Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

Blobb Hill Archaeology


The Blobb Hill – Aldford Castle’s motte

This week, my second-year Medieval Britain class moved on from the Bayeux Tapestry to explore two castles along the River Dee: at Aldford and Holt (see also here). I want to review some of the key information about the former site, drawing on the research of my former doctoral student – Dr Rachel Swallow – who has written an extensive research article about Aldford here.

Aldford Castle, locally known as Blobb Hill, is 5 miles south of Chester. The earthworks of the fortification are strategically situated between the confluence of the River Dee and Alford Brook. The location is strategic in terms of the river, and defended by water courses on all sides but the south. In addition, it marks the line of the Roman road – Watling Street – which heads south from Chester and crosses the Dee at the confluence of the Dee and Aldford Brook north of the castle (the ‘Old Ford’ = Aldford).

The Anglo-Saxon landscape is key to this castle’s location. The close proximity to Farndon leads Rachel to suggest a possible connection with a royal vill where King Edward the Elder died in AD 924. Certainly at Domesday it was a wealthy manor.

Rachel’s suggests that the castle was a motte-and-baily established before the 1140s. She suggests this based on inferences gained from Welsh sources: Madog ap Meredudd’s (d. 1160) power extended as far as Dodleston and Pulford according to Welsh poetry honouring him. Hence Aldford might have been constructed to oppose these Welsh fortifications. However, there remains no secure dating and the earlier reference to a castle here is as late as 1276, although the place-name is Old English and is first referenced in the 1150s.

Archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. Geophysical anomalies hint at stone walls on top of the motte – a rectangular structure with a tower at one corner.

Excavations have produced 13th-century pottery and evidence of a stone wall on the east side of the motte, perhaps part of the shell keep. Likewise, evidence of a D-shaped turret has been tentatively identified at the summit of the motte but remains undated. Therefore, whatever date it originated at, it appears convincing as a stone-built phase of the 13th century.

The church sits on the line of the outer bailey defences and therefore the relationship to the original medieval church – was it within the bailey or outside? – has yet to be confirmed through excavation.

Rachel’s study extends our understanding of the wider landscape context of the castle; suggesting parks to the north and east. There is clearly far more to be learned from Aldford.

We looked at the early 20th-century restoration as a commemorative monument of the medieval churchyard cross before heading off to Holt.

Oh I do like to die beside the seaside


I do like to stroll along the prom prom prom,

Where the plaques and wreaths say “mourn mourn mourn”.

I went to Llandudno North Shore Beach where my kids and I played by the slides, pottered about the pebble beach and threw a few stones into the waves, and then sat on a bench for  snack.

We sat on a perfectly normal bench, not a memorial bench. And yet it was one of three benches in a row by the promenade.

One had my twins eating crisps sitting on it.

The second had a mum and teenager girls sitting on it, looking around it, and then looking under it, all in search of a geocache.

Despite numerous passers-by, the third one remained empty.

Empty, but of course not empty. It was populated. It was populated by a recent memorial plaque inscribed ‘In memory of Brian Keith Armstrong, 1945-2015. He spent many happy times fishing on this beach’,

Adjacent, and taking up a large section of the back of the bench, was a wreath. Flowers were tied behind the bench.

This explains why it remained empty. Just like seats on a train, no-one wants to sit down on someone else’s lap, or next to someone else unless they can help it. The same human behaviour works here in relation to memorials. No-one wanted to sit next to the wreath or cover the plaque. The bench was for the living, but not really ready for them yet. It remained for the dead.

Me and my twins approached, and passers-by started to pay attention to us: why were we looking at the memorial? Why was I letting my kids look at it? I could also hear their silent questions. Keep moving, don’t contemplate too closely, don’t get too close…

Yet the dead are always by the seaside…

So just let me be beside the seaside,

I’ll be beside myself with glee,

And there’s lots of dead beside,

I should like to be beside,

beside the seaside, beside the sea.


What’s Wrong with Photographing the Dead?

IMG_6594IMG_20151227_115927Like many amateur and professional historians and archaeologists (including those interested in family history (genealogy), the history of death, social history, as well as landscape history) and the many, many more people who visit historic sites for a variety of leisure and educational interests, I regularly take photographs of gravestones in cemeteries and churchyards. Indeed, I have conducted a series of archaeological graveyard surveys (with permission of the relevant authorities) which, while not in the public domain, I have used as part of my teaching and research and I have plan to work further on this research area.

DSCN4441This evening I read that Birmingham City Council has banned an amateur group of historians (The Jewellery Quarter Research Trust) from photographing any more historic gravestones for inclusion in their database of the Warstone Lane and Key Hill Cemeteries. Only by written permission and on a case-by-case basis will they consider permitted photographs. The story is here and here. Check out their fab website here.

