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


The student group busy recording memorials in Overleigh cemetery

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

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


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

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


French exchange student Fiona recording a complex late Victorian memorial

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

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

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


IMG_6908Victorian and Edwardian cemetery memorials were varied in their lettering, ornamentation and form. Most would have been chosen from pattern books and yet still, through their original inception and personalisation, through their augmentation with additional texts, via their maintenance, weathering, wear and fracturing over the decades, they become more distinctive from each other still.

A further dimension to their variability is their ‘consumption’ by vegetation: memorials become shrouded in ivy and bushes and submerged beneath grass. IMG_6899

In our memorial survey at Overleigh Road cemetery, Chester, my students and I intended to conduct no vegetation clearance and certainly no digging. Our aim was to simply view and record what could be seen. Still, we occasionally brushed aside leaves and pulled back grass and moss to inspect text and ornament.

In one instance, we got a bit over-enthusiastic and peeled back the turf covering a near-subterranean ledger to reveal its text. The result was fascinating. Protected by vegetation, the text was clear and fresh. Moreover, the rhizomes of the roots covering had crept into the spaces created by the incised letters, leaving a pattern of letter-shaped roots. These positive features created by negative spaces are a fascinating dimension to the interaction of memorials and vegetation. I have discussed other aspects of the ‘agency’ of cemetery plants here. Trees, plants are flowers are integral elements of mortuary environments, and they act upon, and interact with, human-made memorials in a variety of different fashions.

In this case, the roots create a rhizome mirror-image of text and ornament. It begs the further question: how many more inscriptions are to be found in root-form yet hidden from view beneath the cemetery?



A striking neo-medieval monument: an Irish high cross at Overleigh cemetery

Cemeteries have many great and historic trees and other plantings. Here, however, I am talking about trees and woods as an metaphor. I’m not really talking about trees and woods. Just saying, in case you get confused.


Graveyard hands

We are all familiar with the saying ‘cannot see the wood for the trees’. It is intended to convey the sense of someone who only sees the elements, not the bigger picture they compose. Scholars researching historic cemeteries sometimes suffer from this approach. Others have the opposite problem: they cannot see the memorial ‘trees’ for the cemetery ‘wood’.

While supervising my students over the last 2 weeks on the Overleigh cemetery memorial survey as discussed here and here I have been struck by this dual problem of memorial survey.  We are using the memorial forms developed for the CBA by Harold Mytum and effectively employed by him in Ireland, Yorkshire, South-West Wales and elsewhere, allows students to rigorously and systematically record all the details upon individual memorials. These can in turn allow us to compare the data spatially and chronologically, but still, we are focusing on individual elements: the ‘trees’ as isolated entities to be compared and contrasted.


Angel with crown


Toppled memorial


Conversely, discussions of landscape design and landscape history focus on the cemetery – the ‘wood’ as an entity: the way they are designed, arranged and develop over time.

Most crucially, seeing cemeteries either as ‘woods’ or ‘trees’ is enshrined in the way they are protected. Cemeteries as protected ‘parks and gardens’, and sometimes a small selection of individual monuments of specific value and merit for their design or the persons they commemorate are individually afforded a listing.

Thinking about Overleigh

The old (northern) part of Overleigh cemetery has many fascinating dimensions to it: historic trees planted first in the 19th century (but I did say I wasn’t going to talk about trees, right?), curvilinear paths, gates and boundaries. It is a fabulous designed memorial landscape. Equally, it contains many striking memorials within it, far more than the handful that are afforded individual protected status.


Memorial vegetation

Both seeing cemeteries as composed of individual memorials and as designed landscapes overlooks the potential of exploring the microbiographies of individual memorials: how they are made, installed, augmented, managed, break and topple. Conversely, we need to consider how these memorials interact with each other over time within specific zones of the cemetery. These memorials together constitute a powerful collective presence, affording the visitor with the results of many social and economic relationships between the living mourners and dead relatives, attempts to express love, loss and affinity  as well as the result of socio-economic interactions between mourners, the dead, masons, undertakers and cemetery operators.


Do you see a cemetery or memorials?

