Archaeology, Mortality and Material Culture

Parallel Dykes – Offa and Wat at Ruabon

On Wat's Dyke

On Wat’s Dyke

Yesterday, in windy and wet weather, I took out my second-year students taking my course ‘The Archaeology of Medieval Britain’ to see the two largest linear earthworks of western Britain: Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. See my previous posts on them here, here and here.

I selected to take them to see two prominent and accessible stretches of the earthworks near Ruabon, locations I have selected previously because of the earthworks’  varied preservation and varied interactions with modern farming and housing mean that I can discuss issues of heritage conservation, management and presentation, as well as issues relating to the early medieval earthworks and their landscape contexts. In both fashions, less than a mile apart, we hop from one earthwork to another, comparing and contrasting how they ‘worked’ in the past and how they are situated today.


Wat’s Dyke near Ruabon

On previous trips, I have combined this visit with one to look at the Pillar of Eliseg, where my work on Project Eliseg has been focused. However, I’m leaving that for a future trip with the students, to show them a monument raised by the enemies of Offa and Coenwulf.

We currently think Offa’s Dyke was built in large part or wholly by King Offa of Mercia in the late 8th century. Wat’s Dyke is now dated to the early 9th century, perhaps a construction of one of Offa’s successors, maybe Coenwulf. Both were frontier dykes built by rulers of Mercia to surveill, communicate and thus control the landscape on both sides. I have posted some of my ideas about them previously here. Keith Ray and Ian Bapty’s brand new book on Offa’s Dyke is due out imminently.


The bank of Wat’s Dyke, in a wide hedgeline at this point

Wat’s Dyke

The section of Wat’s Dyke that we walked served my purpose in many fashions. There were sections of well-surviving bank and ditch, and the section demonstrated how it navigated pre-existing steep ravines as well as how the monument adapted the crest of slope, allowing surveillance and communication in both directions along its length.


Wat’s Dyke – The bank almost gone here but the ditch surviving

In terms of conservation, this section showed many different kinds of survival, very much the result of where precisely post-medieval field boundaries and gateways have become positioned. In some places, bank and ditch survive, then we moved into a section where the ditch survived but the bank was gone and finally to a section where the bank survived but the ditch was gone!


The students also encountered a ‘dying’ heritage signboard. I’ve watched it become illegible over the years and now, moribund in the information it contains, it is now almost completely swallowed by brambles. A said demise but a necessary one. Someone needs to replace it! It is a sad fact that Wat’s Dyke is a crucial feature of the border landscape and yet remains under-appreciated and neglected at many levels.


The slow death of dyke heritage

Offa’s Dyke

We then returned to the minibus and headed westwards, past St Mary’s church in Ruabon, to the west side of Ruabon where we encountered a long and relatively well-preserved (for the Ruabon area) section of Offa’s Dyke.


One of many modern gates over Offa’s Dyke, Ruabon

The scalar difference between the dykes was clear and evident, as well as both similarities and differences in their positioning in the landscape. Offa’s Dyke was earlier, further west, and more confident in its positioning, and was not afraid to possess, for some stretches, quite restricted views, in order to gain the advantage of long distance vistas blocking major valleys leading out from the Welsh uplands. Both did similar things too, which made us wonder just how long Offa’s Dyke was operable and why it was so rapidly (in archaeological and historical terms) supplanted by Wat’s Dyke. Were both used together for a time, or are they fully and purely successive frontier monuments?


Offa’s Dyke, Ruabon

We talked about how intense industry and housing at Ruabon had destroyed much of the dyke in this area and we discussed how it is now unsignposted and we wonder whether many people simply do not appreciate what it is. Also, we discussed how housing as embellished the dyke with various back-fences and gates and how this is happening for houses that cannot be older than the 1970s. We then reflected on the large-scale damage done to Offa’s Dyke near Chirk eflected on how both dykes should be protected and managed far better and how these important monuments are shamefully overlooked at national and regional levels compared with the World Heritage Site status of Hadrian’s Wall.


View from Wat’s Dyke over Ruabon towards Offa’s Dyke and beyond towards to the Vale of Llangollen. Both dykes were intended, in different fashions, to control the landscape around them


The students seemed to enjoy themselves and we headed back to Chester for them to attend other classes. I also reflected on the fact that, for once, my field trip did not incorporate a cemetery or mortuary monument! Maybe there is hope for me yet and I am not fully death-obsessed in my archaeological interests? Maybe I need to create a new Archaeodyke blog to complement this one….


Walking Wat’s Dyke in wind and rain

Paths of the Dead: The Ghosts of Medieval Battle


Ewloe Castle, Flintshire, close to which was the site of an ambush won by the forces of Owain ap Gruffudd a century before this castle was built

In my travels I have chanced upon two 12th-century battles sites: Coleshill and Crogen. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on medieval military history and certainly not Welsh medieval history. Still, the current physical form of these locations deserve an Archaeodeath perspective, especially as both sport modern memorials.

For researchers, medieval battles are ghostly juggernauts. They are giant events that are pivotal in deciding the fate and trajectories of medieval communities and kingdoms, yet rarely do they leave satisfactory historical or archaeological traces. This is in stark contrast to medieval fortifications which litter our landscapes as vestiges of royal and lordly power, status, residences and military endeavours.