What is not satisfactorily reported is the reasoning behind Birmingham City Council from making this stipulation, and it clearly hasn’t been communicated to the historical group in question who publicly express their view that the ban is unworkable and incomprehensible. It isn’t clear what information held in these photographs might be sensitive or problematic, and certainly none of the details of the gravestones are the property of the council in any case.IMG_6429

Let me make the key points clear:

  1. Yes, these are cemeteries owned by and managed by the city council, and gravestones presumably remain the families’;
  2. However, these sites are already heritage attractions with regular guided tours including ghost walks;
  3. The sites regularly feature on heritage trails of the Jewellery Quarter;
  4. The cemeteries are in receipt of £1.3 million of Heritage Lottery Fund grants to pay for restoration work;
  5. Local councillor has made public his view that working with voluntary groups to foster engagement with local heritage is absolutely essential;
  6. If there is a problem, then why aren’t Birmingham City Council asking for existing photographs to be taken down from the JQRT’s website?

IMG_6391Looking elsewhere across the internet, I found another story about a potential ban on graveyard photography in a part of Northern Ireland ahead of plans by the Brigham Young University in Utah to create a web-based app to GPS record headstone positions worldwide. Here, the Sinn Fein Councillor who responded was aware that the distinction of permission related to the council ownership of the site but the family ownership of the gravestones.

Yet do owners, managers and families have the right to object to photographs of their property being photographed in a public place? Well, cemeteries and churchyards, while publicly accessible, are not really public spaces. Moreover, gravestones are not owned by those who manage the space but by families. Therefore, even if the gravestones were owned by the landowner, that owners of space and memorial (individual, family, private company, religious organisation or local authority) do have rights to set rules on behaviour and activity.

In an extreme case, St Mary’s Whitby has banned photography taking place given the large number of Goths languishing on gravestones here: this is the churchyard associated with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is an interesting parallel, since this churchyard closed in 1861 and still photographs around and on the graves was seen as disrespectful and the activities of Goths distasteful to the rector of the church.

IMG_5380But is it really a good idea to ban, or tightly control photography in cemeteries and churchyards? No! And here are some (admittedly overlapping) reasons:

  1. Photography is an integral part of recording listed monuments as primary record for genealogists and archaeologists: it is essential to our work and we need to do en masse for information to be of relevance and use;
  2. Photographs are an important medium of popular engagement with heritage of all kinds including memorial art and monuments and including historic cemeteries and churchyards. It puts people off visiting if they feel their behaviour is being monitored and criticised;
  3. It is almost impossible to avoid gravestones appearing in photographs within cemeteries and churchyards when they are not the primary focus of interest;
  4. Photographs are a cheap and easy way of recording memorials, the vast majority of which are not individually listed. Therefore the public’s photographs might be all there is in terms of formal recording;
  5. Photographs should be the copyright of the composer, not the subject matter, unless it is in private space. I defer to legal experts on this point, but I really think that publicly accessible spaces should not be stifled by photograph bans when living things are not the subject;
  6. Most of the gravestones under discussion were raised long before living memory, and even if descendants survive, it is difficult to understand how photographs of monuments could cause offence to them;
  7. The very tradition of gravestones is an historically situated one and speaks of family’s wishes for the dead to be remembered and recalled publicy by non-relatives: photography extends this tradition and does not counter it. It is not an infringement on private space;
  8. There are absolutely no theological or traditional religious or social reason why recording gravestones in any fashion, including photography, can be construed as an inherently disrespectful act. There are simply no ethical issues surrounding the photography of gravestones unless defamatory comments are made about their appearance or text. I regard even graveyard and cemetery ‘selfies’, as long as gravestones and offerings are not interfered with or subject to unnecessary or tasteless comment, are appropriate;
  9. IMG_20150514_110711Gravestones are a threatened historical resource, subject to all manner of natural and human agencies that might foster their destruction including vandalism. Without a detailed record of photographs circulating of these spaces, it is surprising how much will be lost before it is formally recorded. Moreover, multiple photographs over time can allow monitoring of their state of preservation. Finally, the more images are circulated, the more they are likely to be respected, understood and thus preserved;
  10. I cannot see any possible benefit to authorities or users in restricting gravestone photography as long as the taking of photographs does not infringe on living people, including mourners and other formal ceremonies taking place in churchyards or cemeteries. There is no profit to be made from the sale of photographs and very few artists and researchers make money out of the photographs they take;
  11. Taxpayers directly or indirectly pay for the maintenance of these environments, and therefore surely these are not spaces sacrosanct to mourners only;
  12. I cannot see how a ban on photography can be enforced in open-air spaces that are publicly accessible;
  13. I can only see it as positive that we encourage any legal activities in cemeteries that keep them ‘alive’ within local communities. Without fostering such engagements, how can we expect communities to respect and value them?
  14. We need to specifically foster digital public mortuary archaeology: the use of digital media to engage communities with their local heritage, including their churchyards and cemeteries, as discussed here.

