Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

Well, You’re Dead Now… So Shut Up!

18zigrI went on my first dig when I was 16. My second aged 18 and then a third at 19 before going to University. From day 1, I realised that the world of archaeology was full of bat-shit crazy people. Most are lovely, but some are pretty nasty.

During these early days and the subsequent 7 years of higher education study, and then the following 17 years of working as a lecturer, senior lecturer and then professor in UK higher education, I’ve met many difficult individuals and challenging times alongside considerable personal and professional support and kindness. However, to my knowledge, there has been only one person who persistently and consciously tried to destroy both my personal life and my academic career at the same time (as opposed to those who have tried one or the other).

I don’t want to go into the details of who, when and how, nor give details of the effects. I will say that for a long time my health suffered, I feared losing my employment and losing my family and friends. In addition to much else, I’ve lived for years dreading a repeat of the person’s behaviour.

That is, until now. Things have changed because I’ve just heard they are now dead.

This gives me no joy of course. In many ways, I’m indifferent. In other regards, I’m shocked since they weren’t that old. In other regards, I’m very sad because I’m very sorry for the person’s friends and family. I’m certainly not glad: I’ve never ever wished anyone dead in my life.

However, now they have passed away, I must confess that I’m extremely relieved. I created a meme that attempts to sum up my rather stark and raw feelings at this time: the anger at remembering their actions and a determined and steadfast relief that they are no longer around to repeat it.

For those of you unfamiliar, the meme’s text and image come from the Monty Python film: The Meaning of Life. It is from a dinner party scene at a point where Death himself loses patience with the pompous, self-indulgent, stupid and ill-informed views of the American and English dinner guests whose souls he has come to reap. Even when they are told they are dead, they can’t accept it and have to waffle on.

“The salmon mousse!”

This post is my way of dealing with this bizarre news. Why not? This is a personal statement (an ‘archaeorant’) worthy of blogging about, because this is my blog and my rules.

IMG_6529Still, I guess if there is a bigger ‘archaeodeath’ point to make, here it is!

I read many, many headstones and behind the formulaic epitaphs, names and dates, behind the symbols and the offerings, I wonder how many people really miss the dead. There are extreme cases where headstones are desecrated by those angry at the deeds of the deceased during their lifetime, but so often we let the dead off easily. They are regarded as beyond reproach, worthy of a burial, worthy of a headstone, worthy of polite words and beautiful ornamentation.

Maybe this is right and ‘respectful’, but maybe this is a double-edged sword. Honouring the dead with a respectful burial is also a way of shutting them up and shutting them out too. I wonder whether, in some situations, polite words and noble materials afforded to the dead can be means of social forgetting their horrible deeds, failed relationships, and nasty words.

So when I next see on a gravestone the words ‘In Loving Memory’ or ‘In Remembrance’, I will listen out for the barely audible whisper of an imaginary translator who might tell me what the survivors really thought of the dead. For many memorials that whisper might be a cacophony of dissonant feelings and words from different mourners. For others, it will be a single loud voice screaming out about love and loss. For others it might be a stony silence of indifference. But how many gravestones should be translated to say ‘WELL YOU’RE DEAD NOW, SO SHUT UP’?

Perhaps this will be my epitaph too!?


Archaeodeath in 2016

IMG_20160717_090456As noted in a previous post, I’ve recently just published a co-edited book on archaeology and death today: Archaeologists and the Dead. This is an academic book about how archaeological professionals and academics engage with contemporary society and its attitudes and practices surrounding death. Yet we didn’t really include what I talk about here, how mortuary archaeology affects the personal engagements with mortality of mortuary archaeologists. I want to write briefly about my dealings with death today as a mortuary archaeologist.

Death affects us all. The loss of pets, friends and family, the losses of those who matter to friends and family, the loss of public figures  and celebrities who we collectively share virtual experiences of. Death is sometimes shocking and unexpected, sometimes a long struggle and long expected.

This year has seen a long trail of news reporting and commenting on the deaths of celebrities. Moreover, as an academic in  his early 40s, it is horrifying to increasingly learn the deaths of archaeologists I have known appearing regularity in my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

RIP Mark.

Furthermore, in my work as editor in recent years, I’ve had to edit the work of dying and dead archaeologists: people I never even met but whose work was known to me and whom I helped with key incomplete publications.

RIP Colin

RIP Lawrence

Also, death has also touched my family, with the passing away of kind and generous people who my family have known and respected.

RIP David

DSC07219Being a mortuary archaeologist does affect my responses to death today. However, it doesn’t make dealing with death any easier.

