Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

Burning Craster’s Keep: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 4

Picture4Medieval halls had life-histories: they were born, they grew up, they grow old, and they died, sometimes in violent circumstances and sometimes by fire. They could be destroyed by enemies, or put to death to coincide with the deaths of key occupants by their survivors. Halls therefore are tied to the rhythms of intergenerational family fortunes: they rise, they fall.

Such themes flit around  the burning of buildings in Game of Thrones; the television series inspired by George R. R. R. Martin’s books.

Picture2 I’ve previously discussed cremation in the popular HBO series in Season 1 (Dothraki/Valyrian), Season 3 (Tully) at Riverrun and Season 3 (Night’s Watch) at Craster’s Keep. Yet it is in Season 4 that things really heat up.

In Episode 5, a hall-burning takes place. Jon Snow and volunteers from the Night’s Watch retaking Craster’s Keep and killing the traitors who had slaughtered Craster, their fellows and the Night’s Watch’s Lord Commander. In doing so, his brother Bran and his friends escape unseen. Meanwhile, Snow and his warriors liberate Craster’s many wives who decide to head off on their own.  Before they head back to the Wall, they burn down Craster’s Keep, thus cremating all the dead bodies within.

This dramatic hall-burning is a lingering scene involving multiple angles onto the conflagrating structure and the survivors watching on. This event signals the dramatic destruction of the dire abode of Craster and all the foul deeds that took place within. It isn’t rendered a ‘cremation’ per se, but it is a moment of solemn reflection on the place before they depart and the fiery destruction of bodies and building are intertwined.

It reminds us of hall burnings of Icelandic sagas and it is a striking example of mass cremation within a building has an enduring appeal as spectacle and transformation: both world-ended and world-renewing.

Talking in the Shadow of the Pillar of Eliseg


An audience of c. 25  people and two hounds in total assembled to hear my talk at the Llangollen Museum this evening



The forthcoming book by Williams and Giles

2 years ago, I attended the opening by Ken Skates of the ‘Sharing the Treasures‘ at Llangollen Museum, which included the finds from my co-directed excavations at the Pillar of Eliseg. More recently, I’ve been back to Llangollen Museum with students and with colleagues doing research on the Pillar of Eliseg as well as researching a newly discovered 14th-century grave slab fragment temporarily on display.

This evening, I got to talk in the shadow of the replica Pillar of Eliseg and close to the Bronze Age cremated remains we found in the mound beneath the Pillar of Eliseg and now displayed in a mock-up of a cist-grave in the museum.


Me, meeting the whippet, Toby, in the audience! Photo by Gillian Smith

With my new book Archaeologists and the Dead nearly out and published in June with OUP, this evening I gave a public lecture exploring case studies in the relationship between mortuary archaeology and contemporary society.I focused on asking how we explore the diversity and complexity of past mortuary practices in museum and heritage spaces, and why should we display the human dead in these environments. I started by discussing the book co-edited by Dr Mel Giles and myself, and containing 19 chapters exploring current debates worldwide, in Europe and in the UK, regarding the archaeological investigation, display and interpretation (including envisioning of) the remains and contexts of the dead.

I then explored two very different case studies in how the dead are presented at heritage sites: Stonehenge and Sutton Hoo. My point about each was the importance of absence, or staged absence, in the narration of each site’s archaeological history. In particular, I talked about the centrality of cremation practices to each site, and how these presented a challenge as well as opportunities for engaging visitors with the stories of each site. I also talked about the power of the Sutton Hoo helmet in framing imaginations of the absent dead (see also my blog on Anglo-Saxon death at the BM).


me and the Sutton Hoo helmet in the BM

I summed up by bringing the discussion back to the situation in Llangollen Museum: a small museum like this is replete in different material traces of the dead, memorials to the dead, as well as remains of the dead, including the Pillar and the cremated remains we excavated.

This was a direct development of themes discussed in the Dead Relevant conference in Chester on the 19th April and you can view this conference online here and my blog post on Leeds Museum here.

As well as presenting my paper, there was a very constructive and lengthy Q&A session to follow. One highlight was that I got to meet a whippet called ‘Toby’ and there was also a poodle in the crowd.

I’d like to thank the audience and the organiser – Gillian Smith – for a fabulous evening.


Preaching! Photo by Gillian Smith

Man Smiths


Me in action at the Isle of Man College, talking about cremation and smithing (a point based on a 2005 paper in the Journal of Social Archaeology)

I’ve had a busy few months of public lectures.