DSC00207Therefore, in summary, I think this startling and incomprehensible case in Birmingham will hopefully be a idiosyncratic response of an ill-considered pen-pusher at the city council, rather than the beginning of a wider ban on photography in accessible cemeteries and churchyards maintained by tax-payers’ money.

What’s wrong with photographing gravestones? Absolutely nothing in my view. There is plenty that is good about it in archaeological, heritage, historical and other regards.

What’s wrong with photographing the bodies of the dead? That is a far more complicated question and a short answer could be ‘depends…’ Like it or not, millions of photographs of cadavers and skeletons are found through the internet already… This should be of concern and debate far more than photography of memorials and monuments!



The Chapel and Fort on St Michael’s Isle, Man


IMG_8615Situated at the north end of Langness which divides Castletown Bay to its west from Derby Haven to its north, St Michael’s Isle (or Fort Island) is a distinctive and small 5.14 ha rocky island off the south-east coast of the Isle of Man. Managed by Manx National Heritage since 1984, only from the late 18th century has the island been connected to Langness by a causeway. It bears two distinctive archaeological components that speak in different ways of its strategic situation.


St Michael’s Chapel

Regarded as 12th century and composed of limestone blocks and originally slate-roofed, it is a three-cell rectangular structure and a bell-cote at the western end.


St Michael’s Chapel

It was surrounded with a burial ground in use until the late 19th century for the burial of shipwreck victims and by the Catholic community on the island. In doing so, it persisted in a funerary use for centuries, perhaps as early as the Early Middle Ages. The earliest graves discovered from the site were of ‘lintel’ type (cist graves: although the equation of cist graves as diagnostically early medieval is now surely disputed).


Inside the chapel

Visiting last year, I noticed that the site is still a focus for memorialisation: there were floral offerings placed within the locked chapel interior.


Flowers and note placed within the chapel

I did appreciate the historic sign, dating the structure to the 11th century.


Chapel sign

The Fort

The fort protected the two main approaches to Derby Haven from the east, built by order of Henry VIII in the 1540s. Linear earthworks nearby on Langness are thought to represent earlier defences at this spot, perhaps as early as the Viking Age if not before.


Guns in the fort


The St Michael’s Isle Fort


Fabulous Manx sign: I wasn’t sure what middle-bottom was and thought it was about vacuuming up hair cut with a knife.

In summary, my brief visit got me thinking about maritime surveillance and defence, as well as the religious dimensions to maritime landscapes and their enduring significance into recent centuries. Again, we find these beautiful, isolated locales, remaining as occasional foci for floral offerings to this day.

Assembling Manx Early Medieval Carved Stones: Maughold’s Cross-House


Maughold Cross-House

Last year, on a brief tour courtesy of Dr Catriona Mackie of Isle of Man College, I went to Kirk Maughold to see its early medieval carved stones dated between the 6th and 13th centuries AD. Named after the isle’s patron saint – Saint Machaoi – the church is located on the rocky coast three miles from Ramsey in the north-east of the isle. This post won’t review the stones in detail but instead it will consider the context of display within the churchyard setting.


Maughold Church


The church is worth a visit in itself with its late medieval churchyard cross now on display within. The location enjoys extensive sea views and has an uplifting feel to it. The churchyard contains many fascinating historic gravestones, some striking works of art in their own right. Also in the churchyard are the ruins of three chapels (keeills) which mark this as a site of an early medieval monastery of uncertain origins but likely starting before the Viking era.


Commemorative trees, Millennium Monument and the Cross-House at Maughold

The Cross-House

My focus was in the 45 early medieval stones drawn from different locations in the parish now situated in the ‘cross-house’. This is of interest in itself for those wishing to consider the history and current practices adopted in displaying early medieval stone sculpture.


The smaller stones at Maughold, situated on stone benches and against the back-wall of the cross-house

Early medieval carved stones are displayed in many churches, churchyards and museums and increasingly in adapted historic buildings. Yet a purpose-built open-air canopy is something very special. Its timbers are carved with images of some of the crosses it contains. It has perspex windows on its narrow sides and is open to the north, with two long benches upon which smaller stones are displayed like spectators in a cricket pavilion. In front of them are free-standing cross-slabs, some facing outwards, some situated side on to enjoy the oblique light. It was opened by the island’s great pioneer archaeologist and researcher of its early medieval inscribed and sculpted stones, Philip Kermode.

The Stones

The stones themselves are varied in size, material and subject matter, ranging from simple inscribed crosses and rune-inscribed stones to large cross-slabs with abstract ornamentation and figural scenes. A guide to the stones can be found online here and a general commentary here. Each has individual stories, and together they are deployed to write the history of early medieval Man in many forms by many scholars.


A homely house for stones


Dense, detailed text

The stones are protected (in part) from the worst of the elements, and freely accessible to visitors, but this arrangement brings challenges and limitations with it. The experience and character of the stone exhibition is ridiculously dated: tiny text in one corner and numbered stones.

