Web copyI’ve been busy marking and scheming over the last two weeks but I’m now back with a new Archaeodeath blog entry!

In a previous entry, I outlined a long-running book project I have been working on, now contracted with OUP and due for publication in 2016. This is now called ‘Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society’. The book looks at the intersection between mortuary archaeology, contemporary archaeology and public archaeology through 18 original research chapters, an Introduction by editors Mel Giles and myself, and a concluding Commentary by Professor Lynne Goldstein.

The book has a British and European focus, but papers also touch on the American and global scene too. There are sections looking at interactions and contexts in which mortuary archaeology operates to engage and relate to wider contemporary society during fieldwork, in the museum environment and through various media and popular cultures. I am all set to get the final draft manuscript back to OUP by 1st July so that production can begin. It is an exciting time creating a truly unique and distinctive book, the likes of which haven’t been attempted before.

One of our final decisions is: what do we use as the front cover? Which single image encapulates this book’s many themes and issues. This isn’t a book about human remains per se, but about mortuary archaeology in all its manifestations. It isn’t a book about the reburial and repatriation debate, it is a book about the many complex intersections between mortuary archaeology and the contemporary world in which it takes place. This is a book about Britain, Europe, North America and the world. How can a single image promote this diversity?

In my previous experience with this kind of situation, publishers like the easy route of selecting an image from inside the book itself. Within our book there are plenty of images we could use, of bog bodies, mummies, skeletons, disarticulated and cremated human remains, and various images of cemetery excavations and artist’s visualizations of past funerals. Mel (my co-editor) and I might chose one of these. The publishers might have a view on which makes the book most marketable.

Still, I am putting forward another suggestion; one which might not prove the final decision, but one that raises a series of issues in itself. The photograph is taken by me in 2012 and it is of a medieval sarcophagus containing an adult skeleton on display at Norton Priory, Cheshire. The reasons I like this are as follows:

  1. It foregrounds public engagement with mortuary archaeology at a well-known heritage site
  2. It doesn’t just show human remains, but a skeleton within a material context: the sarcophagus.
  3. The living person is a child and this helps to emphasise how this and many other museum displays of human remains are aimed at children as well as adult audiences.
  4. The image prompts the imagination in two directions; first the archaeological dead prompt the imagination towards the many processes in the life of the person, their dying and death and the mortuary practices leading to the burial. In the context of this book in particular, the skeleton and sarcophagus’s context of discovery and excavation and then translation and arrangement for display are all prompted. Conversely, the image shows a living person but shrouded by the curtain of her own hair, prompting speculation regarding the living experience and engagement with the archaeological dead. Was she smiling, was she sad? Was she interested or bored?

In all likelihood, this won’t be the final front-cover choice for the book. Still, views on the use of the archaeological dead to promote academic work and sell books are very welcome.


Maen Achwyfan cross, Flintshire

This year, the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group conference is in Bradford, West Yorkshire, hosted by archaeologists in the School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford between 14-16th December 2015. I am delighted to learn today that the session I am co-organising with Aurea Izquierdo-Zamora and Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores has been accepted. Our session is looking at the interplay between memory and mobility in past societies, focusing specifically on different dimensions of monumentality. Please consider submitting a paper title and abstract to my colleague Patricia via her email: p.murrietaflores@chester.ac.uk. Here is our session title and abstract.

Mobility, Monumentality and Memory in Past Societies

Aurea Izquierdo-Zamora, Patricia Murrieta-Flores and Howard Williams

Movement and mobility have been always essential and intrinsic activities for human survival. From the basic acts of looking for food and water, to more complex actions of social exchange and economic dynamics, to investigate the mobility of past societies is of crucial importance to understand key aspects such as identity formation, technological acquisition and innovation, political complexity and even social inequality. Recent studies of mobility in fields such as archaeology and anthropology have become increasingly important and have started to address, not only the evidence left of mobile practices at a landscape scale, but also to investigate the ways by which past societies make manifest their own views, experiences and traditions in this evidence.


