Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

More Dyke Confusion: Wat’s Dyke at Erddig

Wat’s Dyke


The view west from outside Erddig Hall over the valley of the Black Brook

Running for 38 miles, seemingly continuously from the Dee estuary at Basingwerk to Maesbury Marsh south of Oswestry, Wat’s Dyke is the second longest earthwork known from early medieval Britain, only over-shadowed in scale by its neighbour: Offa’s Dyke.

As Cyril Fox put it:

‘Wat’s Dyke, throughout its course from the Dee to the Middle Severn Valley, marks the boundary between the lowland of the English Midlands, and the hill country of northern Wales’ (Fox 1934, 211)

and its course:

‘is designed to include as much country as lowlanders could conveniently occupy or control’ (ibid.).


Wat’s Dyke in Erddig Woods, looking north

This west-facing earthwork, was thought by Fox, and subsequent by many other scholars, as a less grandiose and shorter predecessor to Offa’s Dyke (Fox 1955; Ray and Bapty 2016). Building on Fox’s first important and systematic survey, the last half century has seen the work of many small-scale interventions by commercial archaeologists revealing its morphology at particular points but yielding no dating opportunities. Likewise, the long-term survey and excavations by David Hill and Margaret Worthington (involving over 60 interventions on its course) have served to both confirm and extend Fox’s inferences regarding its continuous and coherent construction and the lack of demonstrable gateways along its course (Worthington 1997; Hill and Worthington 2003; Worthington and Grill 2015). This work as corrected misunderstandings by Fox, although much of it remains partially published or disparately published. For instance, many steep scarps where Fox thought the monument was absent have been reinterpreted by Hill and Worthington’s fieldwork, confirming the dyke’s presence. The consensus has remained, however, that Wat’s Dyke was earlier than Offa’s Dyke: a monument of the 7th or 8th-century kings of Mercia, perhaps built by the powerful Mercian ruler who preceded Offa: Aethelbald (r. 716-757).


Wat’s Dyke, Erddig Wood, looking from the bank over the ditch to the scarp slope down to Black Brook, looking NW.

A decade ago, the opportunity for a large-scale opening of the earthwork ahead of development at Gobowen, allowed a more extensive excavation of Wat’s Dyke. Crucially, this facilitated a dating programme of the monument by Laurence Hayes and Tim Malim at this location (published in Hayes and Malim 2008). Their work suggested that Wat’s Dyke might well be later, not earlier, than Offa’s Dyke by between a decade to perhaps half a century. This might be crudely summarised as suggesting Wat’s Dyke was a 9th-century monument with a ditch to rival in size that known from many stretches of Offa’s Dyke, even if the bank itself seems less monumental than achieved for parts of Offa’s.

The implications of this work have really yet to fully percolate academic debates, let alone heritage interpretation. As a successor to, rather than a predecessor to, the late 8th-century Offa’s Dyke, it was perhaps the work of King Coenwulf, whose reign was dominated by accounts of campaigns against his Welsh foes. The king died at the northern end of Wat’s Dyke: Basingwerk. It might equally have been the work of his successors.

Whoever built it, it clearly aimed to stop up the clear gap in the northern extent of Offa’s Dyke and this might plausibly be regarded as a response to the increasing military power and influence of Gwynedd along the Flintshire coast and areas formerly dominated by the kingdom of Powys in the early 9th century. Consequently, it was Wat’s Dyke, not Offa’s Dyke, that defined the frontier to the Norman Conquest, as indicated by Margaret Worthington’s work on hidated and unhidated manors at Domesday, whose distribution corresponds to the line of Wat’s Dyke (hidated on the ‘English’ side, unhidated on the ‘Welsh’).

This is by no means certain, of course, and conversely, Ray and Bapty (2016), in their new book on Offa’s Dyke, venture an alternative suggestion. They argue that Wat’s Dyke might have been integral part of an Offan frontier, and thus an extension of, and perhaps used contemporaneously with, Offa’s Dyke.

So Wat’s Dyke mapped out and perpetuated a geo-political faultline in the Early Middle Ages between the powerful kingdom of Mercia, itself fluid in its fortunes and scale, and a series of British rivals to the west. In this frontier zone, Mercia had absorbed local politics during the 7th century and may have cultivated a distinctive linguistically and culturally variegated population living and working on either side of linear earthworks built as both defensive and aggressive statements and territorial devices. Offa’s and Wat’s Dyke might be seen as successively offering visually control land to the west and manage/restrict the movement of people and resources along and across their lines. They were also ideological statements of Mercian hegemony, as Ray and Bapty articulate in their new book.

What is clear, however, is that Wat’s Dyke, despite running through historic landscapes and NE Wales’s largest conurbation – Wrexham – remains poorly appreciated and understood, including by heritage professionals. A primary school is named after it, a few roads, but it is generally ambiguous in the consciousness of historians, archaeologists and local people.