I recently went to the Isle of Man and presented some of my ongoing research on the Past in its Place project. One of the themes is exploring the interaction between literature and archaeology in the landscapes and ancient monuments of England and Wales.

Wayland’s Smithy is one of my case studies for this project and I’m subsequently exploring the broader significance of smiths, their products and tools, in early medieval societies to understand why this Neolithic monument was attributed to the fearful figure of Weland.

So when in Douglas I presented my preliminary ideas regarding the significance of scenes depicting the legendary smiths Regin and Weland on 10th-century stone sculpture from northern Britain. This was a public talk at the Isle of Man College, organised by Dr Catriona Mackie, one of the History & Heritage Lecture Series linked to the college’s BA History and Heritage degree programme.

I spoke to a packed lecture theatre, fielded some fascinating questions and then got treated to a slap-up evening meal at a fabulous Manx pub. A great evening and one of the friendliest and most engaged audiences I have ever experienced.

You can view my talk online here.

Previous Posts on Weland and Regin

And Now His Watch Has Ended: Cremation Up North in Game of Thrones Season 3

Picture2I’ve now written two posts about cremation in the HBO series Game of Thrones. We started with a Dothraki/Valyrian cremation of Khal Drogo in Season 1 and a Riverlands cremation of Hoster Tully in Season 3. However, it’s ‘up north’ beyond the Wall where we get the regular cremations in the show during Seasons 3 and 4 (at the time of writing, I have to see Seasons 5 and 6). It is to these I want to now look.

We begin with Episode 4 of Season 3 where the Night’s Watch have retreated following their slaughter by wights and White Walkers at the Battle at the Fist of the First Men. They arrive at Craster’s Keep and one of their number, Bannan, dies of his wounds and is cremated out of doors on a carefully stacked pyre, seemingly without pyre-goods. Jeor Mormont – the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch – leads the service and the Night’s Watch stand in a circle, at least one in the foreground with an axe ready for use (or used in the hewing of stakes for the pyre.

Picture1A notable feature is the stakes that rise from the pyre, creating an outward-facing crown-like array. These are not particularly functional, but they do create a striking and memorable feature and perhaps (if bound laterally) hold the pyre material in place. Indeed, all of the posts seem to have been cut into spikes, even the horizontal ones for no apparent reason other than aesthetics, although one might speculate that they were arranged thus because they are reused timbers or to add as a defence should the cadaver become a wight before the conflagration had begun… I suspect it is just to look ‘cool’.

Early on, we get a sense that people who die up at or beyond the Wall ‘come back’ as ‘wights’, operating at the command of the White Walkers. The obvious solution is to burn them before they can ‘turn’. Is it obvious? Why not simply cut their heads off? We don’t find out. In any case, here we have cremation motivated by ‘disease’.as a response to revenants: something that has widespread precedent in modern and past cultures. Across much of northern, central and south-east Europe in the later medieval and modern era, the real-world belief that a ‘bad death’ might resurrect physically to harm the living can be identified. Archaeologists have most regularly encountered examples of supposed ‘vampire graves’ with various mechanisms adopted to prevent the dead from rising: stakes, stones and decapitation. Yet burning was also a widely utilised mechanism. One only as to think of Grettir’s Saga in which the evil shepherd Glam comes back to haunt the living. Exhuming his body and cremating it on the seashore is used as a final resort to destroy his remains.

Regardless of this necessity of avoiding the cadaver rising as a wight, Bannan’s funeral is portrayed as a night-time solemn military cremation with the remaining Night’s Guard encircling the pyre in the snow laden forest close to Craster’s Keep. Whether the Night’s Watch previously cremated their dead or not (and I suspect not), they have rapidly invented a funerary tradition, building on necessity and seemingly unafraid that fires might attract the attention of Wildings or White Walkers.

Is there a point here? Well, I guess a simple observation is that even when cremation might be often regarded as utilitarian or anti-revenant – a means of rapidly disposing of a feared or dangerous cadaver – the procedure operates in a specific social and religious context. Cremation is never just disposal; it is always a choice among many available options for dealing with the dead. Yet even in the most urgent of scenarios requiring the rapid dissolution of the corpse, cremation almost always acquires a rich and varied set of ritualised dimensions even so. One can never separate utility and ceremony so clearly when dealing with cremation. So, for the Night’s Watch, cremation is afforded with respect, formality and within a corporate military identity of valour and sacrifice.




