my mind in particular because he was tackling rather modest monuments. Their textless anonymity, simple (where there were any) decorative schemes and materiality were central to his interpretation.

I should also note that, in workshops like this one, it is the questions from the audience, and the discussions over lunch and drinks that are as valuable as the presentations. Where else but Glasgow can you get curry for lunch and whisky at an evening reception as integral components to the workshop? Insightful comments from postgraduates and very experienced art historians present at the event are still circulating in my tiny archaeological brain.


The reputed shrine of St Constantine, late 9th century, Govan old church

Sadly, I have missed the two-day post-workshop RMMC field trip to look at early medieval sites in central Scotland. I hope the other delegates have fun. I am missing all the site visits because I have to be at another conference, my third in a week!

One of the highlights I will mention: my first opportunity to visit Govan old church to see the fine collection of early medieval stone monuments now displayed within its walls but before the 19th century displayed and discovered in various parts of Govan churchyard. Professor Stephen Driscoll gave us an introduction to the site of Govan and its archaeology before our visit, and subsequently three discrete research papers by (Jamie Barnes, Elizabeth Pierce and Victoria Whitworth) addressed (among other things) the hogbacks (early medieval recumbent monuments, possibly grave-covers), of which five are known from Govan.


Rider, Govan

During our visit I sat down on the pews and listened with the other delegates in awe to the erudition and insights of Dr Katherine Forsyth who gave the keynote address of the conference on the power and significance of stones in medieval Celtic literature. I learned so much from this talk, including issues that confirmed and corrected my impressions and gave me renewed inspiration to tackle the relationship between literature and archaeology in my own work.

Following Dr Forsyth’s talk, we got the chance to chat with each other further during a wine and whisky reception and then subsequently over food back at Hillhead near my hotel.

I left the two-day workshop full of ideas and inspiration as I continue to learn more about the variability and complexity of early medieval stone monuments. The need for detailed and precise interpretations was revealed in talks by Victoria Whitworth, Jane Geddes and Roger Stalley. Contextual analyses of specific landscapes were evident in talks by Elizabeth Pierce, Cynthia Thickpenny and Daniel MacLean. Equally significantly, the breadth and volume of material to be investigated in comparative terms was forcefully outlined in the talks by Martin Goldberg, Anouk Busset, Heidi Stoner and Marjolein Stern. Theoretical developments were most evident in the paper by Jamie Barnes and the interdisciplinary nature of research was revealed in talks by (among others) Rikke Steenhold Olesen.

For all their variability, it is amazing how many common themes we can tackle but looking at stone monuments’ forms, ornamentation, texts, materialities, biographies and landscape contexts from across Europe and Scandinavia. The RMMC showed me the value of detailed contextual, as well as broad-ranging comparative studies to early medieval stone monuments. I look forward to future workshops as I think this is a splendid venue for discussion and debate. Well done to the organisers and their many supporters and helpers at Glasgow and further afield!


The stone urn beside St Tegla’s Well


The well of St Tegla

Last week I visited Llandegla church with my eldest daughter to talk about the heritage of this upland parish in Denbighshire at the church. There are many dimensions to the heritage of the parish, from caves with prehistoric finds to cairns, a Roman road and fabulous motte-and-bailey castle (Tomen y Rhodwydd). This was a drovers’ route too and many historic buildings survive in the core of the settlement. I wish to focus on one dimension of its heritage: St Tegla’s Well and its folkore.


One of two heritage boards by the village car park

I don’t visit enough holy wells, but I find them intriguing and disconcerting places. Still, we had a few minutes to spare before our meeting in the church…. So we parked in the village car park where there are heritage boards outlining the heritage of the township. We then walked past the nineteenth-century church built on a far older holy site with a striking wooden war memorial installed in the prominent south-east corner of the churchyard. We went down to the River Alyn, over the bridge and left (upstream) on a well-signposted footpath alongside the river. Here you come to a footbridge and over it, just above the river on the eastern bank is St Tegla’s Well.