Looking west from Erddig towards the coal tip of Bersham colliery and Ruabon Mountain beyond


Wat’s Dyke at Erddig

I recently visited the National Trust site of Erddig to explore the house, gardens and woodland, as well as to revisit the site of the earth-and-timber Norman castle there overlooking the Clywedog. Wat’s Dyke runs through it along the top of the eastern slope descending from Erddig Park to the Black Brook, and running into, and obscured by, the later castle on the promontory. My former student, Rachel Swallow, has discussed this castle and suggested its relationship with Wat’s Dyke is far from coincidental (Swallow 2016).


Erddig Hall – the line of the dyke is probably hidden beneath the gravel leading from the woods beyond straight towards the position of the photographer

I would suggest that very few visitors to this property appreciate the true importance of the landscape here for understanding the monument, and the long-term history of the Mercian frontier and subsequent Anglo-Norman March of Wales.

Wat’s Dyke survives in key stretches near Erddig Hall. Fox regarded the flanking spur of the motte as ‘almost certainly not, in its present form, Wat’s Dyke’, and it fades to a berm beside the motte. But then, to the south from the castle:

… then as the W. slope eases, a bank appears. This bank ends in the artificially levelled flat by E of Erddig Park. The sequence of earthwork forms, dependent on terrain, is normal; and wholly, or in part, the structure must be recognised as Wat’s Dyke. The Dyke probably existed, but has been destroyed, in the neighbourhood of the house [Erddig Hall], but traces of both bank and ditch are again present at one point a little farther on, on the edge of the steep wooded slop above the valley floor, by the rookery. A little farther on again, the steep and regular contour of this river scarp is broken by two small re-entrants. Here, the large and characteristic structure of the Dyke reappears, the intervening spur being cut off by a large bank and ditch (scrarp 22 ft, overall 48 ft), and the furst spur isolated in a similar manner.

Fox surveyed in particular by the Rookery and included a profile of the monument at this point. However, there are 7 successive points to make here about this stretch in the wood between the castle and Erddig Hall that seem to contrast with the way the monument has been described in the publications by Fox (1935) and Worthington (1997):

  1. The dyke survives remarkably well in the woods of Erddig Park as a large bank and ditch as Fox describes and is comparable in general morphology to other well-preserved stretches of the dyke on breaks of slope:
  2. However, Fox fails to describe adequately how its use of natural topography creates a counterscarp bank out of the natural ground surface between the natural steep slope down to the Black Brook and the ditch. Worthington argues this takes place elsewhere on steep slopes, yet at Erddig Park this actually takes place at the top of the slope on relatively flat ground, rather than adapting the scarp. My understanding is that, with only a few possible exception inadequately explained by Fox and subsequent writers, Wat’s Dyke is not supposed to possess a counterscarp bank;
  3. In this form, the bank would have to have originally been of monumental proportions or topped by a high palisade and wall-walk and/or watch towers to allow those on the bank to survey anyone approaching up the steep slope from the Black Brook. This makes no sense in military terms, although the bank, set so far back, would still have allowed longer distance views dominating lands westwards;
  4. By the same logic, rather than the ‘performative’ nature of Offa’s Dyke (as discussed recently by Ray and Bapty) which makes it seem imposing as one approaches from the west, the ditch and bank were effectively concealed from the view of those approaching from the valley;
  5. It raises the question: are we heard looking at a monument comprised of two banks – the bank itself and its equally monumental counterscarp created by the cutting of the ditch?
  6. If so, then the counterscarp would need to be accessible to allow defenders/patrols to visually control the valley below.
  7. This contrasts with the other stretches of Wat’s Dyke I’ve seen where it is presumed to utilize natural topography or it commands clear views to its west.

I’m happy to concede if I’ve misunderstood the monument or identified a section modified in later centuries. Still, the obvious solution is that it is best regarded here as twin-banked monument, or that its counterscarp on the tip of the slope was accessible for surveillance into the valley and served as the primary defensive feature, not the ditch and bank to its rear.

dsc09304Heritage Interpretation

Of course, following my recent critical discussion of the display of the dyke at Chirk, you might guess where this is going. It is clear that the monument is not fully understood and the one new NT sign board (beside the entrance to the castle), while creating a striking cross-section visualisation of the motte and bailey of the Anglo-Norman castle, renders Wat’s Dyke incomprehensible because:

  1. The line of Wat’s Dyke isn’t represented on a map and so it won’t be clear where visitors should go to view it;
  2. Some attempt at a cross-section or artist’s reconstruction would at least help articulate to visitors what Wat’s Dyke might have looked like (not easy to do given our limited evidence of any wooden or other superstructures upon the bank, or other features associated with it);
  3. The sign contains weird stylistic error of capitalising ‘Century’ and not having a hyphen for the adjectival use of what should be: ‘eighth-century’ or ‘8th-century’, not ‘8th Century’;
  4. Crucially, Wat’s Dyke is inexplicably attributed to the 8th century, which shows it is working on information at least a decade old and without factoring in the evidence from Hayes and Malim’s 2008 publication.

In summary, more consideration is needed to understand Wat’s Dyke in this location and explain it to visitors.