Fire on the Water: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 3

In Season 3 of Game of Thrones we encounter a second prominent and high-status funeral involving cremation, but in almost every sense contrasting with the cremation of Khal Drogo. Hoster Tully, head of House Tully of Riverrun is cremated on a small boat on the Red Fork of the Trident River with his brother Bryndon, son Edmure, daughter Catelyn Stark as well as his grandson Robb Stark in attendance. The scene takes place on a jetty adorned with piscine symbols of his house. Picture2

The body is set adrift downstream of Riverrun which is in the background and upriver. Although the perspective does not afford us a vision of how many attended upon the banks, we might anticipate a large crowd in attendance by virtue of the individual’s paramount status and the long-distance travelled by those attending the funeral.

Hence the modest size of the vessel is deliberate and reflects the scale of the water course, and the aspirations for the funeral as more than elaborate display. It is a small rowing boat containing the clothed body and covered by his house’s banner depicting the white fish on a red background, a sword lain over his body, a shield at his feet, and a six ceramic vases (3 on either side of the body) with side handles and lids containing unknown substances. I think there is a drinking horn above his head too.

After the boat is set adrift, Edmure, Hoster’s son and heir, has to fire a flaming arrow into the boat to light it. Edmure fails multiple times to light the boat, his arrows missing their target, and his uncle Bryndon – the ‘Blackfish’ – (Hoster’s brother) has to step in and hit the boat with a single flaming arrow from a longbow at an olympic distance. This takes place just before the boat disappeared out of sight around a bend in the river.

Significance in the Story

The broader context of the scene is one of the need for bolstering the alliances between the Tullys and Starks and their awkward neighbour Walder Frey and to illustrate the ineffectual character of Hoster’s son Edmure. Simultaneoulsy, Bryndon’s actual physically mandate’s what he claims regarding his long-fraught relationship with his brother: they made peace before the end.

We are meant to presume that this isn’t a unique occurrence, but the Tully’s traditional elite mode of disposal must be concluded in this fashion. Certainly, the riverine affinity of the house is mirrored in the desire for conflagration and immersion. Here cremation and immersion is less a religious statement as much as a careful conjoined articulation of kinship, status and power.Picture3


It is also yet another powerful combination of elemental dimensions: fire and water

Also, the scene helps us to consider the odd mixture of high medieval setting and yet non-Christian (‘pagan’) funerary practices operating in Westeros and therefore is beautifully anachronistic were one to try and understand this (unfairly) in historical and archaeological context.


Combining Scyld Scefing of Beowulf and Boromir of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the death of Balder and Einar’s funeral, the final scene of the 1958 film Vikings, this is a relatively low-key and modest funeral in its riverine final stages. It is a clear evolution of an established literary and filmic funeral tradition of cremation on water. Given the modest size of the vessel, the Beowulf/Tolkein influences seem paramount here over Viking mythical and Hollywood exemplar. In both Beowulf and in Boromir’s funeral in the Fellowship of the Ring, the river takes the boat away, out of view and its final fate is ‘unknown’ to those apprehending the funeral.Picture5


Archaeological and Historical Background

Now there is obviously a rich and varied archaeological background to burning the dead in boats; and we have extensive evidence from late Iron Age Scandinavia of cremation on land within boats upon pyres and/or using boats as pyre material. The famous account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan of witnessing a Rus chief’s funeral on the bank of the River Volga is widely discussed by historians and archaeologists for its insights into the animal sacrifices, and the raping and sacrificing of a slave girl as well as the tempo, spatialities and materialities of Viking funerals.

Yet archaeological evidence suggests that modest-sized vessels might have been more commonly cremated and inhumed that is often supposed. While large seagoing warships could be afforded for the elite, smaller vessels might have been a common dimension of funerary practices – buried, burnt, displayed and incorporated as fragments in many different stages of early medieval funerals.

Of course, Hoster Tully is no Viking and this kind of funeral has no conclusive historical precedent. Morever, unlike the account of ibn Fadlan, we have no animals on the ship, and no human sacrifices unlike the Dothraki cremation in Season 1.Picture7

However, many are sceptical regarding whether burning boats on water as descripted in the Prose Edda for the god Balder could really have been a regular and repeated funerary practice. The Vikings History  Channel season thinks it was possible, and there are instances shown of burning over water on rafts  and in ships.