Positives: I can perhaps put these deaths into context and think on how they are being honoured and remembered in relation to broader trends in long-term history. I might reflect on mortuary practices from prehistory to recent decades and their spatial and material dimensions. I am more familiar than most to encounter both ancient tombs and modern ash-scatterings with the same academic curiosity. Therefore, writing about the deaths of people both from long ago and far away, and those close at home and recent, helps me to contextualise the deaths of those that affect me personally.

IMG_20160507_184019Also, being a mortuary archaeologist makes me particularly attentive to the range of euphemisms, metaphors, spaces and materialities by which death today is situated. I see through some of the ways that our society uses to shroud death, frame it, package it and sell it. I have now got a track-record of publishing on ‘contemporary archaeology’: the archaeology of us, looking at such issues.

I’m also aware that death has become part of identity. I recognise it is something to joke about as well as be serious over. Death is sad and disturbing, but also uncanny and funny, whether we like it or not.

IMG_20160429_151605Still, it would be a lie to claim that I feel confident and prepared to articulate my own beliefs, emotions and feelings about death any more than anyone else.  Like many, I feel unsure what to say, how to act, when and how to articulate my own senses of loss and equally how to behave to communicate with the bereaved.

Most of all, I fear the expectation that I will be able to cope with death more than others. I’m not a man of God, a doctor or an undertaker. I study death, I don’t live with it. I don’t have some special connection with death and I don’t work at the ‘sharp end’: daily digging up skeletons or investigating cadavers during criminal investigations. I simply study outcomes: bodies and tombs, artefacts and substances, spaces and places.

Looking to the future, there are many more deaths coming. For those I’m around to witness, but also for my own, I wonder what my archaeodeath training will do for me.



Death-Defying Cistercians: Buildwas Abbey II


Spolia at Buildwas, including fragments of grave-slab

I’ve recently heard it said that British archaeologists are adverse to displaying the dead, more so than the Irish and ‘Catholic’ nations. It is argued that popular religious dispositions correlate directly and simply with attitudes and practices surrounding the excavation, investigation, display and publication of cemeteries and graves, including human skeletal material. However, I think this fundamentally misunderstands not only the colonial legacy of appropriation and display of mortuary remains, but also the complex nature of British death ways and  and their rich non-cadaverous, cenotaphic, engagements with mortality. Taking these into account helps us to appreciate why mortuary dimensions are often subtle and yet ubiquitous in our contemporary heritage environments: museums, ancient monuments and historic buildings.


Note the graves, hardly mentioned in the heritage literature

2 years ago I posted about death-defying heritage as it pertains to abbey ruins, using the superbly conserved vestiges Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire – an English Heritage site – as a case study. This is part of a broader argument I would make: while most ‘public mortuary archaeology’ and ‘mortuary heritage’ has focused on the display and dissemination of research on human remains, it is actually the case that mortuary dimensions are far broader and more subtle than is often appreciated. Indeed, much of it is cenotaphic, not by design but by biography. The cadaver only implied via de-contextualised spolia on display and/or grave-slabs on display but raised up to ground level. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, as at:

I suggested that the lack of attention to mortuary matters is part of a heritage discourse focused on ‘living’, rather than dying and the dead, for the Middle Ages. Ruins become vehicles for imagining past lives for monastic communities, not past deaths or past commemorative practice. This is despite the key role of mortuary practice in relations between patrons and religious houses in medieval Europe.

DSC04304Yet the unlabelled, widespread presence of mortuary monuments tells a mortuary story through its failure to be explicitly told. It reveals how mortuary practice and commemoration practice are not told, they are experienced; walked over and around, touched and considered, outside of the official guide books. There is more archaeodeath to these environs than might first appear and is officially articulated.



For Buildwas, in my previous visit I discussed displays of graves as a small and overlooked dimension of the heritage experience, with graves on display in the chapter house and church. However, I missed the spolia, which I saw for the first time on a visit this spring. I was struck by the presence of the dislocated dead: without captions, without context, and seemingly with minimal care, displayed as if in a museum’s warehouse.





In a room previously locked, were benches upon which architectural and mortuary fragments were displayed, including floriate crosses and text-inscribed grave slabs. None of these have been the focus of research or publications to my knowledge. They are floating, anonymous, body-less, yet still mortuary in their original significance and mode of horizontal display.