Fox, C. 1934. Wat’s Dyke: a field survey, Archaeologica Cambrensis LXXXIX Part II, 205-78

Fox, C. 1955, Offa’s Dyke: A Field Survey of the Western Frontier-Works of Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD, London: Oxford University Press.

Hayes, L. and Malim, T. 2008, The date and nature of Wat’s Dyke: a reassessment in the light of recent investigations at Gobowen, Shropshire, in S Crawford and H Hamerow (eds), Anglo-Saxon Stud Archaeol Hist 15, 147–79.

Hill, D. and Worthington, M. 2003, Offa’s Dyke: History and Guide, Stroud: Tempus.

Ray, K. and Bapty, I. 2016. Offa’s Dyke – Landscape and Hegemony on Eighth-Century Britain, Oxford: Windgather

Swallow, R. 2016. Cheshire castles in the Irish Sea cultural zone, Archaeological Journal 173: 288-341

Worthington, M. 1997, Wat’s Dyke: an archaeological and historical enigma, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 79(3), 177–96.

Worthington Hill, M. and Grigg, E. 2015. Boundaries and walls, in M C Hyer and G R Owen-Crocker (eds), The Material Culture of the Built Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 162–80.

The Archaeodeath Road to Nowhere

img_20150930_081630Throughout my life, I’ve always tried to stay active: walk, cycle, and when late for an appointment or train I’ve been known to run. I commute by bike and train on a fold-up bicycle, so on workdays at least, some form of exercise is integrated into my routine. In addition, I’m always out with my family in the countryside, visiting sites, monuments, town and country.

However, there’s always been this weird and odd phenomenon that people have told me about called ‘exercise’: where people deliberately walk somewhere (maybe with a dog or friends), jog somewhere, or cycle somewhere, for health reasons. I’ve seen people do it, so I know it happens.

Even more bizarre, some people prefer to go nowhere to exercise – to use a treadmill or exercise bike – either at home or at a ‘gym’ (buildings in which businesses sell spaces in which people can exercise – watch Dodgeball to tell you all you need to know).

I’ve tried it for brief intervals over recent years, but it’s never quite worked out… I lack the interest, dedication and confidence. Now, I have a confession. I’m in my mid-40s, and to my shame I’m going to commit to this ‘exercise’ phenomenon as a routine. Turn over a new leaf. An October New Year’s resolution. Exercising in my garage, I aim to move in a fashion that resembles exercise for at least one hour per day, on every day where I’m not cycling to commute.

I’ll keep you posted on how this pans out… If I die prematurely, you know what’s to blame: exercise…

Killing Death – The Death of A-level Archaeology and Death in A-level Archaeology


A Danish bog body looks at us still from the Iron Age – the kind of corporeal evidence that A-level archaeologists can investigate as evidence for life and death in past societies.

Over the last week, as with many in the archaeology community, I’ve been dismayed that AQA have decided, without consultation, to axe A-level archaeology. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Council for British Archaeology, Historic England, universities, A-level archaeology college tutors, and almost everyone who has been engaged in archaeology as a hobby or a profession, has come out in criticism at the decision to scrap its delivery in the UK at A-level. The great Sir Tony Robinson – incidentally an honorary graduate of my university – has come out a vocal critic of this decision.

This is one of many, many contemporary political and education issues that this Archaeodeath blog might comment on, but this is a clear, tangible and direct threat to our education system’s diversity and character, and the future of my profession in particular.


Artists’ impression of an early medieval funeral by artist and archaeologist Dr Aaron Watson – mortuary archaeologists theorise the process, variability and changing character of mortuary practices in societies from prehistory to the present day

Already, I’ve tweet support, signed petitions and been vocal about the end of students (mainly 16-18-year olds but also those coming back to education at other times in their life) to have the opportunity to study archaeology at FE colleges.

Why keep it? Well, it isn’t essential to have an A-level in archaeology to study archaeology at university or enter the profession. However, it is an important starting point for those who previously have not engaged with the topic, and those coming back to study as mature students.

But why archaeology? Not only should archaeology be seen as a versatile, innovative subject feeding into universities and supporting the archaeology and heritage sectors, it should be regarded as a key way in which students learn about the origins and diversity of the human past and present, and the range of scientific techniques and archaeological theories and methods, that can be applied to its investigation. It offers appreciation of the built environment, art, and the landscape itself. It offers perspectives on global, long term changes in human interactions with the environment, and detailed appreciation of artefacts, materials and subjects in the fabric of human societies. Understanding state formation, state collapse, diasporas and conflict, subsistence systems, perceptions of the cosmos are all dimensions of archaeological enquiries. The AQA have said this themselves. For example in 2010 they stated:

Archaeology – the study of past human societies from the investigation of material remains – is one of the most exciting subjects in the curriculum. It is the ultimate subject for an ‘all-round’ student, in that it combines elements of many other academic disciplines, such as Science, Art, Technology, Geography, History, Sociology and Religious Studies.