It is near-impossible for even a pair of individuals to navigate the information on the boards and relate them to the stones without spending hours there. In this regard, the display is hopelessly ineffective for exploring the variety and character of the stones, and the superb Manx Museum is far better in this regard with only a handful of stones and replicas on display.


Lighting also provides a challenge. The shelter is north-facing, which avoids some lighting issues but creates others for some faces of the stones. Moreover, discerning details of the carvings on the shale is a challenge when light does not fall obliquely across the stones. This would be fine if these stones were complemented by high-quality images of these monuments online or elsewhere, but this doesn’t seem to be the case (but please correct me if someone knows better). And yet of course, these stones came from very different locations: they have been moved multiple times.

I understand there are on-going debates regarding what should happen to the collection and the building, which together are an iconic dimension of the island’s heritage and almost inseparable in the wider imagination of archaeologists and historians as well as experience of visitors.

The Stones as an Assemblage

However, I wonder how much attention has been paid to the power of the assemblage itself; the arrangement, positioning and collective display? This is a theme I’m interested in for early medieval stones, whose cultural and mnemonic power in the contemporary context is often derived from the agency of collective display. For me, this building’s and the stone’s visual and commemorative power and significance comes from its ‘liminal’ position; they face and relate to the Christian site and interplay with the historic gravestones within it, but also sets itself apart as speaking of the secular world of the past too.


Commemorating the Millennium

Millennium Face-Off

I’ve discussed the use of early medieval stones in millennium monuments and other contemporary commemoration elsewhere. In this last regard, I was struck by their juxtaposition with a millennium monument; taking a low Christian cross as its form and placed on a stepped base, it is situated just uphill and towards the church from the cross-house. Here we find unifying monument created within a churchyard comprised of many hundreds of historic gravestones and also the collection of early medieval stones: a history of church and community distilled into one modest anniversary monument.


To its east are a line of memorial trees commemorating anniversaries of Maughold’s WI.


These anniversary memorials might be seen as complementing and augmenting the presence of the cross-house. I see them instead as somewhat oppositional. The squat millennium monument seems to glower down at the early medieval stones from higher ground, while the family of early Christian and Viking Age stones glower back. The latter are more numerous but fainter and fragmentary, the former bold and defiant in its amorphous memorial subject. They jar with each other in different collective powers. All millennium monuments are something of a contrivance, pretending to be memorials, gravestones and war memorials but unsure what they really are in themselves. They attempt to distil all complexities of history and time into a single monument and moment. As such they are transtemporal. In contrast, the early medieval stones have endured centuries, been moved, rearranged, discovered by scholars, studied and re-investigated. They are fragments of history as well asfragments of commemorative practices.

For me, this juxtaposition at Maughold reveals how such anniversary monuments never quite live up to the cumulative power, and operate in tension with, multi-period lithic assemblages. Millennium monuments seek to present time but deny it; old carved stones are witnesses to time and defy it.



Teaching with the Bayeux Tapestry

PANO_20160126_114447I confess that I am familiar with only a tiny fragment of the scholarship on the Bayeux Tapestry but I am fascinated with it as a piece of material culture and for the material culture it depicts. In this week’s teaching for second years, I got them to engage with it using an old fold-out cloth version in class.

Their task was to explore in pairs different dimensions of the material culture in the tapestry, including animals, ships, armour, clothing, feasting, buildings and landscape, before considering how the embroidery operated as material culture within an elite setting. I then introduced them to considering how it might have worked as a performative piece of art, involving an interaction of text, image and embodied engagement.

The room we were using was not ideal for such an endeavour, but by draping it over the computer at the front of the class, along two desks and then with a slight curve along a series of about 8 chairs, this small version of the tapestry could be lain out for the students to engage with. Therefore, students’ awkward engagement with the print version of the monument was itself a memorable and distinctive experience.

I was particularly impressed by the observations and insights of the group, including the students coming up with interpretations of the scenes that differ from convention and (in one case at least) I know have recently been proposed by researchers. It was a good hands-on exercise.

I don’t usually blog about teaching, but I thought this was a rather interesting thing to try to do. Supported by resources and reading online and in the library, this gives students a distinctive mode of engaging with textile as material culture.



Death, Flowers and the Castle


Caergwrle Castle, Flintshire

Exploring memorials in heritage spaces seems to be an emerging theme of this blog, including the identification of ash scatterings, memorial benches and plaques. However, while I’ve discussed many castles with memorial and artistic dimensions to their spaces and landscape settings from graffiti to sculpture, from commemorations of battles to the commemoration of health and safety (see here for a list), I don’t think I have ever before come across floral tributes within castle ruins before.

Recently I explored Caergwrle Castle and I was intrigued to find two striking floral tributes in distinctive locations: one placed upon the grate above the castle well, the other placed within low circular ruin of one of the castle’s towers.