DSC04410Visit the wonderful ruins of Buildwas and see how much of an impression, if any, the mortuary monuments leave on you. DSC04387

Clawdd Y Milwyr – the warriors’ dyke


Facing the warrors’ dyke


Looking into the promontory fort across the multivallate defences


Looking along the inner bank of the defences southwards

Clawdd y Milwyr – the warriors’ dyke – is a promontary fort on St David’s Head, Pembrokeshire. Located 35m above sea level its defences comprise a north-south running dry stone bank with a single entrance through it. This earthwork crosses a shallow saddle between the Head itself and the mainland. Fronting the main bank is a ditch and counterscarp bank, plus a third outer bank.

In the case of this fort, as with so many, the defences do not simply straddle headlands, and thus utilising the natural cliffs that make the defences so effective. In addition, the facing of a natural rock outcrop and the use of topography to enhance the human-made defences. For a visitor experiencing it for the first time, would it have been apparent where the ‘natural’ defences end and the human-made defences begin? Is this simply a trick of its appearance as a long-abandoned monument, or might this have been part of the display effect of such sites in late prehistory?


Looking from the bare rock outrcrop over the defences towards Carn Llidi

Within the fort, only a small area (c. 50m by 30m) is suitable for habitation and here there are the traces of 8-9 hut circles, six of which were excavated in 1898 by Sabine Baring Gould producing finds suggesting occupation in the Roman period.

My interest in such sites is that they might have readily been occupied in the early medieval period as much as in the preceding Iron Age and Roman periods.


One of the hut circles within the promontory fort

Furthermore, it would be interesting to know whether the martial attribution of the place-name given to the striking headland, incorporating natural rock outcrops and human-made features, was early medieval in date. In which case, does it refer to legendary post-abandonment attributions, or a genuine martial presence to this prominent location dominating the westernmost coast of South-West Wales.


Looking over the promontory fort’s habitation area.


Page, M., Driver, T., Barker, L, Murphy, K and Crane, P. 2009. Prehistoric Defended Enclosures Remote Sensing. Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

Pen-Y-Gardden hillfort and Offa’s Dyke


The western denuded earthwork preserved in the modern field boundary between the lane and the field

Today I went on a walk to check out Pen-Y-Gardden (Y Garden) hillfort to the west of Ruabon. The hillfort is presumed to be Iron Age. It is itself is on private land but the public right of way follows a lane around its western and north-western sides. The interior is fields and woods, the line of the earthworks almost completely covered by vegetation and modern field boundaries.


The north-western defences of the hillfort

The HER record suggests that it may have originally been a bivallate hillfort. On its southern side, it strikes me as perhaps once being a trivallate hillfort. I say this because while I couldn’t fully investigate due to heavy vegetation, there seem to be two banks but a ditch upslope of the top one: perhaps a third bank existed above this and is now denuded.


Offa’s Dyke near Pen y Garden

The Relationship with Offa’s Dyke

For much of its line, Offa’s Dyke follows topography that affords it long-distance views to the west. Y Gardden is a challenge to this situation, because the spur blocks views from the Ruabon section of Offa’s Dyke, downhill to the east of the hillfort. Hence, this hillfort has been the subject of considerable discussion given its close proximity to the west of Offa’s Dyke. Why did the late eighth-century Mercian frontier work go east of this prominent and defensible pre-existing earthwork?

  1. Was it because the site was an early medieval stronghold of Welsh forces and held against the Mercians, so there was no option of including it?
  2. Was the line of the dyke agreed in negotiation between the Welsh and Mercians as Fox suggested, and therefore it respected pre-existing boundaries?

In both the above scenarios, the dyke can be explained as Fox (1955) suggested when he stated that ‘The alignment of the Dyke here is the first indication met with which suggests that the designer had not an entirely free hand in its selection…. The simplest explanation is that the Welsh held Pen-y-gardden, and that the plans of the Dyke builder were conditioned by this fact, whereas he had a much freer hand S. of the Dee (Fox 1955: 81). Fox notes the proximity of the dyke here to the ninth-century Pillar of Eliseg as further evidence in his support (Fox 1955: 82)

There are two further scenarios worthy of consideration.

  1. Was it a compromise for the Mercians to leave the hillfort and its prominent spur to the west of the dyke, so that longer-distance trajectories for monument could be established between the Eitha and Dee to the south and the Pentrebychan Brook and Clywedog to the north, without the earthwork being diverted (i.e. was it seen as a necessary compromise that the Mercians left this feature to create a blind spot in surveillance westwards)? Yet, as the maps in the latest book on the dykes by Ray and Bapty make clear, the dyke’s route bends considerably eastwards to avoid Pen-Y-Gardden.
  2. A fourth option to consider is whether prominent points were established both west and east of Offa’s Dyke as beacons and lookout points, in which case was Y Gardden actually reoccupied by the Mercians as part of a zone of defence of which the dyke itself was but one element? Only a small presence on the hill-top would cover this blind-spot and allow surveillance of those approaching the dyke for long stretches north and south. At present, I’m inclined to this view.

