Angry Material Culture

Posted: February 22, 2015 in Heritage, Places and Landscapes

IMG_20150218_095648Archaeologists are interested in the relationship between material culture and emotion. We tend to focus on love and fear, especially in mortuary archaeology. Tombs might express loss, sorrow, love, for example, revealed in the text, ornamentation, choice of material, maintenance and offerings placed upon tombs. Certain treatments afforded to the corpse, however, might be seen as motivated by fear of the ghost or hatred of the dead person, such as post-mortem decapitation and prone burial. I haven’t read as much about settlement archaeology, but I wonder how much the ‘archaeology of emotions’ has permeated how we interrogate land, property, fields, farms and dwellings?

What about the material culture of anger? This leads me to an example, because I feel seaside towns and villages bring out the anger in modern British society and display striking instances of ‘angry material culture’. I suspect this is because every seaside resort is a kind of seasonal war zone in which locals and tourists rely on each other’s presence but detest each other in equal measure. Furthermore, the vicious capitalist obsession with property and possession of land is condensed and distilled to a bitter bile because of conflict and tensions over spatial proximity and access to, and visual interaction over, shore and sea. This has physical manifestations in boundaries (walls, fences etc.), car parking signs, restrictions and locations, and signs which seem magnified in their severity in order to demarcate and direct tourists to popular spaces and away from private property.

Is there a relationship between tourism and angry material culture?


A range of signs warning of hazards on the battlements, including slipping, falling, being led away by strangers and the dangers of worshipping angry birds



Health and safety sign: Beaumaris Castle. I regard this sign to be warning to the visitor of the dangers of over-interpretation.

Previously I celebrated the superb range of enduring health and safety warning plaques associated with Dinefwr Castle and Dolforwyn Castle: part of the Cadw material culture of heritage health and safety. I even proposed that they inspire a new form of dance….


Beaumaris Castle

Naively I thought I had seen the full range of these white figures on red background, presuming that I had observed warnings to the full-range of potential threats from tripping over, hitting one’s head on, slipping down and falling off medieval ruins. However, I recently visited Beaumaris Castle, the incomplete fortress on Anglesey built by order of Edward I. I enjoyed looking around, for the first time, the outer and inner defences. I was struck by the fact that I observed two further, hitherto unwitnessed, signs warning of hazards to the modern visitor. Perhaps these will too inspire further dance-moves alongside the previously-blogged-about Cadw Twerk…

IMG_6227One warning sign depicted an adult and child hand-in-hand. I interpreted this as instructing me to keep hold of the hand of a child, although perhaps it is a warning of children being abducted from the battlements? Given the sign’s location, I presume this refers to the dangers of scaling the stone stairs and walking along the battlements. Perhaps this might seem like blindingly obvious and unnecessary advice, but I have seen many examples where such advice is not followed by visitors and children are put, or put themselves, at risk. Despite the protective barriers, supervising little ones must be a priority for any adult visiting historic sites with kids, even if it means delaying a response to that crucial text message, missing a few heritage signs and avoiding a few photo opportunities. However, my older three are now well-versed in staircases and battlements, and given their number verbal instruction and visual observation had to suffice since holding their hands throughout would have been no fun and would potentially create a hazard of its own.


My kids flagrantly ignoring the signs


Exploring Beaumaris Castle – good safe railings to prevent mindless accidents.

The second warning sign warning of flying birds (two in number) and a ducking/stooping human figure. I took this to mean ‘beware of the seagulls’. Disappointingly, no attempt was made to be specific; the icon neither depicts the birds mobbing the visitor Hitchcock-style nor dropping their fetid fecal matter. All inaccessible sections of the castle are currently inhabited by breeding herring gulls so I presume the sign is warning the visitor of low-flying gulls, hungry gulls, defensive gulls and crapping gulls. I guess this sign covers all eventualities of airborne attack and distraction. Or perhaps it warns against idolatrous worship of birdlife?

We actually came face-to-face with an angry bird on our visit. In one corner of an accessible part of the gatehouse we encountered a baby gull hiding in a nest in a dark corner, looking very nervous at our attention. We said hello but let it be. 