A Roman-period mummy portrait from the Fayum, Egypt – mortuary archaeology brings us face-to-face with the past on an individual and a community level – (c) British Museum

The Death in A-level

Now among these many reasons why axing A-level archaeology is a disaster, there is another. Archaeology is about the historic environment, it is about understanding settlements and material culture, but it is also about tombs and cemeteries and the human remains they contain. Archaeology is about people, and the dead are themselves evidence for understanding the past – their bodies, coffins, tombs, cemeteries and memorials. This is often called ‘funerary archaeology’ or ‘mortuary archaeology’.

Together with the planned demise of Art History, Classical Civilization and Anthropology at A-level, the scrapping of A-level Archaeology robs A-level students of yet another forum in which they can encounter and explore mortuary practices and death more broadly in the human past. Simultaneously, it sheds us of respect and understandings of other faiths and cultures and their diverse and historically embedded understandings of mortality.

The question must now be posed: with the end of anthropology, ancient history, art history and archaeology, where can A-level students learn about death? Where can they encounter the complexity, variability and varied corporeal and material traces of dying, death and the dead across different societies and communities from prehistory to the 20th century? Where can they learn about art created to mourn, honour, valorise or denigrate the dead in past times? Where can the learn of past tragedies revealed in the archaeological record, of natural disasters, battles, warfare, mass killings, human sacrifice and judicial processes? How do they learn about the physical evidence for the human suffering of slavery, of the history of disease, the complex evidence revealed from ancient DNA about the very origins and mobility of the human species itself, about the variability and social complexity of past societies, about the origins and development of death rituals by today’s world religions and many other faiths, cultic practices and afterlife beliefs that have not survived into historic times? How can we learn about the ways cemeteries, tombs and cenotaphs operated within historic landscapes, how death and the dead were investments of time, labour and resources that influenced, sometimes directed, past economies and involved ritual specialists and specific kinds of craftspeople and artisans?


18th-century skull on a tomb, Morton Corbet church, Shropshire. Mortuary archaeology teaches us the significance of places of worship, churchyards and cemeteries both long abandoned and extant.

Death is not just about the past, it is a contemporary issue. It is about our past, present and future, and archaeology continues to be central to its study.

It affects us all, because when and how we die involves faith and aspirations and beliefs in various afterlives, but it transcends faiths. It is about being human, and about human relations with the non-human. This is one of the key dimensions of contemporary archaeological research.

Therefore, the end of this slew of humanities subjects, denigrated as ‘specialist’, robs A-level students of investigating not only our humanity, but also of our mortality. To disclaim these subjects is not only stupid, it is abhorrent and morally repugnant.

In short, the death of A-level archaeology – together with a range of other subjects that directly engage with human mortality – is an act of negligence with ramifications for our society that extend far beyond archaeology itself and way beyond A-levels. It represents a concerted effort to deny and denigrate the study of humanity’s mortality. It is about killing death itself in our education system.

Smiling Abbot Part 3

dsc08437Previously I’ve posted about the ‘discovery’ by Llangollen Museum of a new fragment of a medieval recumbent effigial slab that we have informally called ‘The Smiling Abbot’. This isn’t really a technical term, it is because he is an abbot (according to the inscription around the edge) and he seems to be quite content with his memorial lot. See previous posts about him here and here.

Today, I sent off the article about the ‘Smiling Abbot’ for publication, submitting it as a research article to a national journal. I’m very excited about it because it is an article about a new discovery, written in collaboration with the excellent Llangollen Museum and their Gillian Smith and Dave Crane. Over the last month I’ve been researching and writing, as well as seeking sage advice from some of the country’s leading experts in medieval church monuments, who have been generous with their ideas and criticisms of our early drafts. Here is the provision title and abstract. Now is the process (not moment) of truth: will it be published?

Smiling Abbot Hywel:

The Unique Effigial Slab of a Cistercian Abbot


The article reports on a newly discovered fragment of a recumbent effigial slab, commemorating Abbot Hywel (Howel), most likely of the Cistercian house of Valle Crucis, near Llangollen (Denbighs.). The slab was probably carved sometime in the first third of the fourteenth century, and could have covered the abbot’s burial place in the abbey church or chapter house. The stone was subsequently dislocated and fragmented at an unknown point in the abbey’s history, most likely during the nineteenth-century clearance of the ruins.

If indeed from Valle Crucis, the stone is the first-known effigial slab to a Cistercian abbot from Wales, and a rare example from Britain. Given that no similar Cistercian abbatial monuments have been identified from elsewhere, the ‘Smiling Abbot’, although only a fragment, is a significant addition to the known corpus of later medieval mortuary monuments. The article discusses the provenance, dating, identification and significance of the monument, including the abbot’s distinctive smile, within the context of mortuary and commemorative practice at Valle Crucis.


So this is a new blogging development, commenting on a submission rather than a publication. In doing so, I guess I undermine the anonymity of my submission, but it is quite obvious regarding the circumstances of who is writing that this is difficult to conceal in any case.

I have no idea if and when the ‘Smiling Abbot’ will find his way to publication. Of course I hope he does! He is an exciting find and the submitted article attempts to put his little smilie face in context.