Llandegla’s war memorial

This well was once famous throughout north Wales until the practices associated with it were suppressed during the nineteenth century. The first thing we spotted actually was the heritage monument: a stone plinth into which an information board has been installed explaining the folklore surrounding the well. Next one turns to the well itself: a trapezoidal with a stone-carved urn on its southern side. At its downslope corners, two trees have grown and upon their branches visitors have tied various votive ribbons.


Llandegla churhch

The heritage signboards gives details of the folklore. So it goes, you should visit the well after sunset, wash your limbs in the well, and make an offering of four pence. Then  you were to walk three times around the well, and then around the church three times. On this journey and throughout you must carry a chicken and recite the Lord’s Prayer. The next stage was to enter the church and lie beneath the communion table and spend the night using a Bible as your pillow. You depart leaving the chicken and six pence. It was finally stated that if the chicken died, you would be cured of ‘St Tecla’s Disease': epilepsy.

There is a further piece of folklore responding to the discovery of long silver pins in the well with coins, namely that maybe people used to stab the chicken to hasten its death. Make of this what you will, the spot is peaceful, quiet, but I wouldn’t really want to wash there. I also feel sorry for the poor chicken…

I haven’t read anything about the heritage of holy wells, so please direct me, dear readers, to relevant discussions. Clearly these are still visited by the occasional tourist and the occasional religious person hoping to acquire a cure.


The heritage signboard – boy with cockerel and sleeping in the church depicted.


The heritage plinth




The River Alyn beside St Tegla’s Well


More ribbons



Wat’s Dyke near Ruabon

On Friday 10th April, I presented a public lecture at the Riverside Innovation Centre at the University of Chester, serving as keynote for the subsequent day’s conference on Contest and Collaboration: Chester Conference on the March of Wales co-organised by Dr Sara Elin Roberts and Rachel Swallow. I really enjoyed the subsequent day in which there were papers dealing with a wide range of topics from Chris Lewis discussing English place-names west of Offa’s Dyke through to Rachel Swallow providing a new interpretation of Aldford and Farndon’s signficance in the late Anglo-Saxon period in relation to Chester. Here I want to outline the key points I made in my keynote.

As part of my work on the Past in its Place project, extending from my work on Project Eliseg, I am reading and thinking as well as conducting some new fieldwork and landscape analyses with my Chester colleague Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores. As well as looking at the Vale of Llangollen, we are also focusing on the early medieval linear earthworks of the Welsh border. To better understand the Pillar of the Eliseg and the significance of the Vale of Llangollen in mnemonic, political and socio-economic terms in early medieval period and after, addressing the dykes is crucial.

I began my talk by crediting the range of work already done on the dykes. Based on antiquarian accounts, sustained research by Sir Cyril Fox, the long-term work of David Hill and Margaret Worthington, and a series of more recent excavations by Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and commercial archaeologists ahead of development, we now have an enriched understanding of these monuments.

However, debates and misunderstandings abound. I noted that many accounts of early medieval archaeology and history still pay superficial attention to these monuments, and even major new studies only briefly describe them. Much of the work that has been done has not entered into historical and archaeological syntheses and older views are tenacious, even in the most scholarly of new studies. Furthermore, I argued, the research agendas for linear earthworks have shifted elsewhere and we need to rethink how we approach the monuments on the Welsh border. I noted three dimensions which provide the basis for new approaches:

  1. overland and maritime military defenses of the first millennium AD from Scandinavian and Continental provide a host of new insights of relevance to the early medieval Welsh border.
  2. research by scholars from Winchester, Nottingham and UCL on West and East Wansdyke and West Saxon civil defence provides a new framework for thinking about the military and ideological significance of linear earthworks of early medieval date.
  3. Work over the last two decades, culminating in Sarah Semple’s recent book, means we need to pay far greater attention to the importance of the material and mythological past in the interpreting the naming, design, route use and reuse of linear earthworks.