For me, the most profitable approach is to try to identify ways we can increasingly shift focus between the two static scales of analysis and find ways of exploring memorial interactions and accumulations within cemeteries and cemetery zones, between memorials and within specific memorials. Hence I like to consider cemeteries as ‘cumulative assemblages’. The real promise is to shift between these two scales and consider the evolving and transforming nature of both memorials and their spatial settings and chronological dimensions.


Fabulous element: a sword on the side of a low monument



Ivy and rope


Still seeing a cemetery or memorials?


I can see both wood and trees, cemetery and memorials. What do you see?


The third-year students busily recording memorials


Student and memorial in combination


Gemma recording

I have been supervising this year’s Overleigh Cemetery Archaeological Survey with third-year students from the University of Chester, as discussed here. Last week we went back to undertake the second of three weeks surveying Victorian and Edwardian memorials in the Anglican section of the northern, older, part of the cemetery.

This time we had cold but dry weather and some sunshine to help us pick out faded text on some memorials. The students now worked in pairs, and with a determination to make progress after a disappointing first week. I set two students to go back over and check and make revisions to the memorial recording forms of the first week. Everyone else was set on new memorials, recording their dimensions, materials, form, ornamentation, texts and orientation.

This week we made far better progress, recording over 70 memorials. In so doing, we encountered a bewildering variety of memorial types, some raised for individuals, many raised for families. We also encountered some striking examples of recently toppled memorials, which to my bizarre way of seeing things looked as if they had been hit by Angry Birds. 


Our ‘angry bird’ fallen memorial

With over 100 memorials now recorded, we still face a very busy third week in order to give each student a solid sample of memorials with which to conduct their research for their Death and Burial assignments. Last year the third-years recorded over 200, so we are hoping to match their total by the end of this week.


Busy recording



Still busy recording






Yes, more recording



Guess what? yes, recording



Overleigh Cemetery, viewed soon after its inception.


Cold students survey at Overleigh cemetery


Students getting their eye in, reading memorial texts

This year, as we have done ever since before I arrived at Chester in 2008, we have integrated a specialist kind of archaeological field survey into our third-year module: Death and Burial. Having exploring through class-based sessions the theory, methods and data of mortuary archaeology, students have to acquire, compile, analyse and interpret their own mortuary data for an assessed assignment. Through teamwork surveying 19th- and early 20th-century memorials at Chester’s Overleigh Road Cemetery – a Grade II listed park and garden - the students create a database of 200-300 memorials to explore chronological and spatial, material, decorative and textual variations and themes in the commemoration of the dead.

The students get various skills out of this exercise. Graveyard survey is an important specialist dimension of archaeological survey in itself. It constitutes a valuable part of community fieldwork and pays far greater attention to memorials than those interested in simply finding family graves. As well as the information contained in the text, the arrangement, script, formula for describing the dead as well as ornamentation and material offer a wide variety of fashions to commemorate the dead. Moreover, most memorials are raised or become appended to commemorate many individuals, so these monuments reveal aspects of family commemorative dynamics over decades and sometimes over centuries. In addition to learning about, and how to survey historic memorials, the students also enhance their skills in identifying and accurately recording and measuring the monuments. They also get to check each other’s work for consistency and errors.


Some groups had the good/bad luck of very complex memorials to start with…

A class-based session introduces the students to themes and approaches to the archaeology of the modern cemetery: its rise, development, variation and transformation. We then explore all areas of Overleigh cemetery from its 19th-century core adjacent to the River Dee and the Grosvenor Bridge to its newest graves across Overleigh Road to the south. Then, over three weeks, the students get to survey a range of the memorials in the Anglican section of the old part of Overleigh cemetery.


Students working in the first week in groups of three to get their ‘eye in’ reading and recording memorials

In addition to Historic England’s data on the site, Overleigh cemetery as a wikipedia entry here and there is an online database for Overleigh cemetery here for exploring the names and details of those interred. The Chester Walls website also gives you a tour of some of its notable memorials here.