It made me think regarding the logic to these placements. Are these discrete spaces for remembrance and contemplation for mourners? Were the loved one’s ashes scattered in these locations? Were these selected as discrete places where people are unlikely to tread? Are they secluded from the wind? What combination of mnemonic and prosaic factors motivated this pair of floral tributes? What is notable is, by picking such spots, they are counter to many memorial locations that demand a view. For while there are impressive long-distance views from the castle, from these spots in the interior of the masonry defenses, we are looking at more introverted memorial acts.


Conwy Castle and Heritage Jam

IMG_20160124_140231Last weekend I visited Conwy’s beautiful and yet formidable late 13th-century castle. It was built by order of King Edward I of England and established with its own walled borough. As an English colony, it was situated to snub the pre-existing monastic landscape of a Cistercian foundation patronised by the princes of Gwynedd – Aberconwy Abbey – which was moved upstream 8 miles. Castle and town equally frowned across at the site of the ancient hilltop fortress of Degannwy to its north-east across the River Conwy.

IMG_20160124_175352The castle was constructed of eight towers, two barbicans and a postern gate allowing entry from the water. It has had a long history as a military structure, built rapidly in 5 years from 1283 and 1287,  it was besieged in 1294/5 by Madog ap Llywelyn’s forces.

The castle was used for negotiations between Richard II and Henry Percy in 1399. The castle was taken by two of  Owain Glyndwr’s relatives in 1401 during  his revolt. It was a royalist stronghold during the English Civil War and it was slighted by Parliament in 1655. 

IMG_20160124_133535It has had almost as long a duration as a sublime ruin and tourist attraction, attracting artists and poets in the 18th century (J.M.W. Turner among them). During the later 19th century, the castle was subject to serious and sustained renovations and became a protected scheduled monument.

IMG_20160124_125130Today, the visitor experiences at Conwy one of the ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’ World Heritage Sites. Moreover, there are some spaces with more elaborate displays.  as the projected fire in the fireplace and the reconstitution of stained glass into the chapel window, but otherwise it is kept a relatively stark ruin for exploration.

Under the stewardship of Cadw, Conwy Castle has adequate parking, a large castle shop, snappy sign boards and, of course, high-quality heritage jam. On this particular visit, I acquired some very tasty and much recommended jam: apricot and almond….

IMG_20160124_135408We even acquired ice cream on the way out. Indeed, I almost punched a herring gull who tried to steal my daughter’s.

Overall, this was a fun and spiral stair-tastic experience. It was made extra-special this time because me and my twinagers and got to meet up with an archaeological legend and his daughter: Dr Joe and Zoe Flatman.

Looking out, one can view the fortified walled town and estuary. Adjacent to the castle are two striking faux-medieval constructions of the early-mid 19th century. Telford’s suspension bridge: one of the world’s oldest dating from 1826, and Stephenson’s railway bridge dating from 1848/9, both have mock medieval designs including crenellations.

So where’s the archaeodeath angle on Conwy Castle Prof Williams?  I’ve previously talked about the experience of walking around Conwy town walls and witnessing ‘dirty heritage‘. I’ve also written blogs about medieval archaeology, heritage, memorials and art within a range of other Welsh castles including:

12576191_10153215354336644_331227367_nFrom these examples you might gather that castles are frequently foci of different kinds of commemoration, from public statues and war memorials to past events and people, as well as memorials to heritage itself. Still, Conwy Castle is a bit of an archaeodeath death-zone: I struggled to find anything mortuary or memorial interest, although I have recently written about the ‘We are Seven’ memorial.

However, in Conwy Castle there is only a single, prominently placed sculptural guardian: a seated solider resting on his spear. Beyond that, it is memorial free! What can I say? I tried archaeodeathers but Cadw were keen to deny me a memorial dimension with this visit! Do you think they saw me coming and therefore read my blog?


Manx Vikings 2: Interpreting and Displaying Human Sacrifice


The model of the Ballateare, Jurby, Viking burial mound on display at the Manx Museum, Douglas

I’ve been pondering the question: how do we interpret and display the grisly and disturbing evidence of the deliberate killing of unarmed human beings in the archaeological record outside of battlefield contexts? When can we regard these as ‘human sacrifices’ and how do we tackle this in public contexts such as museum diplsays?

Last year, when I visited the Manx Museum in Douglas, I found such a striking example of the challenges mortuary archaeology faces in identifying and displaying ‘human sacrifice’. Indeed it relates to one of the most tenacious examples of early medieval human killing found during excavations because of its funerary context.

On display were the funerary remains of a series of prominent and well-known Viking graves excavated on Man by Philip Kermode at Knock y Doonee, Andreas and by Gerhard Bersu and subsequently published by Sir David Wilson at Balladoole, Arbory (discussed here); Ballateare, Jurby and  Cronk Mooar, also in Jurby parish. Other finds come from Maughold, Balladoyne, German and . David Griffiths, writing in 2010, describes these and other furnished graves of the 9th/early 10th centuries as ‘one of our best archaeological insights into pagan beliefs and traditions of the Vikings’ (Griffiths 2010: 72).