Still, peer-review is the joy and the curse of academia: every article gets carefully scrutinised by an editor and anywhere between 2 and 4 peer-reviewers who appraise the originality and significance of the research. This helps to winnow out bad articles, and also winnow out bad sections of good articles. Peer-review doesn’t stop my rubbish getting published in itself, but it does help my rubbish to conform to current trends on academic-speak! I jest of course (but seriously). Most referees do more than this though, and do try hard to help get the best out of the article.

They might recommend that the new discovery is not really that interesting, or that my research is flawed. Conversely, they might judge the article an important one that should be published. Who knows? Only time will tell!

Hopefully I will hear back in 1 or 2 months what the verdict is. Will the article be declined? Will it be accepted but subject to either major or minor revisions. The most unlikely scenario is that it will be accepted in its current form: this rarely happens, at least from my experience. See my views on peer-review here.

The stone can still be seen at Llangollen Museum and my University are hoping to conduct a press release about it early next month. In the meantime, the stone’s academic fate awaits us…


Gull on a Gravestone


Gull on a Grave

Birds are not infrequent in mortuary environments, and they are also sometimes featured as symbols of mourning and spiritual ascent on gravestones as discussed here and here. For example, in the UK, pigeons are also used to denote those whose hobby was pigeon fancying.

In this rare instance though, a bird that for many Britons is seen as a pest – the herring gull – is portrayed on a gravestone! Now gulls are a nuisance for many living and working in coastal towns, especially when they’re nesting. They can also be a nightmare for visitors to heritage sites like Beaumaris Castle and seaside towns where they are likely to try to poo on you, steal your chips or (worst of all) grab your kids’ icecream as happened to me a while back at Conwy Castle.IMG_20160507_183220

However, context is everything! That’s what we say in archaeology. In many ways, this gravestone shows that very clearly. The gull here is not a generic evocation of the seaside or the sea, it is not a pesky chip-stealer or crapper on elderly relatives. Instead, it is perhaps a mnemonic meshing together many stories about the dead and their relationship to the living.

This is because, the text tells us clearly this was a man, born in war-torn Liverpool – one of the greatest maritime hubs of Britain – who became an officer in the merchant navy. Moreover, situated in a small Welsh churchyard, the grave speaks of the lifetime journeys and final resting place of this man. Therefore, we might imagine very personal stories attached to it,  commemorating the grave of a merchant seaman, and the stories he would tell. The gull takes those visiting the grave both back in time, and across the waves…


Photographing Graves

This blog is about the material culture of death – past and present. I’ve discussed the ethics of photographing mortuary spaces and material cultures before, as in here. Occasionally I discuss modern crematoria, cemeteries, churchyards and other memorials and memorial spaces. This brings with it some ethical issues regarding commenting on the graves and memorials of the recently departed. In past posts, I’ve unashamedly photographed and posted images of these. In my view these were established in publicly accessible spaces with the express intention that they were to be viewed and appreciated, and perhaps commented on. However, graves are also private and intensely personal, intimate and emotive spaces, with stories that mean very specific things to those that mourn loved ones. So, in future, if I am focusing in detail on a very specific grave, I’m going to try not to mention precisely where it is, and pixelate out details of the person’s name and date of birth and death. This isn’t censorship, since their names and the precise day they died are not really the focus of my interest in any case. Instead, the medium and material culture of death is my focus.

Identities in Stone: Haughmond Abbey’s Saints and Spolia


Haughmond Abbey from the north-east, looking over the completely robbed-out monastic church to the two cloisters


I wonder whether these three slabs perhaps mark the original locations from when tombs were recovered during the excavations on the site.

St Thomas Becket outside the chapter house

St Thomas Becket outside the chapter house

Founded in 1135 and dissolved in 1539, Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire, is the ruin of the two-cloistered Augustinian abbey of St John the Evangelist which had been adapted into a private residence in the 16th century.  The chapter house is situated on the east side of the northern cloister. The entrance to the chapter house is framed by the sculptures of 8 saints:

  • St Augustine;
  • St Thomas Becket;
  • St Catherine of Alexandria;
  • St John the Baptist;
  • St John the Evangelist;
  • St Margaret of Antoich;
  • St Winifred;
  • St Michael.

The chapter house displayed the monastic identity of the community through this pantheon of saints.


The impressive west-end of the chapter house at Haughmond Abbey

In the chapter house, abutting the south transept of the church, are a fine collection of 13th/14th-century medieval mortuary monuments collected from amidst the ruins, possibly from the church. Presumably these are among the recumbent grave-covers of wealthy patrons of the abbey, initially installed within the monastic church.


The assemblage in the chapter house


Looking along the assemblage


The two crosses and Lombardic memorial text on a trapezoidal slab

As an assemblage, these mute stones denote a community and its patrons, dislocated and displayed as a museum collection but without specific identities. Individually, they reveal the diversity of memorial stones. One striking one bears a false-relief Lombardic script framed by two crosses.