With regard to individual elements within Overleigh, the gates and gate piers of the old part of the Overleigh cemetery are Grade II listed (and recently restored after damage). There are two internal features listed: the west chapel in the south part of the cemetery, now converted into use as an Orthodox church, and the rustic bridge over the drive in the north part of the cemetery, which once allowed water to flow down to the River Dee from the lake that served as the centrepiece of the old cemetery. The cenotaph in the south part of the cemetery is also listed. These features are all Grade II.


Recording memorials is a team effort, involving observations of worn and faded memorial ornament and text, especially for low monuments like this one.

Among the many hundreds of graves and memorials, only seven monuments are listed individually, all Grade II. I will discuss these in another post. What is important to say here is that every small section of the cemetery contains vast variability in memorial form and detail. While many were interred here without a memorial, those who gained a memorial contributed to a vast and evolving memorial space.

We had a bad first week: I left behind some of the equipment, and the students had to get their eye in and get motivated and inspired to record clearly and accurately. I had a busy time helping them out and guiding them, but they got underway and motivated very well. However, it was very cold and it rained – only a drizzle but enough to make everything damp and destroy morale. I cancelled the survey after 2 hours of the 3 hours allocated and we planned to regroup the following week.


Recording in the cold

Over the following two weeks, we aimed to make up and press on to record as many memorials as possible.


The Beaker Gift

Last year I had to participate in a bribery training session at my workplace, part of the requirements of the University of Chester to comply with new legislation. I had to be aware of the many possibilities in my job in which I might be exposed to bribery.

Obviously I regularly have to endure a constant flow of offers of free archaeological holidays, free chauffeur-driven tours of archaeological sites, free dates with gorgeous female archaeologists, free archaeological alcohol and archaeological drugs.

Then there are free archaeology sofas and white goods, free WHS trowels and free archaeological massages. I even get offers of free archaeological snacks and chocolates.

And that is just during attendance at TAG conferences…

In the summer months I am offered bribes of free archaeological sites and monuments, free finds assemblages and even free scheduled monuments consent. Cadw, Historic England, Historic Scotland: they all want to buy me!

During term-time, not a day goes by when my  email inbox is not stacked with similar offers and I can hardly fight my way down the corridors past the various adoring students and co-workers trying to offer me bribes in the form of consumables and unmentionables.

Ok, I was once tempted to take up an offer of free archaeological chocolates, but I decided it was better to give them away… for charity…to an archaeology orphanage for potsherds without their parent contexts.

I am Untouchable.

However…. I confess that I have now erred from the course of archaeological righteousness. After all these years, I have just taken receipt of my first official archaeo-bribe. Local archaeology and heritage business Big Heritage have found a chink in my bribery-proof moral armour. They have gifted me a Beaker vessel stacked full of boiled sweets. Like a Trojan Horse, I welcomed the Beaker into my office and it sat there.

Naively, I was amused by its funerary connotations and pretty, smooth surface. I’m not a prehistorian, but archaeodeath confectionary is right up my street!

The sweets seems so innocent sitting within it. I decided to take it home and it still sat there, all innocent…

Then, all of a sudden, the sweets started leaving the Beaker and jumping into my mouth. I ate them all. Archaeo-pig!

Now I am bribed, left with an empty vessel that isn’t even a genuine pilfered antiquity. Its vacuous materiality reminds me of my utter archaeo-corruption. I am a bought Big Heritage puppet. I am now compelled to offer my unswerving loyalty to Big Heritage and all their activities.

My advice? Save yourself! Don’t make my mistakes. Beware Beaker Folk Bearing Gifts.

File:Chantier de fouilles à Morigny-Champigny en juin 2012 69.jpg

Medieval skeleton from Morigny-Champigny. Source: wikimedia

I am sick to death with a worn-out archaeological cliche. In archaeological writing, and media discussions of mortuary archaeology, the ‘straw man’ we want to avoid is apparently the disgusting uneducated public showing ‘morbid curiosity’ in the archaeological study of ancient human remains, graves, tombs, cemeteries and other funerary traces. Of course there are manifold emotional, religious, social and political dimensions to digging up, displaying and interpreting mortuary remains in the modern world. It might be sometimes useful to contrast good archaeological and heritage practice with voyeurism and sensationalism as well as the flagrant robbing and destruction of mortuary contexts for economic gain. However, it is often bang out of order to criticise non-archaeologists for displaying morbid curiosity.