The display of the grave

The Ballateare Mound

Dug in 1946, Ballateare was a Viking Age (early/mid-10th century?) burial monument. It comprised of a turf mound, 12m in diameter, covering the grave of an encoffined weapon burial of an young adult male individual. This individual was interred with a sword, spear, ring-pin and knife situated in the chest area (suspended around the neck?). The spear may have been snapped along its shaft to fit it in the grave. Likewise the sword lay in several fragments, suggesting it had been broken for inclusion and then placed back inside its scabbard.

Rather than old and battle-damaged items, the weapons might have been specifically broken. Why? The breaking spear alone might be explained away as a practical act to facilitate its inclusion in the grave. Another explanation for all items might be to prevent them attracting grave-robbers. They could also have been ‘ritually killed’, perhaps to ‘dedicate them’ to the gods or to effectively accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Whatever the motivation, they are one of a series of indications that public acts of violent punctuated the burial sequence and inflicted upon things, beasts and at least one person.

Upon the coffin was another item bearing evidence of violence: a shield boss with sword-marks on it. In the light of the spear and sword, might this be further deliberate ritual damage rather than evidence of conflict?

Likewise, two spears were added during the graves above the coffin. Why? Were they placed carefully as dedicatory acts by mourners? Or had they been used in acts of violence during the funeral?

A further violent act revealed itself near the top of the mound. A badly preserved skeleton was recovered. The body had been lain in a prone position (face down) and it was determined to be a woman aged 20-30 with her hands above her head, possibly indicating that rigor mortis had set in at time of death (Wilson 2008: 32). No artefacts accompanied her body. She had received, and may have died from a vicious blade wound to her skull.

After this, the cremated remains of animals – sheep, dog, ox and sheep – were added to the top of the mound. These cannot be seen as anything other than further indications that the funeral had involved slaughter and (presumably) feasting.

Other acts of cutting and breaking were integral to the actions that went into the funeral. The breaking of the turfs that comprised the mound – perhaps brought as Bersu suggested from different locations to articulate the relationship between the dead person, his family and the land they owned/claimed, was an act of severance as well as translation.

Finally, a wooden post erected to mark the turf mound and ending the archaeologically visible dimensions of the funeral that was far more than a single event, but a complex public stage.


A blurry shot of the skull with blade cut

Interpreting the Violence

Viking archaeologists and historians are fixated by Ballateare. They draw the evidence of this skull with a blade wound it into every broader account of religion, burial and slave-ownership straddling the Viking world. Early medieval elites owned slaves, had concubines, killed them at important funerals: here’s the evidence from Ballateare…

This sequence of evidence has frequently promoted striking parallels to the tenth-century account of Ibn Fadlan who described a female slave’s rape and killing as part of the elaborate cremation ceremonies at the funeral of a Rus chieftain on the River Volga.

Even recent accounts of Viking Age burial on Man accept this as evidence of human sacrifice. David Wilson raised this idea in his 1966 report (Bersu and Wilson 1966) and subsequently in his synthesis of the Manx evidence (Wilson 2008: 28-36) as ‘a rite familiar to – but rarely found in – the Viking world, and otherwise unknown in the British Isles’. Subsequently ‘the unceremonious nature of the disposal of the woman’s body, without a coffin and in a  condition of rigor mortis, demonstrates how little she was regarded in death’ (Wilson 2008: 33). Recently, Viking burial expert Leszek Gardeła has written:

Other ritual acts that took place at Ballateare were both puzzling and violent. When the mound was excavated, one of the first things archaeologists found in its upper levels was the body of an adult woman aged between 20-30 at death. Her arms were raised and the back of her skull had been sliced off by something sharp, probably a sword. This suggests that that she may have been sacrificed. Medieval textual sources mention ritual executions as accompanying Viking funerals, and there is more evidence of such killings from a number of archaeological sites in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. It’s quite possible that this is also what happened at Ballateare, and that the woman, perhaps one of the dead man’s slaves, was killed to accompany her master into the afterlife.

Likewise, Carroll et al. (2014: 127) have recently distilled this down to ‘likely provide grisly evidence of slave-sacrifice’ and that she died by the sword whilst ‘kneeling down’ (I’m unsure what evidence there is for the latter suggestion).

However, David Griffiths (2010: 83) has rightly been cautious about the widespread desire to wallow in the gore of this narrative. The injury might not have been perimortem but immediately post-mortem and he briefly (and to my mind) rightly frames some alternative suggestions regarding the significance of opening the skull as a means of releasing evil spirits, madness or internal pressure, or to allow the soul to depart.