We seem to have the following monuments to consider on the Welsh border:

  • Offa’s Dyke, which runs for over 60 miles from Rushock Hill, Herefordshire to near Treuddyn, Flintshire. There are also stretches in Gloucestershire which are possibly associated with an Offan frontier. On current evidence this monument is dated to the late eighth century and regarded as the work of the Mercian king Offa but might incorporate stretches of older earthwork constructed in prehistory or during the sixth and seventh centuries. While not demonstrably running from ‘sea to sea’ as Asser suggested in the ninth century, this was a stupendous piece of military engineering.
  • Wat’s Dyke, which is now dated to the early ninth century and the work of one or more Mercian kings: Coenwulf, Ceolwulf, Wiglaf and/or Beohrtwulf built between 796 and 850. Again, this monument might incorporate some stretches of earlier earthworks in places, but seems to be a coherent and continuous monument in its final form.
  • a series of short dykes across mid- and north-east Wales, some of which are demonstrably early medieval. One of these is the Whitford Dyke (or Dykes) which have yet to be dated, used to be seen as an extension of Offa’s Dyke but which may relate to other strategies of defense and monument-building.

As the keynote lecture, I explored dimensions of these monument’s military and ideological significance. I focused on their design, relationship with the wider landscape and how they served less as frontier lines but defining frontier zones. My focus was upon considering these linear earthworks as elements of broader zones of control and imposition; strategies for choreographing and managing movement. In so doing, I also emphasised their significance in imposing not only the military strategies, but also the memories of those who commissioned them and their mythological and legendary pasts.

As my first outing considering early medieval linear earthworks, I was delighted by the range of positive and constructive comments I received. I was very grateful also to Sara and Rachel for supporting and encouraging me in presenting at the conference. This encourages me to move forward and write up these ideas for publication, although I also direct readers to the imminently forthcoming study of Offa’s Dyke by Ian Bapty and Keith Ray.

The formidable and striking hillfort of Old Oswestry is located near the historic Shropshire market town of Oswestry, close to the Welsh border and a centre of significance for the history of the Welsh border and the long-term interactions between England and Wales long before ‘England’ and ‘Wales’ even existed.

IMG_6438Old Oswestry hillfort is an important ancient monument. It is currently the focus of a campaign against housing development in the fields to the hillfort’s south-east in which archaeologists are expressing passionate and powerful statements about what this might herald for the future of archaeology and the planning process. This comes at a time when archaeological heritage is under threat from many directions, including massive cuts to local authority planning guidance.

IMG_6436How to learn about Old Oswestry hillfort? English Heritage have a textually spartan but image-rich website dedicated to the monument here. The website for the HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) campaign defines the site as, quoting English Heritage’…one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation”. I guess the nation here is ‘England’, but of course and as mentioned above, this is very much a border location that has great significant for the history of Wales and the Welsh past and present. In any case, the hillfort is striking in its setting and in its surviving earthworks.

IMG_6437What better place to take first-year heritage students for a field trip and debate the many challenges of conserving, managing and presenting archaeological heritage in the early 21st century? A few weeks ago I did just that. More recently I revisited with family. In this post, I want to:

  1. introduce the hillfort
  2. discuss the hillfort’s management and presentation
  3. identify some of the key issues and criticisms of the monument’s heritage interpretation that emerged on site and through discussion with my students,
  4. identifying the differences between my experience of visiting with students and visiting with family.

IMG_6440Hillfort Introduction

IMG_6442I defer to others for expert appraisals of this monument, and to the websites cited above, although the Pastscape entry is perhaps most helpful for details, here, providing details of the 1939-40 excavations by Varley, subsequently published only in 1994.

In brief, the hillfort has not been subject to modern excavation, but it is thought that there was Neolithic activity on the hilltop, preceding its Late Bronze Age origins as a settlement and/or seasonal gathering place around 3,000 years ago. English Heritage’s ‘Iron Age hillfort’ has four phases discernible in its earthworks – three full circuits of bank and ditch and a complex of earthworks between the second and third (lowest) defensive enclosure. The cutting of pits into the counterscarp of the western side of the hillfort might relate to later occupation.