View west of the hillfort

What is striking is how flat the land is to the west of the hillfort, which makes me wonder how much advantage would have been gained by occupying it in relation to the dyke, other than to view along it and to prevent its occupation by enemies of the dyke’s defenders.

I’m reading the new book Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britainand hope to refine my views as I do.

What is sad is that this site, as discussed previously, has no surviving heritage interpretation.

Incidentally, we met some friendly horses and cows…



The Slow Death of Heritage

Heritage often focuses on ruins, conserved and interpreted for visitors. Heritage signs themselves often become historical components of these ruins themselves, as previously discussed, for example, for Kidwelly Castle and various megalithic tombs on Anglesey such as Ty Newydd.

Therefore it is doubly tragic to see the ruination of heritage boards themselves. Investment in such features upon heritage trails ebbs and flows, but more commonly ebbs… The decay of these signs reveals the neglect of our heritage assets, not only in musuems, government and education, but also out in the British landscape.

I recently encountered examples at Ruabon.

This is particularly disappointing since this post-industrial landscape harbours some nationally and internationally important ancient monuments: namely Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke: early medieval frontier works of the early medieval kingdom of Mercia dating to the late 8th and early 9th centuries respectively. Moreover, the Y Garden hillfort is particularly significant as a small, badly damaged hillfort of presumed Iron Age date, but located immediately west of, and overlooking Offa’s Dyke and the later church and town of Ruabon.


The sign besides Offa’s Dyke running parallel to Tatham Road, Ruabon

The Offa’s Dyke sign was dirty, faded, and in a rather incongruous location because I only spotted it at the end of my walk. Upon it is dense bilingual text and a map showing the walks one might take to the hillfort, dyke and town.


The Y Garden hillfort sign, situated beside covered on the lane beside Pen-Y-Gardden lane, now blank but for a ‘Scouts’ sticker

The Y Garden hillfort sign matched the other and so I presume it once had text upon it. It is now completely blank.


The Wat’s Dyke sign, now covered in mould and devoured by brambles.

These signs clearly form part of a same heritage trail around Ruabon, I presume dating to the late ’90s or thereabouts. I’ve talked about the now out-of-date Wat’s Dyke sign board on the other side of Ruabon, as discussed here, and they are clearly all part of the same slow death of Ruabon’s heritage.

The Archaeology of Reburial: Commemorating the Medieval Dead


The plinth within the nave of Talley Abbey

In a previous post I mentioned the memorial to the burials discovered during the clearance of the ruins of Talley Abbey (Carmarthenshire) in the 1950s and reburied to the north-east of the abbey’s nave. This has no plaque, no reference in the established literature including the Cadw guide book. This is therefore a prominent but ‘forgotten’ memorial act. I have it on good authority this is a mid-20th-century stone plinth to the reburied medieval dead.


The 1950s plinth commemorating the reburial of medieval dead whose bones were found in the rubble during the clearance of the ruins,


The plinth and the 1930s cenotaph to the Edwinsford family

It is not alone. Just to its west is another kind of memorial to the medieval dead: a grave-slab commemorating all members of the same family buried at the location, erected in the 1930s by a descendent. Perhaps this was the inspiration to the anonymous 1950s plinth.




So at Talley Abbey, we have two examples of 20th-century commemoration of the medieval dead, one through textual remembrance in conventional grave-slab form honouring the same noble family, one an anonymous plinth to the unnamed dead.

Whitesands Bay – Excavations at St Patrick’s Chapel

DSC07105I recently made a memorable visit to Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire. I was visiting St David’s cathedral and city and took a detour as I hadn’t before been out to see the striking landscape of Whitesands Bay.

As well as walking along the coast, and exploring the war memorial, I went to the site of St Patrick’s Chapel. It has been the location of a very important excavation of an early medieval chapel and cemetery by Dyfed Archaeological Trust: there project website is rich in information about the 2014 and 2015 season, and the 2016 season yielded even more information.

This is a rescue and research excavation of a site that is being eroded by the action of the sea and wind. Excavations have revealed over 80 burials in wind-blown sand, including two cross-shaped grave markers. Radiocarbon dates focus on the 7th-9th-centuries AD for the graves.

