Archaeology, Mortality & Material Culture

The Price of Death – Price Tags on Display

DSC03796I’m genuinely fascinated by modern death, including spaces, buildings, monuments and material culture. In fact, I’ve written a handful of academic articles on the ‘contemporary archaeology of death’. The ephemeralia of flowers and offerings added to graves and sites of memory – formal and informal – in contemporary landscapes are also of interest to me. Some are carefully created and placed, designed to endure or to facilitate a succession of temporary offerings. From grave-plots to memorial benches, today’s landscape is replete with traces of the dead.DSC03838

DSC03760Floral offerings are a form of monetary investment as well as much else. Death ain’t cheap: all of this comes at a cost. The cost of funerals and gravestones is ever rising. Yet it is usually regarded as unseemly to put exhibit how much death costs those that survive, which is perhaps one of the reasons that the funerary industry gets away with the escalation of costs. Costs don’t end with the disposal of the remains and the choice made (for some) to set up a memorial. Visiting the grave is an investment too: time, travel and resources.DSC03872

Our culture of death and memory is therefore mediated by money and flowers. Many floral arrangements, for example, are expensive and carefully arranged to last. Floral offerings can be adapted to very different architectural and spatial settings – walls, planters, trees, lawns etc. There are also messages for the dead, some sealed in envelopes, suggesting that at least some people regard these offerings as a means of communication with those who have passed away. The very environment of mourning is designed to foster and sustain these floral offerings.DSC03906

At one crematoria I visited a few months ago (from the pictures, you can guess this was springtime), I observed many carefully lain flowers in bespoke memorial containers or lain on the lawns in foil to preserve their freshness. Floral and other offerings are signs of care and enduring bonds between the living and the dead. Yet some I observed still were packaged straight from the supermarket. A significant minority still had price tags on them.

So how might we interpret the choice of those to leave the prices on floral offerings at cemeteries and crematoria?

After some thought, I’ve come up with 6 theories, although I’m sure there are more:

  1. Neglect. Akin to someone giving you a ‘get well soon’ present or a birthday card with the price label still on it,such instances are a sign of laziness, indifference or a complete lack of engagement with proper respect. Even though the offering is made, it is done without due care. It is a deliberate or listless disrespecting of those commemorated: a half-arsed gesture shamefully visible for all to see.
  2. Lack of guidance. Many mourners might be simply not guided in how to mourn with floral offerings. They might see the offerings left by others and regard theirs as the same without considering how the price tag might look. No-one wants to dictate or patronise mourners. While undertakers, ritual specialists and others might guide mourners in how to behave during funerals, and cemeteries, crematoria and other memorial spaces might be regulated and managed with care, perhaps the mourners here never thought about how prepare and present offerings with price tags.
  3. Gesture over display. Perhaps the price tag is irrelevant because the act matters more than the material, the placement over the beauty, content over form.
  4. Monetary mourning. Despite the fact that the individual offerings are not that expensive, this is an overt way of displaying the amount of monetary investment put into the gesture of placing the flowers. This needn’t be a gawdy self-aggrandisement of the giver, but a genuine way of enhancing the connection between the living and the dead through a medium of monetary exchange.
  5. Emotive intensity. Is the tempo of the gesture more important than its display to future visitors? Are sometimes labels left on because the mourners are too emotionally engaged with their loss to care about price tags, or perhaps some people might be rushing, too upset to wish to linger to arrange the flowers?
  6. The mnemonics of packaging. A further possibility is that this represents a side-effect of a  desire for the flowers to remain ‘packaged’ for presentation – both in terms of security and integrity, as well as convention and authenticity of the offering. It came from a supermarket or florist, it is ‘genuine’, not something home-made and therefore ‘on the cheap’. Maybe for some, it is presented not as a ‘formal gift’, but as a more intimate and incipient act, like bringing home some flowers with the weekly shop. In this regard, the price tag with the packaging might be arranged implies an anticipated unpackaging and arranging. Forestalled and incomplete, this implies that only the spirits of the dead might receive and display themselves the floral offering.