Herring gull city at Beaumaris Castle


My eldest meets an angry baby bird


Both signs made me wonder how many more exist that I haven’t seen? Is there a full database of these signs out there somewhere. I wonder if you can buy them for my own home where similar hazards present themselves? Perhaps I could Cadw-proof my own house with health and safety heritage material culture! Can you tell that I used to be a bird-spotter and a train-spotter in the distant past?

IMG_8399On a recent visit to Lindisfarne I walked beyond the priory and castle to the beach beyond the limekilns. Here, at the top of the beach so that they can be seen from the beach and from inland, I discovered a modern obsession with raising inukshuk. These carefully balanced piles of beach stones are seemingly a modern craze for visitors. In the short duration of my visit I noticed numerous families, groups and individuals participating in raising these temporary miniature megaliths. I don’t know how old this practice is; I would be interested to learn whether it has early roots but I presume it only relates to recent decades and heritage tourism with the purchase and opening of Lindisfarne Castle by the National Trust.

IMG_8402While raising mountain and hill-top cairns by walkers and climbers is a well-established and recognised practice, this seemed like a particularly distinctive practice and location.

IMG_8417The location seems important. Situated at the end of a walk and at a point on the beach looking out towards the Farne Islands and out away from land into the North Sea. Hence, this stretch of beach affords a sense of isolation and embodies the island aesthetic and yet it is an extremely well-visited location for tourists.

IMG_8407The activity is distinctive too; this is not simply the addition of stones to a pre-existing cairn, but acts of constant and perpetual building and rebuilding, constantly reinventing rather than cumulative. Yet it is simultaneously citational, as each stack responds to, and tries to out-do its neighbours in size and/or design. In this regard, it is a stone equivalent of sand castles, without the logistical requirement that walkers come prepared with a bucket and spade.

IMG_8420So is this simply a distinctive activity that has gathered pace by emulation and experimentation and as a distinctive response to a particular locale: not just any beach, not just any shoreline, but here, beyond the castle, between land, islands and the open sea. Are there spiritual dimensions: part of the pilgrimmage experience and the broader visitor engagement with an historical maritime landscape? Might families and individuals raise these to mourn loved ones? Both are possibilities that need exploring. Most likely it is not primarily anything of the sort; they reflect an activity in which existing stacks inspired the creation of others.

What is important here is to recognise that a singular meaning and a precise origin need not explain and account for the mutable character of raising rock stacks. This is not, however, the same as arguing that this practice is a meaningless and prosaic practice. As a form of personal and group place-making, serving as a sonvenir through its construction and by offering a form of participatory and fun activity, the rock-stacks on Holy Island reveal many dimensions of modern miniature megaliths and cairn-construction.

IMG_8426As an archaeologist interested in cemeteries and the various modest memorials over graves of the dead in later prehistory and early historic societies, these kind of phenomena, for being prosaic, are more revealing than instances of deeply-felt spiritual acts of devotion motivating ephemeral monumentality. This is because we need not identify a single meaning to discuss their recognise their significance as a place-making practice. Furthermore, we can identify how, while individually modest in proportions, together they serve to create an ever-changing and ever-perpetuated tradition of activity. In these regards, I find these rock-stacks a fascinating inspiration for thinking about ephemeral monuments in the human past.

IMG_6003Previously I have blogged about archaeological dimensions and themes in zoos here, here and here, oh and also here. Twice on my mini-break in Anglesey I have visited the Anglesey Sea Zoo situated beside the Menai Strait with views over to Caernarfon and I feel compelled to mention a few material culture dimensions to this small but packed zoo dedicated to marine life from British waters.


IMG_5943My kids had a great time meeting fish, sharks, anenomes, lobsters, crabs, cuttlefish, more lobsters, eels and even more lobsters. We explored both inside and the adventure play area outside.IMG_6078


I was intrigued to see how nautical material culture was widely deployed within this zoo in three ways.

First, the tanks employed nautical material cultures to create settings for the various undersea life on display, from old toilets to boats, lobster pots to (presumably replica) archaeological artefacts. In this way, human interventions within Britain’s undersea habitats are foregrounded, helping to communicate the conservation themes of many of the displays.