I am not alone. Faye Sayer and Duncan Sayer criticise this phrase’s use in archaeological literature in a forthcoming chapter in a book I am co-editing called Archaeologists and the Dead contracted with Oxford University Press. Also, one doctoral student of archaeology – Katherine Crouch – as rightly converted its use for her own blog as a positive phrase. Therefore, clearly others see a positive side to morbid curiosity. And yet time and time again ‘morbid curiosity’ is trotted out as the evil we must avoid and the sin we must purge in seeking an enlightened and respectful mortuary archaeology.

‘Morbid curiosity’ as a phrase is used again and again as derogatory, as the basist and most ugly of human responses and engagements with the dead. This straw man is annoying for a number of reasons. It is a phrase of archaeologists who wish to engage the public in death and the dead but only on specific terms. It is a term of snobs and a term of the elite. It is an insult used to throw at anyone who isn’t a professional and isn’t an archaeologist and doesn’t care about the high-brow ethical debates regarding the treatment of the archaeological dead. To be morbidly curious is seen as ignorant, as well as to be poor and (most importantly) disrespectful. Sayer and Sayer go further and associate it with our society’s obsession with shame and corporeal exposure, but I will leave you to read their own work when the book is published later this year or early in 2016. What I would also focus on is the fact that mortuary archaeology is not deemed to be entertainment. The archaeological dead are serious relics for science. They should not be fun, not cause us to smile, not interest our curiosity and cause us to react, write and respond outside out of hazy but sanctioned parameters of sobre and reflective engagement.

Of course, archaeologists rarely mention what actually constitutes ‘morbid curiosity’, but my argument is to follow Sayer and Sayer and suggest that morbid curiosity is actually key to the popular appeal of mortuary archaeology. That is why the media are so interest, for example, in the current Crossrail project investigating hundreds of early modern skeletons at Liverpool Street.

First, let us pick apart the negative associations with the phrase. If it is so bad, what are the museological correlates for ‘morbid curiosity’ to be avoided at all costs? In the display case, what makes one skeleton a focus of ‘morbid curiosity’, or indeed, what precisely do we do to expunge curiosity of morbidity? What makes a skeleton a focus of ‘scientific interest’ and a valuable educational resource and NOT a focus of fascination with our mortality? The way we choose to display the dead is incredibly varied, depending on the quality and character of the preservation of mortuary remains and whether human bodies are fleshed or skeletonised, are cremated (or not), are articulated (or not), are associated with other human remains (or not), and whether they are placed with in appropriately lit and accessible spaces with  informative, helpful and comprehensible text, associated artefacts, dioramas etc (or not….). My point is that there is no inherent strategy of display that constitutes the triumph of, and celebration of ‘morbid curiosity’. There are displays which help to inform and contextualise human remains more effectively than others. Likewise, there are ways of framing and situating human remains and mortuary artefacts in relation to other material aspects of past societies, but curiosity in mortality is not restricted to one approach more than others.


Pentre Ifan Neolithic tomb

Ok, it might be tempting to see ‘Victorian’ museum displays of skeletons in unassociated display cases or as unlabelled ‘curiosities’ as evidence of disrespect and ‘entertainment’. Yet even these human remains have, could and will attract all manner of emotional reactions and engagements depending on the background and knowledge of today’s visitor. Hence, even stark displays lacking context needn’t foster an emphasis upon morbidity over other dimensions and stories which skeletons and other mortuary remains evoke. Conversely, it escapes me which strategies for display promote limited or no morbid curiosity.

What is more, to character the complex and varied activities of antiquaries and early archaeologists who acquired and collected human remains from across the work as merely one of ‘morbid’ or ‘intellectual’ curiosity is a gross simplification. Moreover, it is an unhelpful gloss that obscures the often racist, classist and other socio-political and ideological contexts within which human remains have been appropriated and circulated in Western collections and museums. As a straw man argument condensed into a phrase, ‘morbid curiosity’ denies, rather than reveals, the history of archaeological thought and practice.