Key issues for reflection

I must say the Game of Thrones example does much to support sceptics regarding the impracticality of burning on water as a feasible disposal method: the small bundles of kindling make it difficult to conceptualise this as a fitting and coherent funeral practice and how the remains would effective disperse into the water. I fear that Hoster Tully will end up mildly cooked and floating in the water amidst flotsam around the next river bend without (a) lots more pyre material on the boat and (b) without the cadaver being demonstrably tied to the boat.

And of course, one might struggle to anticipate an archaeological signature for such funerals. If such funerals did take place in the past, how would we expect to see them?

Still, I think we shouldn’t be hasty in dismissing cremation on water as a disposal method in past societies, especially given the powerful symbolic and elemental dimensions, as well as the metaphors of movement, that such a funeral might evoke.

Perhaps what is more interesting is not how ‘accurate’ the scene is, or how feasible it is, but what it does in two senses.

  1. It helps us reflect on how funerals stage visibility and invisibility, and stage access to the fate of the body. In this sense, the body disappears before it is fully cremated and before it is immersed. If boats were indeed set alight with bodies on them, I think it would have worked most effectively on fast-flowing water courses or tidal estuaries to convey the boat rapidly far from the funeral party. A bend in the river adds pressure but also takes the more messy disintegration and sinking of the vessel, perhaps with only a partially singed cadaver still on board, something for the imagination and not for viewers’ attention!
  2. The scene helps us reflect on ‘funerary failure’. It plays off this unpredictability and the potential of failure in high-status funerary rites. This is important in itself and it is not ridiculous to imagine past societies setting up ludicrously complex procedures to make mourning kin endure not only heightened emotions but actions requiring highly skilled martial performances. Much is demanded of the heir in this instance, but also of the weather, the water course itself and many other unpredictable factors. The pressure put on the heir to successfully light the boat from a single arrow from a distance reveals the highly unpredictable nature of such a disposal method, or how societies can make even straightforward processes like death far more complicated that required! That is the basis of much of the archaeology of death!


As with historical dramas, the Game of Thrones funeral of Hoster Tully gives us plenty of food for funerary thought, both in terms of cremation past and cremations imagined. It makes us consider the tensions and potential failures inherent within the orchestration and performance of any high-status funeral, as well as the staging of movement and transformation in mortuary practices involving cremation.

Burning Ambitions: Cremation in Game of Thrones Season 1

Picture1Previously I have posted commentaries on cremation practices in historical drama ‘Vikings’ season 1 and 2 here and in my academic work I’m fascinated by how pre-modern, open-air cremation practices are portrayed in contemporary literature, art and the moving picture.

I’ve finally started watching Game of Thrones – everyone else seems to be doing it. I expected sex, battles, duals, murders, genital mutilation and… the occasional funeral. In this drawn-out fantasy narrative of family feud, power games, intrigue, deception, riding about in the sun being southern, sailing about in the mist being northern, and striding about in the snow being very northern, I wondered how funerals would play a role in the narrative and in the visual theatre.

Game of Thrones is based on George R. R. Martin’s books set in the land of Westeros and its seven kingdoms, and I confess I haven’t read the books. We encounter a world in which magic and dragons inhabit a pseudo-medieval power-hungry land of seemingly infinite peasants and warriors and very little worked agricultural land. It is an elemental world, in which fire and ice are the poles around which the stories geographical and magical dimensions flit.

Death by fire figures predominantly: by dragon fire, magical fire and sacrificial and other gruesome deaths and torture involving fire. Hence, I was unsurprised that cremation made an appearance as a classic motif of the exotic, the barbaric and pre-Christian, but I was surprised by its different guises.

According to the GoT wiki, ancient Valryians cremated, and so do the Dothraki and the followers of the Lord of Light. However, that doesn’t quite suffice in addressing the uses of cremation in the HBO show. So, here’s my first post about cremation in Game of Thrones.

Picture2Fire and Blood

At the very end of Season 1, episode 10 – Fire and Blood – we encounter one of the ‘heroines’, sister of a mad blonde, showing signs of unhinged blondeness herself: Daenerys Targaryen. She and her brother live in exile in Essos but her brother Viserys has burning ambitions to one day sit on the iron throne in Kings Landing like his mad father – King Aerys – before him.