Second, in places, a panoply of nautical artefacts, from diving suits and fishing nets to lifesavers and ship’s wheels, deck the route of visitors. This reminded me of the commemorative use of similar materials within church commemoration of the centenary of the First World War as discussed here. Surely a clear example of how the same nautical artefacts can accrue very different associations depending on the context of their display. In the zoo, I guess the attempt is to create an ‘immersed’ experience (pun intended) for the visitor.


Third, I was fascinated to see archaeology on display: select artefacts retrieved by diving on a series of shipwrecks around the North Wales coast. Seemingly all post-medieval artefacts, I was surprised to find this dimension of human interaction with undersea environments so strikingly central to the zoo. Here are some photos:




IMG_6063In summary, it seems that undersea animals attract a particular connection between lost and old material culture in the public imagination, employed to create links to marine life and their conservation, as well as to instigate an aura of immersion for the visitor in nautical realms. Finally, artefacts create a sense of the long-term connection of people with the sea, although I imagine there is plenty of potential for expanding and enhancing connections between the human past and present in visitor attractions such as this one.


Barclodiad y Gawres from the north-west


Views out to sea from the top of the mound

This is a fabulous location for a passage grave; isolated on a headland between two rocky inlets and with the wide bay of Rhosneigr to the north-west. One can almost imagine this as a lair of the dragon in Beowulf on the sea-cliff on the edge of his Geatish kingdom.

Access is easy from a car park to the south-east and a short walk up the hill to the right of the bay. One encounters a spectacular monument with views out to sea and along the south-west coast of Anglesey.


The bay to the south-east

Beneath a large round mound of earth is a single chamber with a corbelled roof accessed by a passage. Five of the stones inside the chamber are decorated with abstract designs. In all these regards, the monument bears similarities with Bryn Celli Ddu and the passage graves of eastern Ireland: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Excavations in the 1950s revealed cremated bones, indicative of late Neolithic passage grave mortuary practice in Ireland and Wales. What a headland for cremation ceremonies to have taken place ahead of their interment in the tomb over years and perhaps even over generations!

It is difficult to fault the presentation of this monument, despite the heavy reconstruction and locked chamber. Because it can be seen from the road, it is served by a car park and it is on the coastal path, this is a well-visited and popular heritage site.


A group visiting the monument



The ‘restored’ passage grave

The monument is heavily reconstructed and protected by two iron gates. The innermost is locked most of the year to prevent vandalism. Still, with a torch and flash photography, one can see into the chambered space. Also, I noticed another recent Pagan votive offering.


The chamber in Barclodiad y Gawres


Modern offerings within the chamber


One of two heritage boards – this one inside the passage, the other beside the car park



Trefignath Neolithic chambered tomb

Trefignath is the better preserved of two megalithic monuments known from Holy Island and well worth a visit.


The Trefignath chambered tomb with fabulous windswept tree, heritage signs and entrance stile.

First, about getting to Trefignath. I confess I went to this site semi-blind: without my Landranger map and without consulting the location on the Megalithic Portal, I relied on memory of a former visit, Lynch’s guidebook for Gwynedd and faith that such an important ancient monument might merit a few signposts. How naive I was!


Bilingual signs

The Cadw website is a useless waste of space in giving directions to this tomb, so checking that was as helpful as sucking on a cowpat-flavoured ice cream. My problem was that I visited years ago but since then a new road layout and massive retail estate has been built on the outskirts of Holyhead which has blocked the road by which one used to gain access to the monument as advised in Lynch’s 1995 guidebook.


Bronze Age standing stone and windmill tower, en route to Trefignath

This wouldn’t have been a problem had their been at least one or two signposts to the monument. Given all this money and investment in Holyhead and its environs, you would have thought that Cadw or the council would have bothered to advertise the location. After visiting, we drove around the entire vicinity to double-check that we hadn’t missed signposts. No we hadn’t. Whoever is responsible for this new development should be bloody ashamed of themselves.


The Standing Stones

To add insult to injury, on the other side of the A55 and adjacent to a Morrison’s supermarket, is a blatantly pseudo-historical pub-restaurant with faux-prehistoric pretensions. Of course the ‘Standing Stones’ referred to actually number singly and are inaccessible and invisible from the  itself: blocked by the A55. What a megalithic joke!