IMG_6447It is clear it is a complex multi-phase monument with origins preceding the Iron Age. The fortifications are apparently of Iron Age date, however, beginning in the 6th century BC. Based on the morphology of the earthworks, four phases of development are proposed, although I imagine the precise chronology of this through into the Early Iron Age remains unconfirmed. There are two principal entrances and the western side has received the most elaborate fortifications.

IMG_6454In 2008, a stone was found near the western entrance with the profile shape of a horse sculpted upon it which George Nash has evocatively called The Pegasus Stone’. See his report on it here. 

Hillfort Management

Until the mid-20th century the hillfort was wooded. Now cleared of dense vegetation, it is managed through sheep-grazing. The site is popular with local people as well as visitors. There is no entrance fee: the site is open to the public all year round.

IMG_6459Entering from the lane, walkers who can follow a principal consolidated path up the western entrance and around the uppermost circuit of defences. There is also a location where you can traverse by steps past the many different ramparts to the top of the highest bank. Also, there are unmanaged paths which run within the ditches and around the base of the hillfort.

There are heritage boards by the entrance, up the slope along the western entrance, and around the perimeter of the uppermost defences. These afford the visitor with up-t0-date and clear basic information about the monument. The boards are profitably enhanced with artist’s rconstructions of the defences and the roundhouses and other features that were likely to have existed within.

There are also warning signs regarding the sheep, prominently encouraging walkers not to leave gates open. Sheep and rabbit poo are everywhere; there are no signs to warn you about that!

IMG_20150404_093849Hillfort Issues

The presentation of the hillfort is straightforward, relatively modern, visual and informative. Some attention is given to the prehistoric origins of the site but most of the information relates to the primary Iron Age phases of the site. However, through discussion with students, I discussed some serious lacuna which restrict visitor appreciation of the monument, including:

  1. The challenge of looking in: the hillfort’s interior is now empty of features; simply a field. Yet through the duration of its later prehistoric use, we have to anticipate both temporary and more permanent buildings and structures within it and not just roundhouses and granaries. See my post on Castell Henllys for further discussion on these points here. We addressed to what extent the heritage interpretation fosters the visitor’s ability to see in and imagine the possible functions, seasonalities and performances which might have taken place within the hillfort. Is the heritage interpretation primarily a celebration of the surviving monumental ramparts? Can the visitor see beyond the visible to the intangible artefacts and structures revealed by archaeological excavations on this and other hillfort sites?
  2. The challenge of looking out: the hillfort has amazing views over its surrounding landscape including views over local countryside north, west and south, and longer-distance vistas eastwards to the Mid Cheshire Ridge, Wrekin and Wenlock Edge. Despite the hyperbole of the campaign against the new development, this long distance views will not be affected by future housing. Likewise there is already plenty of modern human habitation on view in the near-distance, from farms and housing estates, industrial estates to the historic core of the market town of Oswestry. However, from a heritage perspective, we discussed how the heritage boards are orientated to foster the visitor to look out in passive terms, not to point out possible visual relationships with other hillforts and prehistoric monuments or imagine the woods, fields, routes and settlements that were situated in between these fortifications. The hillfort remains somewhat landlocked in heritage terms.
  3. IMG_20150404_094319The challenge of looking through time: as mentioned above, the heritage interpretation addresses the pre-hillfort origins of occupation on the site, but there is no discussion of the longer-term biography of the monument nor its wider landscape. This site is largely presented as a one-period site, albeit with multi-phases within that period. Attempts to situate the monument in relation to its wider biography remain obscure.
    1. So the relationship with ancient routes of movement through the landscape and the wider landscape of settlement and routes in the prehistoric and Roman periods are not addressed.
    2. For the early medieval period, the connection has repeatedly been made between this locale and the battle of Maserfeld in AD 641 or 642 where King Oswald of Northumbria met his doom against his Mercian rival, Penda. The complete absence of this key historical moment, for both the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, gets no mention.
    3. The early medieval linear earthworks of the region, Offa’s Dyke to the west, and Wat’s Dyke that runs into and out of the hillfort on its northern and southern sides, also receive limited recognition. Yet it is quite possible that Old Oswestry had a military,  and perhaps also a symbolic, role in the emergence, definition and functioning of the dykes.
    4. Whether Oswestry was the site of Oswald’s death or not, the cult of saint Oswald linked to the church and holy well, and the border town of Oswestry with its castle, are a key dimension to the landscape around the hillfort from the Middle Ages to the present day.