So perhaps morbid curiosity is not evident or promoted by specific display strategies, but instead resides in our intentions and experiences as curators and visitors only: in the way we choose to display mortuary remains and the ways we choose to engage with gravestones, megalithic tombs, skeletons and graves. If so, what dimensions of curatorial practice and visitor behaviour are evidence of curiosity? Interest, awe, attention to the human remains? Are promoting talking about or reading about the dead displays of public morbid curiosity? Surely all manner of responses and engagements should be encouraged, not a restricted mode of sombre, silent reflection. Museums and heritage sites ARE NOT undertakers and they are NOT cemeteries. We are not dealing with the recent dead nor the presence of their mourners, which might provoke all manner of contraventions and criticisms on visitor behaviour and decorum. Yes, it is important to recognise these were the remains of past people, but not past people who demand a specific code of dress or conduct. Surely talking, laughing, observing, reading and a full range of emotions and engagements from excitement to fear and disgust are to be tackled and facilitated by the display of the human dead. Curiosity is central to all of these, not for expulsion.

At a time when archaeology is trying to make itself more and more engagement and relevant to our society, it is decisively ridiculous for archaeologists to turn on the public – including generations of school kids as well as teachers and other visitors – and treat them as simply displaying ‘morbid curiosity’ unless they work hard to demonstrate a higher, more worthy, interest in human remains by attaining degrees and donning white coats. Conversely, not only would I argue that morbid curiosity is enhanced by, and satisfied by rich, varied and detailed displays of human remains and mortuary contexts in museums and heritage sites that connect people to life, dying and death in the human past, as well as make them reflect on mortality, disease, disposal methods and commemorative practices in the present. I would go further still and suggest that ‘morbid curiosity’ should be embraced – and indeed partly as a form of voyeurism – to look, to enquire, to encourage us to spy upon past lives and past deaths. This fascination with the deaths of others needn’t be negative. Instead, for children and adults, it can be an integral part of why people show interest in mortuary archaeology. Let’s stop being snobs at the very time we are espousing public engagement with all facets of archaeology. Let’s start focusing on the power and value of morbid curiosity, rather than treating an interest in dying, death and the dead as revealed by archaeological methods and techniques as aberrant and/or deviant.

Did curiosity ever kill the corpse? No, curiosity has never killed a corpse. The corpse is already dead. What damages mortuary archaeology and its goals and aspirations to reveal the human past as well as to be relevant to and inform contemporary people about disease, dying and death is not interest in mortality. We should foster public engagement and debate as well as high-quality mortuary research. This is not inherently disrespectful!

So, disrespect and disregard for the archaeological dead hardly ever stems not from morbid curiosity. It might do sometimes, with an unhealthy obsession with dead human material in itself, rather than the stories it might hold. Treating cadavers and bones as art or the focus of perverse fantasies can be seriously weird and deviant, but it isn’t fair to tar all interest in what mortuary archaeology tells us about humanity’s engagements with mortality with this brush.

Instead, we disrespect the dead through ignorance, by closing museums, shutting down Historic Environment Records, trashing ancient burial sites by unwanted and unnecessary development, condoning the robbing of heritage sites including tombs and graves, showing flagrant disregard for the views of descendant communities and squandering of limited resources available to educate and research the ancient dead. We also disrespect the dead by fetishizing the study of only the ancient rich and famous of the past to the disregard of the majority as I have argued here. Which is why, in response to a recent History Extra article, we should ignore historian Dan Jones and his banal bid for us to stop being ‘squeamish’ and dig more royal bones up. Embracing morbid curiosity is not an argument for unbridled tomb-raiding, but for both fun and simple, as well as careful and clever, mortuary archaeology exploring variations in the disposal and commemoration of the dead over time and space rather than the singular hunt for royal stiffs.

Of course the real problem with criticising morbid curiosity is that archaeologists are yet again shooting themselves in the foot by criticising themselves whilst maintaining their expert privilege as authorities to identify it without defining its characteristics. In contrast, we all should be morbidly curious and archaeology possesses an increasingly complex and varied set of ideas, approaches and debates, as well as methods and techniques, to investigate death in the human past and also to explore the significance of death and the dead to ourselves in the present. Funerary archaeology is about both provoking curiosity and offering strategies to satisfy it.

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.