Chirk Castle from the line of Offa’s Dyke as it descends into the Glyn Ceiriog. The castle overlooks the Gate of the Dead, where the fallen from the battle of Crugen were buried.

Written accounts rarely boast details sufficient to paint an accurate picture of how battles were planned, how they were conducted and what their aftermath was for their localities and regions.

In archaeological terms, this is an intense and diverse subfield of medieval archaeology and there is plenty to explore and discuss, from town and castle fortifications to war graves like Towton. Still, many medieval skirmishes and battles leave few physical traces at the sites themselves: few have revealed burial sites, small-finds or earthwork features connected with the battle itself, although some can be proximal to contemporary or later castles. I’m hoping conflict archaeologists can qualify this gross generalisation for me. Still, my current understanding is that before firearms and cannon, one cannot use artefacts to ‘piece together’ medieval conflicts.

Often it is only a crude appreciation of local topography and historical geography that can help historians create an imaginative understanding concerning why battles took place where they did. Sometimes these dimensions are used to shed light on how they actually transpired in the fashion they did: why those that won actually won, and why those that lost might have lost.  Castles, topography, folklore and ancient monuments can conjure legends rather than convey detailed traditions passed down from the historical events themselves.

For these reasons, commemorating battle sites in the British landscape is something I personally have very mixed feelings about. Often we are commemorating fantasies rather than events. Yet from Hastings to Culloden, there are many different attempts to create battlefields as heritage experiences and commemorative locales, a tradition that started in a fashion in the Middle Ages itself in founding monastic institutions and raising crosses and chapels at sites of battle.

The skirmishes and battles of the wars between the English kingdom and its neighbours are particularly intriguing in this regard, where age-old prejudices and romanticism can flourish unchecked. The two examples are interesting because they are so low-key. They are also important because they commemorate Welsh victories and therefore their presence, and their modesty, as key heritage locations sheds light on their still-contested nature in perceptions of frontier and borderlands in the March of Wales.

Also of significance is that both battles are close to castles that, in terms of their historical and archaeological evidence, have zero to do with the battles. In both cases they date to far later than the battles associated with them. Equally interesting for me is that both are close to early medieval linear earthworks that sought to control and dominate the frontiers between Welsh kingdoms and Mercia in the 8th and 9th centuries AD.

Coleshill – A Bridge for the Dead

In Wepre Country Park, one walks up through woodland in a steep valley to the striking late-13th century and underappreciated castle of Ewloe. This is a Welsh castle, reflecting a mid-13th-century domination of the area by the prince of Gwynedd: Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, in around 1257. The site has never been subject to detailed archaeological investigation, so on current evidence we can only assume that there was no castle here a century earlier. However, it was in the vicinity of the castle, in July 1157, exactly a century before we know of the castle’s existence, Henry II’s forces were ambushed at Ewloe by the men of Owain ap Gruffudd (Owain the Great) and defeated.


The bridge near where the battle of Coleshill took place

The strategic importance of this area for those traversing the Flintshire coast is evident in that the early 9th-century Wat’s Dyke runs close to the south-west near Northop and Sychdyn and then to the east of Mold. Indeed, there might have been a prehistory to the 13th-century castle at Ewloe, as yet unattested by archaeological investigation and unknown to history.


A ghost of a soldier is said to haunt the woods. This sign is ghostly too, almost illegible beside the bridge.


Modern plaque by the bridge, commemorating the battle

The modern visitor is afforded details of the battle in the visitor centre, and there is a carving of a Norman knight’s head in the woods beside the path to the castle. The battle site itself is located for modern visitors at a post-medieval bridge and there is a further plaque, now nearly eligible. So en route to the castle, the walker is prompted to reflect on a Welsh victory associated with the castle’s prehistory.


Approaching the castle from Wepre Country Park, one encounters a solitary soldier in stone


This morning I went on a walk in cold and rain to explore Offa’s Dyke from Craignant to Chirk. Although I have regularly visited Chirk Castle, because I usually have kids in tow, I haven’t descended along Offa’s Dyke before to the Ceiriog. Here lies the Gate of the Dead!


The Ancient oak


The ancient oak at the Gate of the Dead


Not sure what this is for…

Henry II’s forces were ambushed in the Ceiriog Valley in 1165: the Battle of Crogen. Here, there is more than topography and a later castle. In this case the historical site attributed to the battle is the very spot where Offa’s Dyke is physically present to this day, on the valley slopes descending to the valley. There is also an ancient oak tree and a dedicated place-name – the Gate of the Dead:  Adwy’r Beddau.


Post-medieval gate to the grounds of Chirk Castle beside the road along the Glyn Ceiriog, close to the site of the Battle of Crugen


The triad of heritage signs, note the sword and spear flanking them. They allow the visitor to view out over the valley and imagine the slaughter


Depiction of King Henry II surrounded by the Welsh in battle on the heritage board


The River Ceiriog ran red with blood from those slain in the battle, ’tis said!