A floriated cross with a shield suspended from it

This is a striking floriated cross with a heraldic shield, slung from the cross by its strap. I really like the physicality evoked by the hanging shield here. I haven’t seen this elsewhere and it is truly distinctive in evoking a displayed piece of armour; testament to the status and faith of the commemorated person.

dsc04693Now this is the odd thing: the leopard that adorned the shield had been prepared on a different block of stone and inserted into the shield. Perhaps the original beast was the wrong one or was damaged in transit, or during installation, and needed to be replaced? It is now on display in the abbey museum.


Sarcophagus and fragment of sarcophagus



The sarcophagus fragment

There are two sarcophagi, one near intact, one present only through the head-niche end.


A simple cross-slab

Then there is a simple cross upon a rough grave-slab. Even though worn, this is clearly evidence of the less sophisticated memorials that would have once populated the abbey church. There are other rough fragments too.

Together this neat little assemblage operates ineffectually in heritage interpretation terms: there is nothing on site or in the handbook to explain their form or date. Still, together they create a presence of stone identities at the heart of the abbey, hinting to every visitor of the many graves populating the abbey space.

Dyke Denial at Chirk Castle?


Offa’s Dyke – a broad low denuded bank in the parkland landscape of Chirk, but one drives over it to enter and leave the National Trust car park beside Home Farm


Despite this being a map of the ‘Time Trails’, Offa’s Dyke isn’t marked as existing beside the carpark and through Home Farm, only denoted with an ambiguous drawing at the no. 1 in orange, on the path down to Crugen

I’ve just finished reading Keith Ray and Ian Bapty’s fascinating new book: Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain, published by Oxbow. Hence, Offa’s Dyke is foremost in my mind. The monument is under threat of destruction along its line – from ignorance, neglect and irresponsible (sometimes criminal) behaviour. It is still misunderstood by many early medieval archaeologists, let alone the general public, and Offa’s Dyke is poorly served by heritage professionals and organisations. In many parts of its length, there is no, or very little, or very poor, heritage interpretation and on each side of the modern border, archaeologists have fought a long rear-guard action to conserve the monument. Offa’s Dyke is hindered, not helped, by its historical interweaving with the Welsh-English border. This is of course, a perverse state of affairs and underscores the importance of ongoing efforts to research and engage communities with this important monument.

I’ve previously blogged about how the monument runs through a range of different landscapes, often without any clear heritage interpretation, and sometimes with woeful out-of-date or damaged heritage boards. See my previous posts:


Beside the dovecote: Offa’s Dyke has no signposts and is thus ‘forgotten’ in plain sight

I’m a regular visit to Chirk Castle and its gardens and previously I’ve posted about its canine commemoration. The site is great, the staff are great. Because I’m such a fan I’ve tried to hold back on this rant, until now. However, Chirk Castle woefully present their oldest and greatest feature: Offa’s Dyke. While heavily denuded near the car park and Home Farm, it is a key component of this landscape as it faces higher ground and then the steep northern slope of the Ceiriog.

Almost every one of the thousands upon thousands of visitors Chirk Castle must receive each year drive over Offa’s Dyke to get to the main National Trust car park. They then cross its line again on the walk up to the castle. They might stop and let their kids play upon it in an adventure play area beside the small cafe at home farm. They might encounter its earth and bank and cross its line if they detour to visit the dovecote and kitchen gardens. There are two longer walks within the grounds that allow visitors to see better-preserved sections of the Dyke, including the walk down to the Ceiriog. Then, on their way out, they have to cross it walking back to the car and driving off.


Heavily wooded, Offa’s Dyke descends to Crogen from Home Farm. Note: this is not on NT property: this is a permissive path.

Now I accept that the website for Chirk Castle does give a brief mention to the fact that Offa’s Dyke runs through the NT site as follows:

Bisecting the estate is a section of the remarkable 8th century defensive earthwork Offa’s Dyke, built by King Offa of Mercia to mark the ancient border with the kingdom of Powys. When you drive into the car park at Chirk you will cross Offa’s Dyke, although you may not notice – William Emes levelled vast sections of it as part of his uncompromising work on the parkland. A fantastic section of the dyke still exists in the medieval deer park, which is accessible from March to September along a permissive path.,and that visitors will cross it. Also, the map vaguely shows the dyke with a near-illegible drawing of a ditch and bank, situated.


On this welcome sign, Offa’s Dyke is omitted

I also accept that there is brief mention and visualisation of the dyke on one sign board. Still, upon the map given out to visitors, and on key information, the dyke is ignored. There are no signs identifying it. Hence, I suspect most visitors don’t know it is there. Indeed, while I recognised, as an early medieval archaeologist, the line of the dyke in the field next to the car park, I visited many times before I fully realised its course continued down to the Ceiriog through Home Farm!


The visitor map expunges Offa’s Dyke

dsc09184Now there is a sign for the drive to one of the NT cottages, called ‘House by the Dyke’, but the dyke itself cannot be seen at this point…

I cannot accept this is a sufficient state of affairs for a modern visitor site. I wonder whether I’ve missed places and dimensions to how Chirk Castle promotes the presence and significance of this monument for understanding the early history of the Welsh border and the specific history of Chirk and its environs.