And let’s be clear, this isn’t simply a heritage destination for archaeo-freaks and neo-Pagans, this is on major tourist maps of the island, as seen below at the Angelsey Sea Zoo.


Trefignath appears as the trilithon symbol south of Caergybi/Holyhead and above Trearddur.



Trefignath from the north

I wish I had consulted the Megalithic Portal for this one. The Modern Antiquarian site reveals other recent visitors had the same problem as me and I have a pretty good geographical memory and sense of landscape, so I bet many visitors simply give up on this one.


The western entrance to Trefignath chambered tomb, seemingly a later addition to an earlier, simpler chambered tomb

As it happens, we ended up parking by a school (the closest we could get from Lynch’s directions) and walked along the now-closed lane for 1 km to reach the monument. This was a fine walk, despite the overwhelming fecal mess left by dogwalkers (presumed their dogs, not them). In taking this stroll rather than finding the site and parking at it, we did benefit from gaining a sense of the wider landscape setting of the monument. Also, we passed by a (?Bronze Age) standing stone en route with a windmill tower behind it.


Trefignath from the north-west

Anyway, about the monument… Despite the heritage balls up that is the ‘landscape’ around the monument, the megalithic monument itself is striking.  From Lynch’s fieldwork and account, this is a multi-phased Neolithic chambered tomb, with the earlier chamber to the west with a northern entrance and enclosed originally in a circular cairn.

Later, the monument was reworked into a rectangular chamber with two stones marking teh entrance from a very narrow forecourt, enclosed within a long cairn (extending the earlier round cairn).

The third and final phase of activity was marked by an eastern chamber, making the central chamber inaccessible.

Sadly it seems that it was as recent as the 19th century when most of the cairn was removed for walling. In this regard, the appearance of this and many other western British chambered tombs are very much the product of the modern age.


Tobias explores Trefignath

The stone is a striking ‘wavy’ form leading to interesting arguments in print about the significance of stone texture and shape at this monument by Vicki Cummings and Chris Fowler. While I may have once semi-jokingly dismissed such arguments as Neolithic ‘mind-wanking’, I have long accepted that selection of stones for their shape, colour and texture does merit close archaeological scrutiny. For me, the key dimension of the site was its orientation along a natural stone outcrop on its own distinctive ridge and the striking uprights of the eastern end of the monument.


Looking from the western capstone over the monument



Distinctively textured stones






Presaddfed, Bodedern


Southern capstone and upright

I recently visited the Neolithic chambered tomb at Presaddfed, Bodedern. This monument is covered on the web by Cadw, the Megalithic Portal, Stone Circles and the Modern Antiquarian. This monument also appears in the third volume of the journal I currently edit: the Archaeological Journal for 1846 by H. Longueville Jones, available for free via the Archaeological Data Services, one of the first 120 available here.


Signpost and footpath sign near layby


Winter trees, en route to the chambered tomb



Snowdrops by the roadside



Signs and monument in distance


There is a Cadw lay-by and then a short walk to the field along a lane lined by snowdrops and with some striking birds’ nests in the trees. The path leads to a shooting range; opposite one has to navigate across a field to the monument. At the entrance to the field was the heritage sign, the kissing gate and the required quagmire.


Presaddfed, Bodedern from NE

My son was so disgusted by the volumes of sheep dung in the field that he walked all the way across to within 10 metres of the monument before storming off in a random direction  in a sulk. Methinks he was really simply hungry and looking for an excuse to get back to the car pronto.


The southern structure


He didn’t miss explored within, which is simply mud and sheep debris. Still, from around it, one gets a sense of the two structures c. 1.5 m apart form each other. The southern has an intact capstone while the northern one has collapsed. Frances Lynch speculates as to whether this was a similar multi-phased chambered monument like Trefignath.


Within the southern chamber

I recall visiting this site over a decade ago with a colleague who was terrified of cows and was reluctant to venture into a field populated by them. I have recently faced this horror at Bodowyr but the field at Presaddfed is so big, on returning I could sympathise with her nerves. Even with only sheep to face this time, it is a big field and one feels very exposed when out in the middle of it far from the fences. As well as being a heritage site, this monument attracts visitors with other motives: on the southern capstone was a recent votive: a solitary piece of quartz.