Upon the side-wall of the bridge, a memorial plaque commemorating Welsh resistance to English invasion

In addition to Offa’s Dyke and the ancient oak tree, the modern visitor has two commemorative dimensions. There are a trio of well-placed signs telling of the battle, just inside the neo-medieval gate that leads up a path beside Offa’s Dyke to Chirk Castle. Then there is a plaque on the bridge over the Ceiriog itself. Finally, on Offa’s Dyke high above on the valley side, there is a display board explaining the dyke and the battle, helping to tie the battle into wider landscape narratives.


On the valley side, a faded heritage board connects teh battle into conflict in the valley over the long term.


Yes, this post’s title is a Tolkein homage.

The memorial dimensions of both sites are modest but evocative in terms of the landscape features of water, wood and valley-bottoms. These locales call forth imaginary ghosts of battle for the modern visitor, enhanced by only modest signs and memorials.

I’d like to call them ‘neglected’ and call for more to ‘celebrate’ these events. However, I fear that way leads to medieval military madness and the kinds of sick fantasising over mass-killing that our society loves to revel in. I’d hate these sites to get a Culloden or Flodden attenion, let alone the kind of hero-cults we have seen with Richard III.

Still, to say these battle sites are well known, well visited and fully recognised and acknowledged would be incredibly misleading. They have an important place in the modern cultural landscape and that place needs telling in a richer and more nuanced fashion. It also needs telling at other locations: tied into the broader fabric of the historic landscape. I suppose a good example of a steer in this direction at both sites can be identified, with information at the Wepre Park visitor centre about Coleshill, connecting it into the landscapes’ broader story. Likewise, the heritage board on Offa’s Dyke tells of the linear earthwork, Chirk Castle but also about Crogen.

Still, these are but impressions. I haven’t visited many medieval battle sites and I invite comment on comparisons with others. However, I suspect that these particular battles, so close to the English-Welsh border, are heralded by some for modern political agendas, and best forgotten by many. My feeling is that the easiest way to let narrow modest nationalists and extremists adopt these sites is to leave them fallow and open to interpretation. Hence, I think it is best to claim them for everyone and make sure there is clear, open and balanced engagement with these battle sites, and to make sure they are set in appropriate context.


Cremations on Display


Cremation on display at the Weaver Hall Museum

In previous posts I have discussed the display of human remains in museum contexts at the British MuseumHunterian Glasgow, Leeds Museum, Museum of Liverpoolthe Grosvenor Museum Chester, Wrexham Museum and Llangollen Museum (this last example displaying some of the results of Project Eliseg!).

As you’ll also be aware if you are a regular Archaeodeath reader, I have a forthcoming paper on the display of the dead in museums in my book co-edited with Mel Giles (Manchester University) called Archaeologists and the Dead. This chapter is called ‘Firing the Imagination’ and it focuses on the hitherto neglected topic of how and why prehistoric and early historic cremated remains are incorporated into museum displays and what these displays reveal about our professional and public priorities for thinking about cremation as a disposal strategy for the human dead of past communities and our own present-day society.


Helsbury hill reconstructed by Dai Owens

A Prehistoric Landscape

For both these reasons – my interest in displays of human remains and my specific research into cremation in museums – it was of particular benefit and interest to me to get the opportunity last evening to go to the opening of a new temporary exhibition designed by Cheshire West and Chester’s museums service at Weaver Hall Museum, Northwich. Called ‘A Prehistoric Landscape: Archaeology of the Mid-Cheshire Ridge‘, the exhibition explores the archaeology of the sandstone ‘backbone of Cheshire’. Open from today (21st November) through to 7th February 2016, the prehistoric collections have been put on display together with the results of new research conducted by the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Scheme.


Kim Atkinson’s impression of the entrance to Eddisbury Hillfort

The Exhibition as a Whole

Many positive points can be said about the exhibition as a whole, including the incorporation of artworks produced by school groups as part of the project, the use of old collections material and recently discovered sites and materials, an interesting virtual animation of a hillfort, artist’s impressions by Dai Owen and Kim Atkinson of prehistoric sites including burial mounds and many of the hillforts found along the ridge, whilst also crudely articulating a clockwise chronological narrative from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age. All these elements worked perfectly in the small space available.


Collared urn and cremated bone from Kelsall

Cremation in the Display Case

Of most interest to me, were two displays of cremated material. In a two-tier display case with a display of Earl Bronze Age mortuary remains.

In the top tier, there was an Early Bronze Age Collared Urn found upside-down covering cremated human bone. Analysed by my colleague Dr Amy Gray Jones together with students from the University of Chester ahead of the exhibition, they were found to contain an adult with green staining on some bones hinting that the individual may have been cremated with copper-alloy artefacts.

Amidst the human remains was the remains of a beaver tooth, also subject to the funeral fire (although it seems this is in the wrong place for it to be clear it came from another site).

Displaying Collared urns the right way up is always an odd thing to do, when as the text indicates, they are often deposited inverted. Therefore, while this display reveals the materials found from excavated cinerary urns, this is not the first display I have noticed where Collared Urns are placed the right way up rather than mimicking the original context of discovery. Elsewhere, I’ve even seen them with cremated bone within them, as if they were used to contain the cremains, even though the accompanying text confirms that they had been found inverted!


The lower tier of the display case – artefacts from Seven Lows

In the bottom tier were cinerary urns excavated in 2012 at the Seven Lows round barrow cemetery, together with associated finds: a saddle quern, worked bone and a flint knife. Here, there are not cremated human remains. For both top and bottom tier, the text is descriptive and short.