I was unable to visit the dig in the last 3 seasons due to other commitments, so I got to sample the rather different experience of the out-of-season visitor.


The Parc y Capel (chapel field) sign post

So what does the visitor learn from the spot in Chapel Field?

Display and Warning

Next to the car park is a small sign explaining about the chapel and a modest artist’s reconstruction of how the chapel might have looked, set against the dramatic seascape and coast of St David’s head.  This sign warns against camping and lighting fires on the scheduled monument, as well as indicating the nature of the site in the briefest of terms. A new heritage board would both serve to explain and protect the monument far better, including the demonstrable evidence that beneath the ‘medieval pilgrim’s chapel’ was a burial site dating perhaps as far back as the 5th century AD.


The field of St Patrick’s chapel


The slab marking the spot of the excavations in 1924

Commemorating Archaeology

The chapel had been excavated in 1924, and so I was delighted to come across a nice early memorial slab commemorating the archaeological intervention. It states:







Third, were the subtle traces of the recent archaeological interventions, after only a few weeks already the trenches, whilst visible, were merging into the landscape. Visitors seems unaware of their presence. The view is so much more eye-catching…


Sitting by the recent excavation trenches, tourists seem unaware of the archaeology beneath their feet


The recently closed 3rd season excavations at Whitesands Bay; the site is threatened by coastal erosion

The results of the archaeological research at St Patrick’s Chapel are eagerly awaited. What happens at the site and whether visitors will be afforded more information about this important early medieval chapel and cemetery remains to be seen.

Memories in Wreckage

DSC07112In previous posts I’ve addressed the mnemonic power of translating materials associated with disasters in the composition of war memorials. I’ve also addressed the mnemonic significance of the translation of memorials themselves to new locations as a related strategy. Alongside overt allusions to ancient monuments and materials, I’ve explored the deployment of materiel in individual memorials and as themes binding memorials together, as at the National Memorial Arboretum. Here are some previous relevant posts.

DSC07110Recently, at Whitesands Bay, near St David’s, Pembrokeshire, I came upon a Second World War memorial, commemorating the deaths of four USAAF aviators who perished when their Marauder aircraft hit Carn Llidi in fog on 4th June 1943. I was struck by the location and by the form of the monument.

DSC07113The location is prominent, at the top-end of the car park beside the beach, and within view of the crash-site on Carn Llidi. The beautiful mountain on a clear day defies one to imagine the foggy conditions in which the crash took place. Meanwhile, the memorial itself comprises of one of the aircraft’s bent propellers set upright in concrete with a metal plaque at its base. In this fashion, the memorial itself directly connects one to the plane and its demise.

The use of burnt and broken, bent and buckled fragments as the foci of memorialisation themselves is a direct, tangible way of recollecting the tragic acts commemorated, and the fragmentation and dissolution of materials, bodies, vehicles and structures caused by the event. It is also citational, linking the place of the memorial to the place of death and destruction.

Therefore, in the context of a cenotaphic monument, with a plaque depicting how the plane appeared intact, the link between imagined life before death, and the tragic circumstances of death are congealed through the use of materiel.


New Thoughts on Hogbacks


Perhaps the three most famous of hogbacks, in the church at Brompton, North Yorkshire

In January 2015 I took the opportunity to visit Brompton church and its famous bear-guarded hogback stones. These recumbent stone monuments are usually dated to the 10th/early 11th centuries and hence are often regarded as ‘Viking colonial’ grave-covers or tombs.

IMG_20160707_190254On the 7th of July, I went back, this time to the Methodist church hall in the village of Brompton, near Northallerton, N. Yorkshire, to talk about hogbacks. I entitled my talk:

“New Thoughts on Hogbacks”

I was proud to address the Brompton Heritage Group about their striking early medieval monuments and their importance including the splendid church warden, Doreen Newcombe, organiser Unity Stack, and I got to meet a familiar face from my alma mater the University of Reading;, retired archaeological illustrator Margaret Matthews.

The church hall was packed with around 60 people. I presented them my views on how hogbacks worked as early medieval technologies of remembrance: material media for constructing senses of identity and place through social memory. I addressed specifically,

Together, the talk provided an overview of how far my thinking on these monuments has developed over recent years in thinking about hogbacks’ mnemonic agency.

I’ve done quite a few talks about hogbacks at public venues, as discussed before on this blog here. I’ve decided this one was my last-but-one. I’ll come back to the topic once again, but not for now I simly felt privileged to talk at the spiritual home of hogbacks to the community of Brompton about their very special stones.



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