I might add further possibilities: she might have died elsewhere in unfortunate circumstances and as a ‘bad death’ been far later added to this ‘fearful’ mound. She might even be a murder victim interred in a location so as to conceal her place of disposal. It is important to point out that there are many differences from Ibn Fadlan’s account, including the fact that this female did not accompany ‘her master’ at all, nor was she killed in a comparable manner to the slave-girl on the Volga. Given the inherent violence of early medieval societies, shouldn’t it at least receive consideration that this was not a sacrificed slave, but perhaps a slave or family member killed in a feud and consigned with honour to a pre-existing mound of a venerated male ancestor?

My aim here is not to dismiss the arguments of Wilson and Gardeła. I still think human sacrifice is a possible explanation for this woman’s demise. If so, it remains exceptional for these islands. However, I prefer to celebrate Griffiths’ caution. I say this for no other reason than I am suspicious of too much deference to perpetuating the same interpretations of ‘human sacrifice’ without careful airing of alternative possibilities. Also, it is so seductive for archaeologists to apply interpretations from historical sources to single archaeological sites and in a circular fashion draw both seamlessly as mutually supporting evidence for broader narratives regarding Norse paganism, mortuary ritual, slavery and sacrifice.

There are other ways to sidetrack whether this woman was killed and whether this killing was ‘sacrificial’. I have discussed the mnemonic significance of violence as an integral part of the morutary sequence in my book Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain here (Williams 2006).  I was less interested in the question of whether this particular woman was a human sacrifice and more interested in the sequence of creation and closure involved in the funeral, and the violence can be seen as punctuating every stage, whether it involved damaging and fragmenting inanimate things and/or living things. This was part of a discussion of how memories are created through monument-building and the transformatory and depositional practices connected to them.

Another perspective is to regard it as one permutation of what Neil Price (2008) has termed ‘bodylore’: the theatrical nature of Viking Age funerals in which killing may have re-enacted stories about the gods and heroes to honour the dead. For Price’s perspective to be effective, we needn’t have this specific woman as a sacrifice in an identical fashion to the description of Ibn Fadlan. Instead, the entire funeral is instead a sacrificial process involving connections between the living, the dead, and the supernatural by consigning the dead to a journey into the afterlife.


The ‘Viking’ and his horse

Displaying the Evidence

When displayed in the museum, ignoring this possible gruesome evidence of the killing of an adult female would be problematic and challenging in itself. But how to display it at all?

First off, it unsurprisingly gets centre stage. It is seemingly vicious, famous and encapsulates the narrative of pagan raiders settling on the Isle. In the text panel, the woman’s fate and status as a human sacrifice takes precedent over the treatment of her male ‘companion’ for the afterlife.

The choice was made to display a reconstruction of the grave with artefacts in position. Only the teeth of the skeleton in the grave survived. Above it, suspended on perspex, is the skull of the woman with her blade-wound facing the viewer.

Contextualising this are photographs of the excavation and also a striking small model (similar to the one created for the boat-grave at Balladoole close by) showing the mound as if it were freshly composed, but with every feature in the burial sequence depicted in section. This cut-away reconstruction articulates the sequence of the funeral more tangibly than the artefacts themselves but inevitably adds further speculations and adds details otherwise not depicted; the female’s body was in a horrific posture: hands above her head. Whether moved from elsewhere or killed on the spot, this must have been an unforgettable dimension to the funerary obsequies.

This grave is an important find deserving of its place in the Manx Museum’s gallery, but it is also fully contextualised with accounts of other graves (Peel’s ‘pagan lady’ and Balladoole) as well as the Kirk Michael, Ballaquayle and Glenfaba silver hoards. There are also reconstructions of Viking boats, a ‘Viking’ and his horse, and numerous Viking Age inscribed and sculpted stones including Gaut’s cross. In this regard, the museum challenges the valorisation and myopic obsession with the woman’s killing within the burial sequence itself, or in terms of the broader narrative of Man in the Viking Age. In this way, the display works better than the account of Ballateare in many books and articles!

Still, this modest yet alluring and uncanny display only slowly sinks in. It perhaps isn’t overly gaudy and it is not tasteless. The flipside is: I wonder how many visitors fully realise the complex and bloody ceremonies it implies? I wonder what the visitor surveys show?

Museums under constant demands to update and revitalise themselves. This is an example of the many exciting and dynamic displays in existence that will fascinate, intrigue and disturb in equal measure. Hopefully, as with all good displays, it will make visitors think and seek out further information and reflect on what really happened during the Ballateare funeral. Is this really a pagan Viking funerary sacrifice of a slave woman?


Bersu, G. and Wilson, D. M. 1966. Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 1.

Carroll, J., Harrison, S. H. and Williams, G. (eds) 2014. The Vikings in Britain and Ireland, London: Thames and Hudson.

Gardeła, L. and Larrington, C. (eds) 2014. Viking Myths and Rituals on the Isle of Man, Nottingham: Centre for the Study of the Viking Age.

Griffiths, D. 2010. Vikings of the Irish Sea, Stroud: The History Press.