The section through the mound

The Burial Mound

To the right of the display case is a mock-up of a sectioned burial mound, a clever way in the small space available to evoke a sense of the contexts in which Early Bronze Age cremation burials were found.

Visible inside the mound’s section were two cinerary urns, the left found at Glead Hill Cob barrow in 1878. The analysed cremated remains by University of Chester students revealed a child of 6-7 years old together with a boar’s tusk (NOTE: this tooth (and perhaps also bones from Glead Hill?) was actually on display in the upper tier display case, confusingly without caption which might confuse viewers into thinking they were associated with the Kelsall urn). Green staining was also found on the bones from this burial, suggesting the former presence of copper-alloy artefacts on pyre. To the right, was a cremation urn from the Seven Lows round barrow.


Dai Owen’s impression of an Early Bronze Age burial mound – a lovely balance between present and past.

Artist’s Impression of an Early Bronze Age Round Barrow

Assisting an appreciation of these displays was framed artwork by Dai Owen of a Bronze Age burial mound, with primary and secondary burials visible in cut-a-way section. On the other side of the mound, an adult man, woman and child standing around a newly inserted grave pit with a cinerary urn placed on a rectangular cloth awaiting interment (a dog looks on from beyond the ring-ditch). Behind is a settlement and other burial mounds are visible. This image is also integrated into the adjacent heritage board explaining Bronze Age mortuary practice.


The heritage board

The Heritage Board

The single heritage board about Early Bronze Age mortuary practice was simple and clear. What is a joy is that this small display managed to do something rarely done in modern UK museum displays: actually incorporate plan photographs of sites of excavation, a cinerary urn under excavation, and an antiquarian plan of a site (Seven Lows) together with Dai Owen’s artist’s impression. Of course, missing from the entire display is any hint at the complex multi-staged process of fiery transformation that cremation is in many different times and places around the world.


Despite the slight confusion regarding the display of the boar’s tusk and which burial it came from, I was staggered by how effectively themes of death, burial and commemoration focusing on cremation ceremonies were integrated into such a small space. I was also proud to see the work of University of Chester students integrated into the displays of cremated material thanks to liaison with my colleague Dr Amy Gray Jones.

I suppose these displays of cremated human remains and associated artefacts are always frustrating to me as an archaeologist. Where are the flames? The pyres? The different stages of preparing, transporting, burning, cooling, collecting remains ahead of the final burial. This is a ubiquitous challenge of displaying the cremated dead in museums.

The advantages of displaying cremation are apparent however. It allows the distillation of complex spaces into a small area. Cremation is like that! Still, most of all, I was delighted to see a display of the cremated dead that DID NOT resort to having an artist’s impression of a beardy guy with his arms raised up in supplication: the ultimate cliche of cremation in archaeological art! This small temporary exhibition deserves a visit, both for its inclusion of the ancient cremated dead, but also its many other fascinating dimensions.


The cremated dead at Weaver Hall Museum


Investigating the Noncomformist Dead


Alison in Overleigh cemetery, Chester

One of my roles as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester is to supervise postgraduate students conducting research on a range of mortuary topics relevant to this Archaeodeath blog. In recent and past posts I have talked about some of my postgraduate research students’ ongoing research as follows:


Alison exploring a memorial text

Working quietly towards her MPhil as well as regularly supplying me with hot chocolate and cake during supervisory meetings to help oil the wheels of progress, is the tireless stalwart of the postgraduate community: Alison Mary Smithson. Her provisional thesis title is: Discourses in Stone: Dialogues with the Dissenting Dead.

Nonconformist worship and burial were a clear and widespread phenomenon in the landscapes of Britain, but memorial practice has hitherto received limited archaeological attention, certainly in the region around Chester.


Alison takes on a monumental challenge through her research

In the thesis, Alison will explore public and private strategies of memorialisation and emotional expression as revealed by gravestones from the early 19th century to the early 20th century. Her work focuses on the investigation of Anglican and Nonconformist mortuary commemoration in north-east Wales and West Cheshire by acquiring new data from her study and designing and interrogating a brand-new database collating the rich qualitative and quantitative dimensions of memorials at a range of chapels around Wrexham and Chester. Alison’s work incorporates chapels at Penycae, Buckley, Brown Knoll and Tarporley. She will be comparing these against an Anglican sample from Overleigh cemetery, Chester.

I’m looking forward to reading her final thesis when she writes it up during 2016!

Autism and Heritage Part 2


Riverside walk near Kidwelly Castle

Autism and Heritage Sites

In a previous post, I outlined some of my experiences of visiting heritage sites and landscapes with my eldest daughter – Jemimah – who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder, otherwise known as Asperger Syndrome). She enjoys most of her visits to heritage sites, although very occasionally she finds experiences stressful and upsetting as do all kids, but sometimes because of dimensions of her condition. As I identified before, knowing what sites will be engaging and interesting to J, and which will cause her distress and/or disinterest, is unpredictable.