DSC03772Our funerary culture today is utterly capitalist and monetary, and equally we regard it ‘good taste’ to obscure the costs involved. Looking at the traces of monetary display in crematoria, I wonder if it is so simple to dismiss this as neglect or disrespect, bad taste or ignorance. Might other factors come into play? Or is it simply straightforward and honest?

These are just some thoughts. How might we test between these and other theories?



Translating Stone: The Tower of London in Leeds


The stair well of the Royal Armouries, Leeds


In my work on the National Memorial Arboretum (discussed in blog entries here, here, here and here), I’ve discussed the mnemonic power of translated stones in modern British commemorative practice. For example, the translation of stone from the Falkland Islands has been deployed to connect conflict, place and power in the British Isles as discussed here.


Leeds Dock

Recently, I was at the Royal Armouries at Leeds to speak at a conference about the Staffordshire Hoard. The museum has been home of the UK’s National Collection of Arms and Armour, opened in 1996. The museum is split between Leeds, the Tower of London and Fort Nelson.

IMG_20160611_090754In the 1990s, it was clearly seen as important for a part of the Tower of London – the original home of the collection and the Norman symbol of supremacy – to be brought north with the museum to symbolise the move. In other words, the Leeds Dock building is ‘fortified’ as an armoury with a single cuboid block of stone, incorporated into its modern indefensible walls. This is part of a commemorative space on the side of the building, with gild-inlaid text commemorating the museum and explaining the significance of the stone. The stone dedicates and commemorates for all to see.IMG_20160611_090734



Archaeological Journal update, August 2016

I’ve been busy editing through my annual leave and today is a special day: the first article of my last-ever Archaeological Journal has just been uploaded to the Taylor & Francis online production system. Proofs of this and other articles will be sent out to authors in coming weeks and they will be published online at the earliest opportunity. This first article will be one of 4-6 articles due to appear in vol. 174 issue 1, out in January 2017.


I’m also pleased that this first article uploaded for produciton is authored by a former student: Dr Ben Jervis. Ben is a specialist in medieval ceramics and their contexts of use and deposition.

Produced with the help of my editorial assistant – Dr Ruth Nugent – volume 174 for 2017 will be out in print in July 2017. It looks set to be an exciting and varied volume, with papers submitted on the following topics (among others in the pipeline):

  • Bronze Age barrow cemeteries and later activity at Four Crosses, Llandysilio, Powys;
  • An early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Breamore, Hants – lots of shields, buckets and more!
  • the decline of later medieval towns in southern Britain;
  • the large-scale analysis of landscape change from prehistory into the Roman period and Early Middle Ages;
  • an early medieval elite residence and chapel at Bamburgh, Northumberland;
  • the spectacle and mnemonics of the experimental archaeology of fire.

Check out the new Archaeological Journal online platform for the latest publications here.


Well, You’re Dead Now… So Shut Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The salmon mousse!”

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this will be my epitaph too!?


Archaeodeath in 2016

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

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

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

RIP Mark.

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

RIP Colin

RIP Lawrence

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

RIP David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Death-Defying Cistercians: Buildwas Abbey II


Spolia at Buildwas, including fragments of grave-slab

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


Note the graves, hardly mentioned in the heritage literature

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

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

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



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





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

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

Clawdd Y Milwyr – the warriors’ dyke


Facing the warrors’ dyke


Looking into the promontory fort across the multivallate defences


Looking along the inner bank of the defences southwards

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

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


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

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

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


One of the hut circles within the promontory fort

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


Looking over the promontory fort’s habitation area.


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

Pen-Y-Gardden hillfort and Offa’s Dyke


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

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


The north-western defences of the hillfort

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


Offa’s Dyke near Pen y Garden

The Relationship with Offa’s Dyke

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

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

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

There are two further scenarios worthy of consideration.

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

View west of the hillfort

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

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

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

Incidentally, we met some friendly horses and cows…



The Slow Death of Heritage

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

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

I recently encountered examples at Ruabon.

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

The Archaeology of Reburial: Commemorating the Medieval Dead


The plinth within the nave of Talley Abbey

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


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


The plinth and the 1930s cenotaph to the Edwinsford family

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




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


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