Price, N. 2008. Bodylore and the archaeology of embedded religion: dramatic license in the funerals of the Vikings. In D.M. Whitley and K. Hays-Gilpin (eds) Faith in the past: theorizing ancient religion, 143-65, Walnut Creek: Left Coat.

Williams, H. 2006. Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, D.M. 2008. The Vikings in the Isle of Man, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.


Inside Early Medieval Stones


The West Kirby 4 monument, often known as a ‘hogback’

Early medieval art is mad.

Despite all we think we know, and all scholars write about it, we still know less about it than we know about settlements, burial practice or indeed anything else in the early medieval material world.

From an archaeologist’s perspective, I don’t think we can ever access all the stories and situations in which stones were carved, used and reused. Still, I’m still smarting at the near absence of discussion about it in major syntheses and studies of the period like the Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. This is particularly frustrating since archaeological theories, methods and contextual analyses can bring much to the interdisciplinary investigation of early medieval carved stone monuments, whether we are talking about Anglo-Saxon England or elsewhere in north-west Europe. Looking at their contextual and landscape associations, their form and ornament, their materials and their biographies can tell us much.

I get elated when I see great conference papers about early medieval stones, let alone conferences featuring it. Better than both of these are publications on it. For example, I’ve just been re-reading a paper from 2011 on ‘Travel as communication’ in Anglo-Saxon England by Alex Langlands and Andrew Reynolds, where they effectively discuss place-name evidence and the surviving cross-shaft at Copplestone, Devon, to explore crosses as waymarkers on overland routes in the early medieval landscape. I’ve also just read a 2015 chapter by Paul Everson and David Stocker on ‘Eratics and Enterprise’, focusing on the early medieval recumbent stones from Norwich which, in a different way, integrates archaeological context with the interpretation of sculpted stones for constructing identities in the Viking Age.


In a series of previous posts, I’ve outlined my ongoing writing about early medieval stone monuments, including those know as ‘hogbacks‘ and I have suggested we could instead call FKAHs (formerly known as hogbacks) although I also noted other scholars’ more sensible preferred terms.

My first publication about these tenth-/eleventh-century recumbent stones explored previous research and the possibly served as grave-covers/markers, perhaps often in combination with uprights. I then discussion the power of their skeuomorphic allusions in creating citations to other structures and artefacts and how this sets up varied allusions to permeable architectures and surfaces of textile, leather and wood, sometimes guarded by beasts.

In doing so, these solid stone monuments implied spaces within them to early medieval audiences. I refer to these as ‘solid spaces’; the impression afforded of there being inaccessible spaces in which the spirits of the dead might reside.

I suggest these skeuomorphic allusions were connected to concerns over the spiritual and physical protection and corporeality of the dead in early medieval Britain. They therefore provided a powerful Christian elite medium of commemoration. The dead, individually or collectively, are within/below their tombs, inviolate but communicable, implied and present but sealed and secluded.

This chapter is available within my new co-edited book Early Medieval Stone Monuments.

Another piece on FKAHs

Now I’m working on the West Kirby 4 monument, often referred to as a ‘hogback’ as discussed here. Museums Liverpool kindly provided me access to their cloud data from their laser scanning of West Kirby 4. They had scanned the monument to create a digital print of it for display in the Museum of Liverpool. I don’t think anyone else has used it for research as yet but I am very grateful to have their permission to use the cloud data.


Looking inside the laser-scan of West Kirby 4


With the help of my colleague Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores, this week we have manipulated the cloud data to illustrate new observations of the monument that I intend to take forward into publication. These images are invaluable for analysing how the stone looks from without. The laser scan has certainly helped in that serious and scholarly regard. From first-hand observations and these scans, I have identified new elements and refined interpretations of the sculpture. I’ve just finished writing this up for publication.

By accident while we were considering the laser scanned surfaces of monument in detail from different directions, I realised that if you zoom in close enough, the programme allows you to do the impossible. Thanks to the laser scan, can look within the solid stone into the imaginary space within its plaitwork, beneath its tegulae and the wheel-and-bar ornament just below the ridge. 

This struck me as a very useful visualisation in its own right. This is because it conveys in a digital medium the idea of ‘solid space’. The laser scan data has not created a solid form, it has created a digital surface into which one can venture on the computer. Obviously this is something you cannot do with the actual stone!

I’m sure this is no revelation to those used to digital media! Still, for me it was pertinent for this monument. In my view, going inside the stone is very much what I think early medieval audiences were being prompted to consider when presented with a solid recumbent stone carved and painted like so many caskets, coffins, shrines and buildings familiar to a contemporary audience. In other words, the skeuomorphic and painted recumbent stone created the allusion of space within solid stone that could only be accessed via the imagination.

So I share this here as another way by which modern scanning can illustrate what might have been the implication of the original design. While rendered in a fashion early medieval people could never do and as an incidental dimension, rather than a deliberate characteristic, of the laser scanning technology, the image above furnishes us today with an idea of a habitable space within the monument.

Or to put it in another way, this image messes with your mind!



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