Negative Experiences

The most ridiculously negative experience of any heritage site I have experienced with her was the English Heritage site of Halesowen Abbey which I advocate should not even be advertised for visitors at all. Also, I am still traumatised by an attempt to walk up Foel Fenlli with her a few years ago which was abandoned after 100 metres due to J and two of my other kids collective objection to thistles and sheep poo! All families experience such debacles!

Many heritage sites offer us mixed experiences and the situation can move from fun and positive to negative and stressful within seconds, depending on J herself and engagements with other people, barriers, displays and the monuments themselves. For example, our attempt to navigate the new Stonehenge visitor experience were far from stress-free, with points of contention being the land train and its automated messages and the ropes around the pathways that circumvent the monument. Similarly, Stokesay Castle gave us an even mix of positive and negative experiences: she enjoyed the castle itself but not the moat, the activities laid on for kids or the crowds around the gift shop and toilets. Yet, these negative experiences are rare, and at a range of sites from hillforts to castles, dolmens to abbeys, cairns to country houses, J enjoys the outdoor experience as much, and in many cases more than, my other kids.

Kidwelly Castle


J and her siblings exploring a throne in the tower of Kidwelly Castle

However, I think it is worthwhile mentioning another recent visit to a Cadw site that gave us a distinctively problematic experience. We were visiting Kidwelly Castle, Carmarthenshire, on a weekday during school term-time and Jemimah had special dispensation to be out of school.

Kidwelly Castle is a fabulous castle for any family to visit in many regards and we enjoyed our visit on the whole. J enjoyed the outside, exploring the Gwenllian memorial and the riverside walk.  She also enjoyed exploring the weird art and many rooms and staircases. I will be writing further entries about the castle’s material and heritage dimensions in the future.

The Highest Room of the Highest Tower

However, our visit recently happened to coincide with a school visit by a local primary school kids who were the same age, or a little older than, J herself.

The combination of architecture and crowds combined at a specific moment to cause J problems. We had reached the highest point of the highest tower (as Shrek would have it) and were hoping to descend. Jemimah can ascend spiral staircases without fear now, and descends them cautiously but confidently if she has no time-pressure. If she gets nervous, she comes down seated, step-by-step. However, with the school kids queuing to ascend and descend, she felt restricted and rushed and responded adversely to my encouragement for her to descend at a modest but steady pace. This had three results:

  1. J went into uncontrolled meltdown at the top of the spiral staircase and refused to descend, leaving us confined at the top of the tower where she knew she could not physically escape from quickly and only got worse and worse;
  2. J was then exposed to the scrutiny of the school children, the teaching assistants and teachers when we were in a place where we could not easily escape from. During our final descent when we had to pass even more kids and their assistants/ teachers
  3. Because I had to stay with J, I had to let my other kids descend without my help and out of my supervision, putting them at (an admittedly quite mild) risk in a large, complex and open heritage site.

Our otherwise stress-free visit rapidly became rather more stressful, with Jemimah sobbing and screaming uncontrollably from the battlements.


View from the spiral staircase that caused J so much distress


There were positive sides to this situation. One teacher/teaching assistant asked if we were ok. A lead teacher apologised afterwards for disturbing our visit (which to my mind was kind but completely unnecessary; they had a right to be there too and Cadw sites depend on school visits heavily to justify their existence). More immediately, whilst Jemimah was melting down, some of the female pupils, aware she was English medium rather than Welsh, expressed their concern in English and one or two asked whether there was anything she/they could do to help (this was very touching and showed care and understanding far greater than their years).


On the flip-side, most people ignored J. Furthermore, one of the teaching assistants felt compelled to express their view within earshot (to paraphrase) ‘children like her shouldn’t be brought to sites like this’: I presume not intending us to overhear. Also, some of the groups of schoolboys laughed and jeered at Jemimah, presumably imagining she was displaying cowardice or infantile behaviour; they were not reprimanded and teachers made no attempt to explain to them what might be happening to J.


While no serious harm was done, exposing J to the scrutiny of an entire class of kids she didn’t even know, trapped at the top of a castle tower and unable for her to escape the situation and their attention, was very upsetting for her and me. It felt humiliated in some way. I felt at fault for encouraging her to climb up so high. I also don’t feel I should tell everyone we meet ‘my daughter is autistic’, and perhaps that might have helped. I felt like crap for putting J through this and putting her on display.

Despite many dozens of positive visits to Cadw sites, this put a shadow of doubt across my mind. Am I giving her good experiences taking her to all these sites? Might it be better not to bother?

Yet of course it was a very specific scenario unlikely to happen again. In coming days, she explored unhindered and without stress all manner of other castles and sites, including Lamphey Palace, Llansteffan Castle and Manorbier Castle. Since then, she has been to many more sites with me. This all helped settle my confidence as a dad and J has no particular fear or worry about castles as a result of the experience, which is a major relief.

Also, the Kidwelly visit exposed her to the kindness and attention of some children and adults as well as the casual ignorance and ridicule of others. As such, this incident stands as a microcosm of much of our life with Jemimah and its many positive as well as challenging dimensions. She receives so much patience and kindness from others, but also occasional negative comments aimed at us as parents or at her behaviour.