Bryn Celli Ddu – Neolithic passage grave, Anglesey

For studies of prehistoric and historic monuments, relationships between monumentality and mobility foreground the central and complex roles of movement in the burial and commemoration of the dead, and the configuration of social memories by navigating, inhabiting, encountering and assembling things and people, thus materialising conjoined strategies of remembering and forgetting. From territorial connotations, to markers in the landscape, monuments seem crucial to understand issues of memory but also social tradition, economic practices, and the political hegemonies and resistances in societies that practiced mobility as a mode of subsistence. However, monuments and their relationship to mobility practices are also integral to comprehend social, economic and political networks of groups with other modes of subsistence. From nomads, to herding and agricultural societies, the relationship between mobility and monumentality requires further archaeological attention, and innovative theories and methodologies.

In this session, we will look to explore through theoretical debate and theorised case studies, how movement and mobility practices relate, affect, and influence material expressions of memory, and at the same time, how these feed back into spatial and monumental practices. This session welcomes papers exploring the archaeology of mobility, and particularly those that address the relationship between movement and expressions of memory, drawing upon archaeological, historical, anthropological and ethnographic evidence.

Specs make the manMeeting a Mourner 

Yesterday I was at home doing work in quiet, but I spent a short while with my son: cycling around the neighbourhood. As you do, we ended up in the local cemetery, locked up our bikes by the entrance and we explored the older memorials and then the newest burial plots. My son wanted to explore inside the church itself but as expected it was locked.

As we approached the latest graves, we encountered an old man in a mobility scooter heading out of the cemetery. I have no idea how long he had been there but I presumed he had helpfully stopped his mobility scooter that moment on sight of a man with a small boy approaching and wanted to give us space. I made eye contact and smiled and said ‘hello’ but then headed into the cemetery via a different path so as to give him room to exit. Incidentally, I always give other mourners space when visiting cemeteries, avoiding them so as not to disturb their visit. Seeing I wasn’t passing him, he mumbled something at me like ‘help me’. I shifted direction and I went closer and realised that the man needed assistance but was reluctant to ask.

He had been vainly trying to use a twisted grass blade to hook up from the ground a wallet he had dropped. This was ingenious but futile. I then realised that he wasn’t simply bound to use the mobility scooter, there was simply no way he could have got out of the scooter to get his item and safely returned to his scooter without assistance. The man had no legs and the ground and his item was a good 5cm outside of his arms’ reach. He was stuck: not by his inability to get out of the cemetery, but for fear of leaving a valuable item behind.

I’ve no idea how long he had been there and how long he would have stayed there trying to pick up his dropped possession, but I was glad to help. He said ‘thank you’ and scooted off, leaving me and Tobias to explore the graves. Simply picking something up can help people and it is a rare example of interaction between living people involving artefacts in the cemetery context. Most artefacts in cemeteries are about interaction between the living and the dead.

Engaging with Graves

Having helped someone who didn’t want to leave something in the cemetery – an unplanned exchange of courtesy involving the movement of an artefact, we then explored what people do leave behind in this particular cemetery. Modern gravestones in Wales are mediated by portable artefacts placed on and around them.

I won’t represent here about the graves of the recent dead we encountered and the artefacts upon them. Still, it is fair to say we explored the varied colour, shape, size and both text and images upon the memorials themselves and the flowers, plants and artefacts placed in front of them and upon their bases.

We became accustomed to the particular range of portable items deposited on grave-plots and beside and upon memorials, including flowers, cherubs, gnomes, lanterns and a range of other garden ornaments and toys. It was also clear that the gravestones themselves are now afforded with motifs that serve as permanent versions of the artefacts around them; images of birds, animals, insignia that denote an affiliation with the dead person and an element of their ongoing relationship with the living.

Tobias, my son, wanted to spot all the animals and bird ornaments and representations on the memorials, of which there were a lot.  Also, he was particularly intrigued by the fresh pile of sand beside a freshly dug grave, although I cruelly denied him permission to climb up it.

Artefacts create a familiar and repeated zone of engagement between mourners and those buried.

A Spec-tacular Find

Anyway, this is nothing but a preamble to a minor anecdote about one of the older graves, reflecting on the affording of personalities to recent graves by adding small items to them. On the way out, we noticed a pair of spectacles, well, cheap modern shades I suspect, placed on top of a gravestone of the late 19th century. This memorial was a standard late-Victorian Gothic form common in the area and familiar to me from my work at Overleigh cemetery in Chester.

Clearly the gardener or another passer by had done the same with the item as I had done to help the old man: picked it up and placed it where it won’t be lost. What’s might point? Well, it made me think about two things.