Her brother makes a deal with the Dothraki horde (equine nomads: basically Mongols without ambition and armour) for her to become the wife of their clan-leader – Khal Drogo – in exchange for an army to invade Westeros. Things don’t go precisely to plan, and her bro gets a golden crown he didn’t expect. Along the way Daenerys acquires three dragon eggs and gains the inkling that she is immune to the effects of fire. When Khal Drogo’s mind is lost, she smothers him with a pillow (a kindly act it seems) and things seem about to fall apart for our own ambitions for power.

A ‘Dothraki’ Cremation

Cremation comes in to save the day for Daenerys!

Picture3She burns Drogo’s cadaver on a sensibly sized funeral pyre, having freed the Dothraki and given them a choice to stay or leave. This scale is appropriate: her band is now small following Drogo’s death.

The pyre is still impressive but not grandiose. It has big posts at each end, a platform at head-height and the body exposed on the top for all to see, wrapped in a loose thin textile ‘shroud’. Seemingly he has no pyre-goods with him and disappointly not even a horse.

Still, a bit of impromptu human sacrifice spices up this dramatic funeral scene: a priestess Daenerys blames for Drogo’s loss of mind (with good reason it seems) is tied to the foot-end of the pyre for her part in recent affairs.

Daernerys operates as the chief mourner, supported by her Dothraki aid and Ser Jorah Mormont. Rather than light the pyre directly, she lights spirals of kindling that feed the fire direct to the pyre. We get an overhead view of this and it is a very groovy touch: it ensures that it keeps her away from the flames ahead of her dramatic immersion into the raging inferno. Jorah pleads with her not to self-immolate, but she walks into the pyre, her bravery and endurance contrasted starkly with the screams of the dying priestess.

Picture4She takes with her the three dragon eggs, and the fire hatches them. We move to the next morning when Jorah and the remaining Dothraki explore the fire. She emerges from the smouldering wreck of the pyre: her clothes have burnt away and she is covered in ash. Her three baby dragons are strategically placed to hide some (but not all) of her naked form. She has become the Queen of Dragons via her immersion on Drogo’s funeral fire.

A Focus on Fire

They don’t seem to bother with post-cremation practices, and they don’t build a mound for Khal Drogo. This is a classic trope of sci-fi and fantasy cremation from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Later, we learn that cremation is essential for the Dothraki to enter the next world. Still, in this scene, the focus is on the fiery transformation as both dissolution of the cadaver and a moment of phoenix-like birth of the dragons from the ashes. This is a key moment for the character and cremation is a key part of her journey from khalessi as wife to become a leader in her own right.

Self Immolation by Fire

Somewhat insidious is how this scene serves to valorise self-immolation, the stark opposite to Tolkein’s Denethor who tries to burn his second son Faramir whilst still alive on a pyre within the catacombs of Minas Tirith. Here, Daenerys seemingly knows she is destined to survive the flames and simultaneously hatch the dragons in the process; she willfully goes to her fate, against the pleas of Jorah. Whether they thought it through, here we have a play on a global practice to which widows have been subject to burning in cremating societies from the North-West Coast of North America into the 19th century and in parts of South and East Asia into recent decades. We also encounter versions of it in the ancient and medieval world and legend, including Nanna, wife of the god Balder, throwing herself onto the god’s funeral pyre.

In this fantasy genre, we encounter through Game of Thrones a disturbing portrayal of a real-world practice of widow self-immolation, as well as a realisation of the widespread concept of fire as regenerative and serpentine rather than destructive.



Spike Milligan’s ‘Komodiataph’ – Blackpool and the Comedy Carpet Commemoration


Blackpool promenade and tower

Last Saturday’s brief expedition into Blackpool was an odd experience. Last time I was there I was c. 11 years old. I remember the vintage trams, cold evenings, cheap B&B, freezing beaches, fish and chips.


tram and tower

This time it was warm and the trams are brand-new beasts.

I’m not sure it is my kind of place, at least on a Saturday evening when I had to encounter unmentionable horrors, tasteless bars and lots of drunken youth.

Still, I got to see Blackpool Tower, two piers, the promenade, the trams and a brief wander on the beach.


herring gull

I also met some friendly herring gulls who flew away from my lens.


North pier

There were two principal memorial dimensions I experienced. First, was the Blackpool War Memorial. Second, was the Comedy Carpet.