A modern votive?


There are references regarding this monument’s recent uses. Longueville Jones records the presence nearby of many other stones suggesting the former presence of a cairn. He also testifies to the use of the monument as a shelter for the farmer and his labourers during inclement weather. In 1801, local tradition states that the southern chamber was lived in by a family evicted from a cottage nearby (according to Lynch in her Gwynedd guidebook).


View of the northern capstone from the top of the southern capstone



Against health and safety advice and provoking potential formal criticisms from all and sundry, I decided to mount the megalith and pose like an imbecile. Don’t try this at home people.

I recently explored some of Anglesey’s megalithic tombs with Frances Lynch’s wonderful 1995 Cadw guide to Gwynedd in hand (which I incidentally see now goes for £177 on; surely time for a reprint Cadw!!!!). I have left far-less-useful-in-the-field Cadw guide to Anglesey at home, also authored by Lynch.


Tobias at Ty Newydd

For context, previously I have blogged about other Anglesey megaliths Bryn Celli Ddu herehere and here as well as the megalithic tomb at Bodowyr here and here. This time I struck out in search of more megaliths: ones that I haven’t visited in well over a decade.


Ty Newydd burial chamber surrounded by its protecting sentinel columns

Ty Newydd near Llanfaelog is a great little monument if you like navigating stiles leading to muddy puddles and sheep poo and lots and lots of turnips. It is even better if you have a 3-year-old lobbing said turnips at you while you try to photograph the monument. The heritage experience is thus utterly stinted.


Roadside sign and board


Bilingual signs

The complete absence of interpretation beyond the stark Ministry of Works signboards and the horror of its agricultural context combine to foreground the absence of any real sense of place or sense of context. The twin stone pillars are indeed anachronistic but at least honest in showing the tomb is consolidated from further collapse.


Ty Newydd

Those commenting on the Modern Antiquarian dislike the situation and the ‘restoration’ of the monument, while a more understanding account is published on the Megalithic Portal. Incidentally, there are a great series of images on both these websites, including antiquarian drawings.


Another view


All this aside, I like it!

Lynch regards it as a badly damaged monument supported by a concrete plinth and  stone column. Excavations in 1935 are sufficient to suggest that it was a typical early Neolithic dolmen originally covered by a round cairn. The capstone is impressive and large and should not be dismissed in any regard. Furthermore, there is a great piece of folklore that the capstone split when a local lit a fire on top of it to celebrate a birthday on a neighbouring farm.

“Happy birthday Gwen!

“A split megalith? You really shouldn’t have! I’ve always wanted one on the farm but didn’t want to ask!”


Ty Newydd



AM – Ancient Monument


I must also comment on the c. 6 fabulous miniature pillars, made of concrete with stone caps, which demarcate the original protected ancient monument from the rest of the field. These each bear the initials ‘AM’ which immediately made me think of my friend and good colleague Dr Adrian Maldonado but I presume denote ‘Ancient Monument’. Still, if Adrian is looking for six ready-made funerary monuments saturated with an aura of prehistory to furnish his own tomb in the distant future, here’s where to acquire them! Incidentally, they proved useful for perching a child’s deerstalker on.


Reusing the pillars


Also, we found this was a superb spot to observe RAF Hawker Siddeley Hawk training aircraft landing at RAF Valley: we waved and a pilot waved back!






One of three trilithons within the modern megalithic feature near Bryn Celli Ddu


The megalithic feature, beside the car park at Bryn Celli Ddu

This is one for the urban prehistorian, for while it does not concern urban environments and an ‘unlikely place’, it does relate a modern megalithic feature installed close to a megalithic monument hailing from prehistory: the Neolithic henge monument converted into a passage grave in south-east Anglesey known as Bryn Celli Ddu.


The modern megalithic with its one solitary stone blocking the approach

I visited Bryn Celli Ddu last summer with three of my miniature archaeologists and blogged about it here. Either because I wasn’t expecting it and was so busy navigating said offspring out of the car and heading off for the ancient monument, or because it was only built in the latter part of 2014, I didn’t notice a striking megalithic feature within the Cadw car park itself. I noticed it this time when I visited with all 5 of my kids. So before even leaving the car park and setting off on the walk to the Neolithic passage grave, I set off with my horde of terrors to investigate this nearly-new megalithic feature with enthusiasm.