To the Future

This post offers no generalisation or recommendation, no specific criticism or challenge. Let’s be clear: I have no criticism of Kidwelly Castle in relation to autism or as a heritage experience for others. I don’t want to get into the habit of ‘endorsing’ particular heritage sites over others, or claiming some sites are more ‘autism friendly’ than others. Equally though, Kidwelly does share in failing to give a clear sense of expectation and guidance for those with autistic children. Au contraire, I want J to engage and inhabit the same environments as other people, not to be cushioned from life and environments, even if sometimes things don’t go well for us.

Still, this unusual, perhaps unique, instance does reveal the challenges of tackling complex three-dimensional heritage spaces with autistic children. If I could reconnoitre all sites we plan to visit in advance, that might help. If there were some indication of restricted and noisy spaces, that might help, rather than simply a description of disabled ‘access’ for wheelchair users.

Anyway, the incident reveals the bottomless propensity of children and adults to both pass judgement, display awkward indifference, or (sometimes) to offer support to Jemimah as she navigates her distinctive engagement with material culture and complex architectures, both ancient and modern.

Heritage Pain and Pleasure: Kells

DSC00982 I recently visited Kells briefly as part of a brief road trip around archaeological sites in County Meath. Kells rules pretty ok for medieval archaeology and I just had to revisit the place.

Founded in the early 9th century by monks from Iona, Kells, Co. Meath, is famed for its eponymous manuscript (now in Trinity College Dublin; the manuscript came from Kells Abbey, even if it need not have been made there). It is equally renowned for its surviving five early medieval high crosses, round tower and oratory; traces of a once great monastic centre. There is also an amazing cemetery – St John’s – with later medieval effigy tomb and various fragmented gravestones.

The heritage signs are pretty good in Kells. I found one by the Market Cross, one by the church, both bilingual, are well-situated and give details of the likely dates and character of the early medieval religious centre. However, for me and my archaeodeath interests, the old St John’s cemetery between the two is by far the best. This last one was particularly striking as it is a rare instance where a full graveyard survey of the names and dates of gravestones, picking out those of particular antiquity and interest, can be found at the entrance to a post-medieval cemetery. Pure heritage pleasure: thanks Kells!


The heritage board at the entrance to the monastery


heritage board explaining the history of the town


The superb sign at the entrance to St John’s cemetery with a full archaeological plan and details of those memorialised. Fabulous mortuary heritage display!

However, this blog wishes to equally celebrate the high concentration of heritage horrors in Kells. I noticed two particularly bad heritage allusions – both puns and underpinned by the choice of script to evoke the early medieval. There was also a great pizza place that might be regarded as awkward by some international visitors…

Three might not seem many, but it puts Kells into the premier league of heritage appropriations. Having said that, nowhere can rival the heritage pain and terror of Tintagel with its Camelot Hotel and Merlin and Arthur-themed pubs, cafes and shops.

Still, it begs the question: how many more heritage punned businesses are out there in the present-day landscapes of these islands?


Kells-tic. Get it?


Will my colleague James get his flowing locks cropped here for the heritage cause?


No comment

Also, I noticed the most disturbing of early medieval lithic reinventions. While Irish cemeteries are full of replica high crosses used as a prevalent commemorative medium since the late 19th century, the water fountain in Kells is one of the most bizarre objects I’ve seen in its adaptations and proportions of early medieval crosses.


Water medieval feature!

In summary, I love Kells, but it somewhat disturbed me too… A wonderful mix of heritage pleasure and pain.

St Dogmael’s Stones


St Dogmaels 2

The later medieval abbey of St Dogmael’s, Ceredigion, had early medieval origins. These origins are obscure, having left few traces. Some late medieval monastic sites were clearly established de novo. Yet others, including many in Wales, might overlie far earlier places of worship, whether monastic or secular. Like so many British medieval sites, earlier timber buildings have long been swept away. Yet at St Dogmaels, a few inscribed and sculpted stones reveal earlier strata of religious and commemorative activity.

In earlier posts, I have discussed the earliest of these stones: the Latin and ogham-inscribed Sagranus’s stone (St Dogmaels 1). On display in the coach house are also traces of the later medieval Tironian house: its later medieval stones. I have also discussed the post-medieval gravestones surrounding St Thomas’s church and many rearranged against the outside walls of the abbey. Another previous theme was the wooden modern memorial inspired by early medieval art near the coach house.

I have yet to discuss the wider assemblage of early medieval stones discovered amongst the abbey ruins in the 19th century. For this post, I draw upon Nancy Edwards’ A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II South-West Walefor details.

St Dogmaels 2 (P111)

This is a fragment of a low relief encircled Maltese cross with mouldings a central low boss, regarded by Edwards (2007: 463) has very competently sculpted. It perhaps served as a focus within the monastic grounds. Uncertainly dated, Edwards opts for 8th or early 9th century.

St Dogmaels 3 (P112)


St Dogmaels 3

Later re-shaped for building, this is an encircled cross with a stem, half way down which is a double scroll. Nancy Edwards suggests that it might represent a flabellum (liturgical fan) and if so, this is an association with watchfulness and fidelity (Edwards 2007: 466). Rendered on a stone, it might hint that this monument had a role as a grave marker or other station in the cemetery/monastic grounds. Again, Edwards dates this to the 8th or early 9th century AD.