South pier


Blackpool Tower

Comedy Carpet

The Comedy Carpet is a monumental pavement, commemorating comedians living and dead. It is situated immediately opposite the Blackpool Tower is a huge montage of quotations on the pavement, in cross-shape. It includes some of the best lines from over 1,000 comedians, over 80% of whom had performed in Blackpool.


The living and the dead

Names of the Living and the Dead

It is 2,200 m2 and contains over 160,000 letters. Around the edge were some names of the long-dead and the recently dead. The names include the Lancashire comedian Victoria Wood CBE who passed away last month, adjacent to Norman Wisdom, Mike & Bernie Winters, and Barbara Windsor. The living rub shoulders with the dead through these texts.

This is a clear example of how honorary inscriptions to celebrities morph into memorials to the dead. How the living seamlessly join the dead. Indeed, in this memorial, Victoria was already honoured as timeless and ‘of the dead’ before her sad and early death this year.

Spiked to Death

Then I came across within the Comedy Carpet a representation of the most famous comedy gravestone in the history of the universe. The great Spike Milligan’s.

Of course this is not a representation of a real memorial, this is an imagined memorial, one that we might imagine he wanted to have. This is because Spike’s actual grave was not permitted to bear the English translation ‘I told you I was ill’, only the Irish.

The original also had a cross upon it. Moreover, it was moved from one location to another, no longer over his grave but instead over his wife’s grave.

So what we meet in Blackpool is a legendary grave: a memorial joke.

Hence, it is both cenotaph and ‘komodiataph’. If there is no other word for a comedy tomb established in the literature, then perhaps this might serve…





Triskelioned to Death

IMG_20160503_162346Last week I went to the Isle of Man for a second time and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Everywhere I went I encountered the distinctive Manx flag: a triskelion of three armoured legs with golden spurs upon a red background.

In my view, the Isle of Man has the second-best flag in the British Isles (after Y Ddraig Goch of course). It is a striking feature for any visitor that comes down to us in heraldic use since the Middle Ages.

Last year, I saw its earliest known use on the medieval churchyard cross, now moved inside the church at Maughold. This is a good example of modern identities and their symbols being rooted in the medieval past, even though the flag itself dates back only to the 1930s.


Memorial contexts

It is notable to see how it is used in so many touristic but also public contexts to denote identity and affinity to the island. There is also a prominent sculpture across from the Arrivals section of Ronaldsway airport (pictured above).

This use of the treskelion includes graves and other memorial contexts, including the Fairy Bridge discussed in a previous. : a topic for another post methinks!

Then there are those utilised in mortuary environments: I visited the new extension to Maughold cemetery and saw numerous examples of the motif utilised on gravestones. Evidently, and I would suggest far more than other nations in these islands, a flag is going onto graves to connect people to place. Here are a few examples:




Souvenir stories

Manx flags are not just to be seen on the island; they are to be acquired and taken away.

I bought a Manx flag and a fridge magnet for the family home.

My kids were fascinated by it and I used it as a point of reference to discuss Manx geography, history and culture. More importantly, they wanted to know answers to the following questions:

  • How did it walk? My son attempted a demonstration;
  • How did it see where it was going? I had no answer and suggested that it just guessed or might knock into stuff a lot: hence the need for armour;
  • It has three groins, so how does it pee? In all directions I suggested and the armour would make it more difficult;
  • How does it poo? I said I didn’t know, but a colleague has subsequently stated the obvious answer: like poo hitting a fan..




The Biography of Blackpool War Memorial


Blackpool war memorial looking north, the ‘choir loft’ dedicated in 2008 is to the left

On Saturday I attended the Council for British Archaeology North West’s spring conference at Staining and afterwards I briefly ventured into Blackpool to explore its seafront.

The key details regarding Blackpool war memorial can be found here. Located in an oval memorial garden defined by walls and elaborate neo-Egyptian bronze lamps, Blackpool’s war memorial is situated in front of the Promenade and between Blackpool’s North Pier to the south and the Grand Metropole Hotel to the north. The monument itself is an obelisk designed by Ernest Prestiwch and unveiled 10 November 1923.


The eastern face of the obelisk

To the west the dedication reads: IN MEMORY OF/ OUR/ GLORIOUS DEAD/ 1914-1918/ 1939-1945. Standing to attention, the dedication is flanked by two relief representations of a sailor and airman. To the east, the identical dedication is flanked by two soldiers.