There were other critical issues we discussed, including the importance and potential of enhanced internet support for heritage on sites like this, rather than filling in the gaps with more and more heritage boards on site. Still, it is evident that many dimensions to the fascinating and long-term history of the hillfort and its hinterland are simply not being communicated in the information presented to the public. What is presented is good, but it is restricted and period-specific.

IMG_20150404_094826Students vs. Family

Visiting with students presented challenges. I told them they were free to roam but I would guide them. So we had fun exploring. However, because I had afforded them with freedom, half the class disappeared counter-clockwise around the path on the summit while the rest of us were heading clockwise. I also went down to where Wat’s Dyke joins the hillfort ramparts on the northern side, but some students were reluctant to follow me down the steep muddy ramparts. A fun and interested group of students, but it is always a challenging herding students around ancient monuments!

IMG_20150404_095746The visit with offspring was surprisingly straightforward and easy, although I would have struggled with more than 3 kids in tow. We walked, herded sheep, looked at a few heritage boards and ran about. A fun trip. I still, however, have memories of foolishly trying to navigate up the hillfort with a stroller with my eldest pre-walking urchin and how hard that was. I would recommend Old Oswestry for all ages and those able to walk by themselves, but there is next to no disabled and pushchair access.


Old Oswestry hillfort is a striking monument that should be protected at all cost. Still, one has to wonder why bother protecting something that has received no modern excavation and only the Iron Age fragment of its history is valorised to the relatively modest attention afforded to its earlier history and the disregard for the monument’s ongoing ‘biography’ to the present day.

IMG_20150404_100104I applaud the HOOOH campaign for mobilising support and interest in the hillfort. Still, I must confess I don’t perceive the development as the threat they portray. I would though agree that a better understanding and appreciation of the hillfort’s location, setting and broader landscape interactions are essential and I feel we might be being doing a disservice to ignore the interior, environs and biography of this ancient monument. Let’s not be seduced by the panoramic view and the hillfort ramparts alone: they are only part of the picture. Visit the site yourself and see if you can see in, out and through time via the heritage experience.



Third-year students Sophie and Nathaniel recording a three-stepped cross memorial beside the main path through Overleigh cemetery


The student group busy recording memorials in Overleigh cemetery

Well, we have a poor start in week 1, a good second week and recently we went back for a third week to record memorials at Overleigh cemetery. I have previously discussed our Overleigh cemetery archaeological survey here, herehere and here.

IMG_6568We were doing this as part of data acquisition for a third-year undergraduate archaeology student project. The students are investigating mortuary variability for their module Death and Burial. Victorian and Edwardian memorials are an excellent case study, allowing the students to acquire, analyse and interpret a body of material evidence in relation to contemporary debates in mortuary archaeology.


third-year student Bethany double-checking the accuracy of our records

It was a great third week, and we recorded as many memorials as we had in the previous two sessions combined. I was very proud of the hard work, attention to detail and good humour of the students as they not only recorded, but also checked each others work for quality and accuracy.


French exchange student Fiona recording a complex late Victorian memorial

Most importantly, we beat the previous year by recording 206 memorials: in 2014 last year’s third-year students had recorded 204!  The students knew we were trying to beat the previous year and we came from behind to win through.

Nothing like a bit of mortuary competition! Yet, in all seriousness, the emphasis was on accuracy and quality rather than speed. Furthermore, each memorial is so different that it is diffucult to predict the speed of progress: some memorials are easy to record, others take a phenomenal amount of time recording worn and fragmentary text and trying to sketch and identify complex ornamentation. Far more important that the numbers of memorials recorded was the hard work, confidence and dedication of my student group.

Sincere thanks to Cheshire West and Chester Council for granting us permission to do this project in Overleigh cemetery.