St Dogmaels 4

St Dogmaels 4 (P113)

Likely serving a similar role to St Dogmaels 3, it is likely to represent an upright monument dated to the 8th or early 9th century AD. Note: it is now upside-down in the church, so the stem is pointing upwards, not downwards as it appears on the photograph of St Dogmaels 3. I must confess that I am also cynical regarding whether St Dogmaels 3 and 4 could have securely and safely stood upright with such shallow footings; might they instead represent recumbent monuments?


St Dogmaels 5

St Dogmaels 5 (P114)

This is a deeply incised linear Latin ring-cross. Simple and therefore of uncertain date, Edwards again opts for 8th/early 9th century in date.

Other stones

Two more early medieval stones, St Dogmaels 7 (P116) and 8 (P117) are in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

St Dogmaels 7 (P116) has a smaller but comparable Maltesee cross to St Dogmaels 2 and a human figure beneath it – presumed to be the crucified Christ. It is dated again by Edwards to the late 8th/9th centuries.

St Dogmaels 8 (P117) is the only monument, bearing a Latin cross, dated by Edwards to the Viking Age (9th or early 10th centuries).

There are other stones in display in the coach house that are of uncertain date, one of which I add below (P118). Obviously reused as a gatepost (Edwards 2007: 523-24) with quasi-heraldic designs. There is a further undated monument (P115) that is a rectangular sectioned pillar with a lozenge-shaped design that might be later medieval.


These stones indicate an earlier now-lost church at St Dogmaels. Without excavations, we are stuck with these few lithic indicators of the size and character of the early church. The precise date and functions of these stones continues to elude us. Still, fragmentary though they are, they do confirm an established commemorative locale throughout the Early Middle Ages at this site.

In heritage display terms, the collection is particularly frustrating, divided between the National Museum, the church (in different locations, one upside down) and the coach house, it is impossible for visitors to apprehend them and thus engage with them as a collection relating to a single narrative, let alone for scholars and students of the period to explore them in the same space. The four displayed in the coach house are helpfully arranged so you can examine all their sides, in a miniature four-stone circle, but their relationship with the stones elsewhere is left obscure.


Undated St Dogmaels stone


Stones on display in the coach house

The Largest Ancient Mound in Wales: The Gop Cairn


The largest cairn in Wales

On a rainy morning after a sombre night of international news, I went out with my son to explore some archaeological sites in Flintshire together with one of my MA students and another archaeologist. We met at the services on the A55 before we went to Maen Achwyfan, a 10th/11th-century free-standing cross I have discussed elsewhere here. My student Aurea and I are writing a paper about this monument for the TAG conference in Bradford next month.

We then visited Dyserth waterfalls and churchyard including its early memorials, although the church was locked and we couldn’t get to see the early medieval cross and other sculpture within.


View in the rain across the crater on top of the Gop cairn towards Penycloddiau and Moel Famau

Finally, we explored the Gop cairn, near Trewlawnyd, parking in the village and walking up via the road and footpath up Gop Hill, a limestone outcrop that is distinctively shaped and prominent among a series of distinctive hills towering over the Vale of Clwyd and the Welsh coast.

The Gop cairn is widely regarded as the second largest ancient human-made mound in the island of Britain (after Silbury Hill) and by far the largest cairn from Wales. It is 14m high and oval, 101m at its widest diameter, 78m at is narrowest. It is comprised of limestone blocks with drystone walling around its base forming a kerb.


Panorama on top of the Gop cairn

The Gop Cave excavated by Boyd Dawkins in the 19th century beneath the Gop cairn on the hill’s southern side, was used for burial (14 skeletons were recovered) and ceremony (a stone axe and Peterborough ware-type pottery were also recovered) from a stone chamber constructed inside the cave, and are dated to the Neolithic period. Mesolithic and Neolithic flint scatters have been found close by. This evidence has led to the inference, together with analogy with dated large mounds from elsewhere in the British Isles, that the Gop Cairn dates to the Neolithic.

Boyd Dawkins excavated the Gop Cairn in 1886-87 by two tunnels from the base of the the cairn and via a 26 foot shaft from the top: the latter explains its crater at the centre today. No burial chamber was found, leaving it unclear as to the precise date and use of the mound. Was it a giant passage grave? Was it a multi-phased monument covering a multitude of burials? Was it primary a platform for ceremony? Was the cave conceived of, and adapted to become, a ‘natural’ passage grave, augmented by the cairn?

A good guide and walk can be found here on CPAT’s website.

Sadly, heavy rain and wind made it impossible to full appreciate the amazing views the cairn affords, or explore the environs properly, including a Bronze Age burial mound (The Gop Wood Tumulus: PRN 102211) and the cave. On a good, clear day, there are stupendous views out to sea and as far as Snowdonia.

Still, I was grateful to finally visit this strikingly located monument, affording views over large tracts of North Wales and being a prominent landmark for miles around. I could see Moel Famau and Penyclodiau to the north: distinctive in their shapes.