Around its base, are two large figural relief panels, one called ‘1914 War/Justice’ looking south and ‘1918 Peace’ looking north. Allegorical figures of women form the focus of stylised portrayals of servicemen, women and children.


The figural panel on the south side



centre of figural panel on the north side: peace




Soldier facing east on north side

The names of the First World War dead – 907 in total – are recorded in relief upon bronze coped canopies over recumbent cenotaphic tombs to the north and south of the obelisk but upon its plinth.


The recumbent cenotaph on the south side



The Second World War dead

There is one additional name post-1945, added below the bronze panel recording the names of the Second World War dead – 616 in total – on the eastern side of the monument.



Commemorating the Falkland conflict

The memorial was rededicated with a ‘choir loft’ to the east of the memorial dedicated to civilian casualties in conflict in 2008. By the southern entrance is a plaque commemorating the unveiling of the world’s first permanent projection onto a war memorial, 3 November 2008.


2008 memorial plaque

IMG_20160507_185705This is a striking neo-Egyptian war memorial with neo-Classical figural additions. This applies not only its obelisk, but its recumbent cenotaphs flanking it and its grounds.

The wider setting is also dramatic and monumental: the memorial overlooks land and sea. The monument can be seen a long way along the Promenade from each direction to the north and south. It is only overshadowed by the Blackpool Tower, under 30 years old when the war memorial was unveiled.

I’ve previously discussed the biographies of war memorials and this is a further example on a grand scale where some of its stages of use and reuse remain written onto memorials in text and other media. In the case of the Blackpool memorial, these stages include the First World War, the Second World War, the Falklands Conflict and most recently the more universal generic commemoration of civilian suffering during conflict in 2008.

Of particular interest to me is the Falklands dimension. This is another example of how a single or small group of names from the Falklands conflict have a prominent place in relation to the many more fallen of previous conflicts on public war memorials in North-West England as discussed here and here.

Greeting and Mourning with the Mooinjer Veggey


Looking north, the east side of Fairy Bridge with a couple exploring the ‘clutter’


The east side of the Fairy Bridge looking south

On the Isle of Man, there is a ‘real’ Fairy Bridge near Kewaigue, and a popular better-known Fairy Bridge is on the A5 south from Douglas to Castletown. Yesterday, I visited the latter.


The trees to the east side of the bridge

Since the 1940s, travellers have been encouraged to not only greet the little people – mooinjer veggey – when passing, but to leave them things. Increasingly, and somewhat to my surprise when I visited yesterday, these offerings have been left for the little people in a fashion resembling a roadside memorial writ-large.


The road sign covered in stickers


The back of the road sign, covering in motorcycle and racing-related stickers, some local, some clearly international in origin


Who is memorialising?


The stream: coins and shells were placed in it

The placings/offerings/deposits/hangings/inscriptions cover many forms and possible intentions and meanings. Some are indeed clearly deposited in hope of ensuring good luck in general. Some seem just that, light-hearted, positive greetings to the fairies. Yet many are international, from riders and their families from all over the world, wishing to ensure good luck and safety from injury during the infamously dangerous TT races. One reads:

Dear Fairies, Please help to keep my daddy safe in his races, lots of love from Sophie

This is a locus of annual ‘cycles’ of place-making with international connections linked to the races.



The less-visited west-side fo the road: trees here also have deposits/suspensions

More than even a site of pilgrimmage, many are memorial offerings and memorial texts, commemorating the dead from near and far, some explicitly connected to the TT races.

Others are perhaps not about the races, such as the pink heart-shaped memorial to a lady who died aged 52, or another which reads simply

RIP DAD, 20/6/73, 8/12/14. Miss you always, lots of love, Jacob xxxxx

Some seem to have been left by kids to lost parents, others commemorating kids by their family. Others seemed to be commemorating friends and fellow riders.

IMG_20160504_145907A Contested Space

Recently, in 2014, it was been cleared by persons who did not wish to be named. There are concerns of safety and ‘taste’. Some locals and politicians believed the deposits (called by some ‘clutter’) had got ‘out of hand’. One Manx politican has called for a letter-box for posting offerings to the mooinjer veggey (although I would suggest this misses the point that this is about cumulative display of greetings and mourning). This article stated that the ‘vigilante cleaner’ had removed:

a bike helmet, and an entire bike fairing, dolls, necklaces, wing mirrors, scarves, photographs and written testimonies to lost friends and relatives.