Note – 24th October 2016

Chirk NT have been in touch with me, having read the above blog entry. I’m pleased to learn that they are already fully aware of the challenges I raise regarding the presentation of Offa’s Dyke. They have plans in place to enhance the maps and signs in response to how visitors are using the Chirk estate. In particular, they have a clear and positive vision of enhancing how visitors experience Offa’s Dyke.




Commemorating Birth and Death: St Non’s Chapel and Cross-Slab



The Cadw sign at St Non’s Chapel

Every visit to St David’s should also involve an excursion to the Cadw stewarded site of the ruined medieval pilgrim’s chapel of St Non’s. It is situated a short walk or drive to the south of St David’s (1.1 km), with views southwards over cliffs to the sea of St Non’s Bay.

The truly awesome Sian Rees never over-states issues, so is to be believed when she described it as ‘one of the most idyllically situated monuments in Dyfed’.

St Non was regarded as the mother of St David and this was believed to have been the place where St David was born. The holy well sprung forth at this moment, so the story goes.


Looking over the chapel ruins from the NNE, looking SSW


The chapel looking SE

The site was therefore key to the sacred landscape of pilgrimage and faith in Dewisland.

The chapel dates back to at least the 11th century when it is mentioned in Rhygyfarch’s Life. There is another documentary reference in 1335. What survives today are the footings of a rectangular structure with a striking N-S orientation. This alignment is perhaps simply in response to the topography but this in itself is not a sufficient explanation. Certainly this orientation limited the amount of the chapel that needed to be positioned downslope and thus supported, as it is, by massive masonry. This pilgrim’s chapel was used through the Middle Ages but fell into disrepair and abandonment after the Reformation.


The monumental SW corner of the chapel on the down-hill side


St Non’s finger?

Professor Dai Morgan Evans suggested that the folklore that ‘St Non’s finger’ left a mark on a rock at the site might be explicable by a prehistoric cup-mark upon one of the stones visible amidst the chapel ruins.

Early digs sometime before 1810 found ‘stone coffins’ associated with the chapel. These might be early Christian cist graves and comparable to those recently excavated elsewhere in coastal Pembrokeshire, including at St Patrick’s Chapel in Whitesands Bay.


The inscribed stone within the chapel



The crayon-daubed early medieval stone, possibly a grave marker


Dedications to the dead


There is a ‘Class II’ Early Christian stone, roughly dated to the 7th-8th centuries, found at the site and on display within the chapel ruin.  The stone was first recorded in 1856, at which point it had been incorporated into a drystone wall on the east side of the chapel. It is made of dolerite, possibly from Penclegyr, c. 7 km away. It comprises a tapering quadrangular pillar with a incised linear Latin ring-cross. It might have been a grave-marker for one of the graves. Few early medieval stones stand as isolated sentinels to such a complex long-running religious site.

Modern pilgrimage is in evidence here. The early medieval monument provides a focus for votive pebbles at its base. These have prayers and dedications to the dead written upon them. Some imbecile has also crayoned the cross so it is easier to see.



The sign at St Non’s well




While the chapel was abandoned soon after the Reformation, the well persisted as a focus of devotion and healing. The spring-head and well to the east were capped in the 18th century, and traditionally attracted votive deposits of pebbles and pins on St Non’s Day – 2nd March. Today, coins, flowers and prayer ribbons are offered and there is a dedicatory sign. The modern chapel and Catholic retreat have been built uphill from the well.


Edwards, N. 2007. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Volume II. South-West Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Rees, S. 1992. Dyfed. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales

Tombs in the Museum

dsc02590  dsc02597 So much of the debate and discussion among archaeologists regarding the display of ‘the dead’ in museums has focused on human remains. In previous posts, I’ve tried to highlight how misleading this can be, as for example, in my discussion of Leeds Museum.

Another case study in this regard relates to my ongoing research in the Vale of Llangollen as part of Project Eliseg and the Past in its Place project; how do museums operate to display the dead in cenotaphic ways?

In the Llangollen Museum is one such example, the display of the memorial slabs, originally on display in a three-sided tomb in the churchyard of St Collen, close by to the east. They were retrieved and persist in their commemorative capacity in the museum setting.

The memorials in question are to Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler: the famous Ladies of Llangollen. These ladies lived together and were a ‘phenomenon’ in the early 19th century as patrons of artists and minor literary figures in their own right.

Now, these memorials, fixed to the wall of the former library, fixed to the wall on the stairs up to the gallery, bring the  Ladies into the museum space in a prominent position for all to see.

dsc02594Now this is not only cenotaphic remembrance of the Ladies, it is also part of their distributed remembrance. I say this because the Ladies are memorialised through the entire landscape of the Vale, but particularly through the house and gardens at their former residence of Plas Newydd. This is therefore an antiquarian landscape.

Now there are many traces of death and the dead in Llangollen Museum, including the Pillar of Eliseg’s replica.