The Gop cairn is so big it is difficult to photograph

The Gop cairn was used as a beacon in the 17th century, and I would like to suggest its potential use as a beacon and lookout point far earlier. Regardless of its precise origins and function, I suspect that it might have held an important function in early historic periods too, given its relationship to the line of the Whitford dykes and the cross at Maen Achwyfan, as I discussed in my talk earlier this year. Moreover, the Gop was visible from Hope Mountain, immediately above the northern end of Offa’s Dyke, which prompts me to imagine it was a strategic landmark when considering military and socio-political dimensions of the early medieval landscape of the region…

Personal Jesuses and Mary Chains


Driving to Christ in the cemetery

I’m just back from a short trip to Dublin. I had the honour and pleasure of being this academic year’s Inaugural Lecture for the University College Dublin Archaeology Society. I received a flattering welcome and pleasant but rightly critical reception to a second outing for my ideas on Cyborg Smiths. I then was given a congenial wine reception followed by three-course dinner in a restaurant on the city.

I subsequently spent two days visiting some familiar and important Irish heritage sites and monuments in Co. Meath. I had the offer of seeing new places I hadn’t been before under expert local guidance and next time I’m over in Ireland I will be very keen to take up these offers. However, I was very keen on this first trip back to Ireland in over a decade, to revisit some classic sites that had previously visited in the age before I owed a good digital camera. The pace and character of my visits would not have suited a standard tour with local archaeologists I confess; I spent a tedious amount of time photographing monuments from all angles to satisfy my interests in both medieval and modern mortuary and commemorative practice.


Jesus as single motif, but bicolour!

One of the places I stopped off at was a modern cemetery, just on the outskirts of Navan: St Mary’s cemetery on the Boyne Road. The cemetery is roughly square and follows a grid layout on the south-east side of the road, which itself runs WSW-ENE along the top of ridge to the south of the River Boyne. This is a parish cemetery, supported by grants by Meath County Council, and a scan of the burial records online shows that the earliest graves date from the 1910s. Every July, the cemetery attracts thousands to bless the graves, and I can see why.


Two Jesuses and a Mary. These with and without roses…

I had expected to encounter far more religious iconography in Irish cemeteries than in UK ones, and I was not disappointed. There is a centrally located crucifix, located at the far end of the central drive from the main gate. More than this distinctive feature (compared to the war memorials of many town cemeteries in the UK), I was struck but the replication of standardised motifs on individual graves. For while this also happens in the UK, the ubiquity of Jesus en face motifs, and crucifixion scenes, is powerful and striking. There are also quite a few Mary motifs too, hardly surprising either.


Another Jesus pair, same motif, same shaped gravestone, but different colour and different side-motifs and contrasting scripts.

As an archaeologist, I am interested in replication of standardised motifs within cemeteries, in this case both Jesus and Mary.

Are these corporate Jesuses, or buddy Jesuses? Replicative or idiosyncratic Marys?

At first impression, it might seem cheap and anonymous  – the same Jesus and Mary appearing again and again displaying either a conservative mourners or  a lack of imagination. However, the exact same motif is in each case being recontextualised upon different graves. In this context, the same motifs have different associations: personal Jesuses and personal Marys.


A Jesus and Mary chain of memorials

Each Jesus and Mary motif is associated with different materials, grave-stone shapes and texts to compose unique memorials for an individual or family. Therefore, the Jesus and Mary motifs on memorials at St Mary’s are a classic example of the infinite variability within seemingly similar uses of popular motifs in mortuary media. While Jesus is identical, upon each gravestone he is born again in subtly different fashions. The cumulative result is a complex chain of Jesus and Mary motifs punctuating the cemetery landscape in a fashion rarely seen in British cemeteries.

Speaking about Tombs in 2016 – Beowulf, Weland and Cathedral Tombs

I’ve just signed up to do three public lectures at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. These are part of the Department of History and Archaeology’s Grosvenor Lunchtime Lectures. Check these out for April 2016! DSCN1840

Wednesday 13 April

Tombs in Beowulf

Lecture Theatre


£3, pay at the door.

Why was the hero Beowulf cremated?  Why was a mound raised over his ashes?  This talk by Professor Howard Williams introduces the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, its funerals and its tombs, before exploring archaeological evidence that sheds light on the material world in which the poem was composed and performed.  The talk includes a new interpretation of what the dragon’s barrow and Beowulf’s own tomb meant for the poem’s early medieval audience.

Organised by the University of Chester 


Wayland's Smithy II: the blocked passage

Wednesday 20 April

Tombs of Terror:  The Hunt for Weland

Lecture Theatre


£3, pay at the door.

What do we know about the legendary smith Weland?  The 13th-century Icelandic poem the Lay of Völundr records one version of a far older story of the magical smith, his imprisonment and subsequent violent revenge on his captures.  This talk by Professor Howard Williams introduces the literary and archaeological evidence for early medieval smiths and the specific significance of the story of Völundr or Weland in the Early Middle Ages.  It sheds new light on why a Neolithic chambered tomb on the Berkshire Downs became known as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’.

Organised by the University of Chester 


11 The Lord RhysWednesday 27 April

Powerful Tombs:  The Medieval ‘Living’ Dead

Lecture Theatre


£3, pay at the door.

Medieval tombs allowed the dead to reach down the centuries, acquiring new narratives and identities from the Middle Ages to the present day.  This talk by Professor Howard Williams explores the power of tombs in the medieval world, their destruction, translation and restoration in the modern era, and how antiquaries and archaeologists make and re-make the medieval dead as powerful components of popular culture from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

Organised by the University of Chester 


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