Read more:


Flowers, butterflies, signs and windchimes suspended by the stream on the west side of the road

So in addition to cycles of informal accumulation, it seems this place is also subject to ‘resistance’ to these practices, and through a mixture of motivations, equally informal clearance practices. Rather than counter to the memorial tradition, this is part of it: creating more space for new memorial depositions and practices.


The most formal of stones, down by the stream at the base of the wing wall

Memorial types

Inscriptions and deposits are diverse and complex, responding to a complex microtopography of the bridge. They include texts, written in black permanent marker pen upon the white-painted stones of the bridge’s curving eastern parapet. These might include a name, sometimes with a love-heart or kisses, sometimes with ‘R.I.P.’ explicitly denoting a memorial function. This practice continues elsewhere onto the bare stones. There are also a range of other items including (in no particular order, I haven’t worked out how to categorise them yet in frequency, form, material or media):

  • notes nailed to the trees;
  • cards (some open and with messages for the dead, and some still sealed and addressed for the fairies to read)
  • flowers – single and bunches
  • ribbons
  • ornaments
  • plastic bags suspended by ribbons (presumably containing trinkets and messages too)
  • photographs
  • prayer-cards (speaking of loss and love)
  • metal and wooden signs commemorating the dead by name, or by nicknames
  • flag
  • scarves
  • wrist bands
  • die (lodged between stones in the bridge)
  • stickers (on the road-sign)
  • deposits of stones
  • IMG_20160504_145025

    Remembering Cornish Ian

    pot fragments

  • semi-precious stones
  • poppy
  • padlock (following the ‘love lock’ tradition)
  • windchimes
  • butterfly ornaments
  • heart-shaped wooden hangers, one reading ‘Away with the Fairies’, another with a more personal memorial message
  • shells
  • coins
  • shaving brush
  • baseball cap
  • plastic mug

Writing in black pen upon white and bare stones of the bridge parapet and wing wall constitutes the most distinctive feature. Many of these other strategies can be found on roadside memorials, wells and landscape memorial locales, but also in cemeteries and in crematoria’s gardens of remembrance across these islands, including personal items left at memorials and graves.


Expressions of love and requests for the fairies’ blessings


My archaeodeath perspective reveals that this is to be understood as a complex memorial space, not simply a superstitious and tatty set of offerings.



TT 2013 greetings


I’ve never thought about bridges as memorial environments before. The range of offerings and inscriptions outlined above are mapped onto a strikingly complex microtopography.


From the USA

These comprise a series of stages of visibility and accessibility from the road. Some inscriptions and deposits are about display: they are facing the road and clearly visible/accessible in terms of scale and therefore public. Others might be deemed semi-public in being partially visible from the road, or fully visible but placed high up, farther away or through their small and secretive in the placing. Then there are the more secluded spaces on and around the bridge not directly visible from the road.


Arboreal memorials

Interestingly, this space spans the bridge, involving mainly its eastern side but also its western. A further dimension is that it is lithic, metallic, arboreal and aquatic contexts. This reveals the very 3-dimensionality of memorialisation at this space:

  • The road sign ‘Fairy Bridge’ (mainly stickers linked to the TT races and other Manx sports
  • The white-painted stones marking the top edges of the east side of the bridge (mainly inscriptions, flowers and offerings)
  • Cards, offerings and other items pinned, wrapped and suspended from the trees beside the east side of the bridge
  • Cards, windchimes, butterflies and other items pinned, wrapped and suspended from the trees beside the west side of the bridge
  • Inscriptions and deposits on the bare stones of the outer face of the east side of the bridge (you have to follow a small path off the road to seee these
  • Deposits in the water of the stream itself

In other words, not only is the Fairy Bridge a complex mixture of messages and media, it has complex spatial components.


A celebratory, not necessarily mortuary, beach pebble added to the bridge


Prayer cards lodged between stones beneath the bridge’s wing wall




Flowers and a shaving brush balanced on the parapet


I must admit my initial responses to the Fairy Bridge were cynical and snide, happy to accept it as locus of superstitious and whimsical clutter and confusion. However, looking at it for more than a few seconds, pausing, exploring and engaging, one finds oneself looking at a complex accumulation of memorial practices linking a spectrum of believes in the little people, international tourist place-making and memorial practices. The particular connection with road traffic deaths, and deaths in the TT races, requires our attention, but so does the association with Manx identity within an international context of tourism and travel.


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