Breastfeeding the Dead


St Mary’s, Chirk

Archaeological approaches to infants tend to focus on (i) ‘toys & tools, (ii) clothes and other dress accessories, (iii) burials & bodies, and (iv) art. The artefacts that are made, or become toys and/or utilitarian items used by children can reveal the role and perception of infants. Costume, dress accessories and others assemblages that show how identities and stages in the life cycle were configured. Burials might reveal through their location and character, tell us about both about perceptions and practices surrounding the death of very young people, and bodies that can reveal a host of evidence relating to diet, health and disease and place of origin of the individuals. Art might reveal perceptions of, and relationships between infants and others. Some studies range across this evidence and, for historical periods, draw upon literature and written sources to reveal attitudes, practices and experiences of infants.

Breastfeeding is a key topic in this research, just as it is a prominent and debated dimension of child-rearing today. Now while isotopic studies can reveal aspects of breastfeeding practices in prehistoric and historic populations, and feeding vessels are sometimes found, I haven’t identified any studies of the representation of breastfeeding by archaeologists and historians. Whilst rare, this visual evidence can be revealing of the role of breastfeeding as a medium for commemorating the dead – mothers and infants – and expressing broader sentiments of mourning loved ones in past societies.

Roman Infant Death and the Representation of Infants and Breastfeeding

Let’s take an example of recent approaches. Writing about Roman Italy, archaeologist Maureen Carroll, has relatively recently warned against the use of written sources, penned by aristocratic males with Stoic world-views, to discern attitudes and practices relating to infant death and burial. The ‘marginal’ character of the infant perpetuated by the appearance of infants in funerary sculpture. She gives examples of children depicted being bathed, on their death beds, but newborns are rarely shown. Images of the infant in mortuary commemoration render them older than the age stated on the epitaph. Portraits of the dead infant can also be found, as well as infants portrayed in the commemoration of their mothers. Her point is that the written and visual sources portray elite behaviour.

The cemetery evidence, however, reveals the detail of infant treatment across Roman society in Italy. Infants remain often under-represented. They were frequently denied cremation and buried in amphora and small tile cists. Still, there was no clear cut-off age at which cremation began to be used.

Among the grave-goods found are feeding bottles, interred with their users or intended users. Such artefacts are not interpreted further by Carroll. However, in their interment with the infant dead, we are perhaps not seeing artefacts as ‘signs’, communicating to mourners that the dead infant was ‘an infant’. Perhaps instead these artefacts denoted and catalysed mourners to recall and honour the intimate set practices connecting infants with mothers, but perhaps with older siblings, fathers, extended families, servants, slaves as well as the public exhibition of mothering and feeding.

Still, from Carroll’s article, one doesn’t get the sense that the practice of breastfeeding is utilised as a visual means of commemorating the dead.

Breastfeeding the Dead at Chirk

Infants take on a growing role in mortuary commemoration in the early modern period. Not only are there representations of dead infants and children on adult tombs, increasingly children are receiving their own memorials. A backdrop to all of this is the (to my mind) hideous rise of the cherub, framing the commemoration of gentry and nobility on church monuments.

dsc09020In 2014, I listened to a detailed talk about Richard Haslam regarding the striking trio of late 17th/early 18th-century monuments in St Mary’s, Chirk, commemorating members of the long-lasting Myddleton family of Chirk Castle. The three monuments are the products of two sculptors – John Bushnell and Robert Wynne.

The monument to Sir Thomas and Lady Myddleton dates to 1676 by John Bushneell. It is striking in itself, with cherub heads above and urns either side of two busts on pedestals and an inscription above. The cartouche below commemorates Sir Thomas Myddleton and is framed by two cherubs.

dsc08997The second monument is by Richard Wynne, dated to 1718-22. We are here taken further into the horrors of infant dead. The adult figures commemorate Sir Richard and Lady Myddleton. It contains a representation of the two parents, plus a third reclined figure. Central between them, depicted vertically beneath a flaming urn, is Richard and Lady Myddleton’s infant daughter, staring out at the congregation with vacant eyes. Quite horrifying if you think about it, so it is probably best that you don’t.dsc09019

It is the third monument, by John Bushnell and dating to 1683. Here we move from the representation of infant death, to the breastfeeding of the infant dead. Against the southern half of the east wall of the double-naved church, the monument commemorates Elizabeth Myddleton. The reclining effigy of Lady Elizabeth has her suckling her infant son from her right breast. She gazes out and down, away from the child, into the space of the congregation. Frozen in time, the sculpture commemorates her as mother, and her infant as an heir who never reached maturity. Below is a cartouche commemorating her husband, yet another Sir Thomas Myddleton, who died in 1683.


I haven’t yet isolated scholarly literature discussing this striking and rare instance of commemorating of a female aristocrat in the process of breastfeeding. However, it is not only memorable by being distinctive, but renders the infant in perpetual nourishment from the cold white stone of his mother’s breast, guided by her left hand. This moment is rendered in full view for contemporary and subsequent generations attending church services to witness and perhaps spoke of benevolence, nurture and charity as well as the deceased’s personal identity. Certainly, the recent abhorrence of public breast feeding was not regarded as objectionable, at least within this stylised medium of elite commemoration, in late 17th-century Wales.


Hubbard, 1986.  The  Buildings of Clwyd (Denbighshire and Flintshire), Yale: Yale University Press.