Within the structure


What we encountered was a miniature roofless replica of Bryn Celli Ddu itself, albeit with an entrance seemingly taking a different alignment (at a guess I’d say north). It comprises a ring of (low) standing stones surrounding a round mound, internally kerbed, thus creating an inner circular space. This is a megalithic knee-high bench running around the inner kerb, creating a capacious seating area for c. 20 people. A special touch was the incorporation of three trilithon features into this inner kerb: one opposite the entrance, two either side of the entrance. This last feature reminded me of the architectural trilithons at the early 19th-century ‘Druid’s Temple’ near Masham, North Yorkshire.


The horde rifle the monument

Is this a sanctioned ancient monument or the creation of some rogue megalithic artist? Is this a ceremonial feature built to serve the modern Pagans who utilise Bryn Celli Ddu for their ceremonies? Is it a megalithic picnic area for visiting school groups? Is it indeed new or was it protected and cloaked by spells during my last visit? Cadw’s website conceals well this new megalithic monument. Who out there can unlock its secrets and mysteries?

Of course my infantile barbarian horde did not understand this megalithic pastiche at all, with all its sophisticated and respectful allusions to the prehistoric monuments of Britain. Instead they used it briefly as an activity centre, re-arranging loose rocks and scaling the mound and climbing up the inner kerb and the individual standing stones, before being herded off to see the ‘real thing’. Unsurprisingly, the ancient monument itself was even more popular, even if in many ways its appearance is also a creation of the modern world as the nearly-new megalithic monument in the car park. Incidentally, and for reasons unclear, Bryn Celli Ddu is now regarded by my son as ‘The Coot’.


Scaling the monument



Walking towards Lindisfarne Castle

Seafronts and seasides are well-recognised foci for memorial benches, places of beauty, tranquility, and engagement with the outdoors and both landscapes and seascapes. They afford links between favourite spots for the dead person(s) and living visitors who take benefit from the bench. The dead are giving a view and a rest to the living as I have discussed before here.


Benches en route to the castle

I experienced a striking instance last year on Holy Island walking from Lindisfarne town to the castle, a place popular for its wildlife, archaeology and spirituality. This popular route for visitors to the island and the National Trust property is punctuated by regular benches lining the dry stone wall to the west of the road. Offering a sheltered place to rest, they are both functional and memorial. Those commemorated vary: islanders, locals and those from farther afield, but what they share is ‘love of the island’ as well as affinities between the living and the dead.


Benches with castle behind

What is also striking is the different patinas of the benches and their inscriptions as much as the contents of the inscriptions; the wear tells of the passing time and exposure to the elements as they perform their memorial form, affording seated vistas over the sea towards Bamburgh Castle.

One of the most striking memorial inscriptions is situated upon a particularly well-kept bench established in 2010, commemorating the five Norwegians who made the brave journey in a small boat across the North Sea during the height of the Second World War in November 1941 to escape the German occupation of Norway. Three subsequent died having joined the Canadian forces fighting to liberate Europe from the Nazi regime:

“In great gratitude for the good welcome for our five freedom-fighters: Tor Mod Abrahamsen, Nib Havve, Sven Moe, Jan Stumph and Kay Thorsen, received here on Holy Island, 5 November 1941, after crossing the sea in a small boat.”


Norwegian freedom-fighters’ memorial bench

This was a journey worthy of, and indeed excelling the feats of many a Viking adventurer! It hasn’t been lost how these daring contrast with the infamous AD 793 Viking raid on Lindisfarne for which Norway has now said sorry as discussed here.


The 2010 bench


As part of a project visit for the Past in its Place project, this encounter served as a salient reminder of the close connection between place, movement and memory in the contemporary memorial landscape, in which relationships to views and to routes between prominent and well-visited locations defines the mnemonic power of the bench.

Here are some of the memorial plaques on the benches, displaying the aforementioned affinity between the living and the dead to place as well as the striking effects of wind and weather.