First: in a cemetery, small distinct artefacts and flowers are not only media for mourning, they are alerting. By this I mean that they draw the eye to particular graves over others. Not by intention, we visited this grave, because of the shades.

Of course if every grave had had them, it wouldn’t have worked. The artefact has to be distinct or unique for its message to be clear. My point: each recent grave sets its own distinctive mix of items added to it, making it alerting to the visitor. Yet, too many items, and it becomes a sea of stuff, an undifferentiated rubbish pile of votives. I’m not wishing to judge, just observe how volumes of ephemeral stuff, their variety, but also single items, can serve to memorialise.

Second: put glasses and/or a hat on anything and it is afforded with a human identity. This works for skeletons too. This gravestone already had an identity through the names upon it but the shades also did this. I don’t suggest the glasses were deliberately placed on it to afford it with anthropomorphic qualities, but portable items humanise stone and add humour to them. Portable modern items ‘clothe’ stones and create a familiar interface between visitor and the dead. This instance might have been happenstance and incongruous; there is no relationship between dead person named on the gravestone and the specs. Still, the act of raising up the specs and balancing them on the gravestone to assist in their rediscovery, creates a field of interaction around the gravestone.

I’m sure these issues have been discussed before, yet for me this non-votive balancing of specs on a stone drew these issues to my attention. We left the cemetery and cycled back home, having picked up something for the living, and observed something picked up and placed for the living to rediscovery, in the custody of the dead.


The sculpture of the Armed Forces Memorial: topless pall bearers carry a stretcher up high while men and women suffer loss and death to conflict.

I recently presented my second keynote lecture of the year, entitled ‘From Stonehenge to the National Memorial Arboretum: Megaliths and Martial Masculinity in the British Landscape’ at the ‘Masculinity in the British Landscape’ conference, as discussed here. This was my first experience of Harlaxton College is discussed here. I now want to briefly outline my paper.


The Armed Forces Memorial seem from within the Greek Grove

I have now published twice in two related journal articles regarding the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire. The first was about the uses of the ancient past at the arboretum, focusing on its lithic memorials as well as its trees and plants in the International Journal of Heritage Studies in 2014: Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum.


On a recent field trip, students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory explore the latest names added to the Armed Forces Memorial. How quickly will this near-empty wall fill up with names? I hope never, but the addition of names is inevitable, trapping with memorial and the visitor into fantasising about future military deaths.

Subsequently, I published an article exploring the specific reuses of monuments and material culture brought from elsewhere to the NMA in the journal Archaeological Dialogues: Monument and Material Reuse at the National Memorial Arboretum. I have also discussed dimensions of the complex material dimensions of memorialisation at the NMA on my blog as follows:

  1. about the archaeology of the NMA,
  2. about antique allusions in the NMA’s memorials
  3. about First World War commemoration at the NMA
  4. about my Archaeological Dialogues paper focused on monument and material reuse
  5. about the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict at the NMA and elsewhere
  6. about the biographies of monuments at the NMA
  7. about the new Camp Bastion Memorial

I guess I am rather interested in the NMA as a microcosm of the many current strands in British and international commemorative culture involving the deployment of antique and prehistoric forms and the reuse of materials and monuments brought from other locations.


The metal wreath and obelisk in the Armed Forces Memorial

I used the opportunity at Harlaxton to discuss one further dimension that I hope to write about the NMA: the heritage and archaeological uses of megaliths to constitute memorials that constitute and facilitate the performance of mourning martial masculinity. I explored the many monoliths, megalith stone rows and clusters, and even stone circles to be found at the NMA.


A crack in the wall… allows sunlight to penetrate the innermost space and hit the head of the stretcher-lain corpse of soldier sculpted in bronze

I then focused on the Armed Forces Memorial as a monument inspired by the prehistoric, classical and Egyptian past to construct a memorial serving to commemorate those that lost their lives on active service in the British Armed Forces since the Second World War. In particular, I looked at the parallels between the modern-day visitor experience, landscape, form, symbolism and materiality of Stonehenge (discussed here and here) and the NMA.

There are clear differences in form and location. Still, both are multi-layered visitor experiences that operate as pilgrimmage sites and places of entertainment. They have their sacred centres carefully managed and access choreographed and carefully placed. They also have key solar alignments to them both. Stonehenge and the NMA also deploy carefully selected stone laden with meaning (Bluestones and sandstone at Stonehenge, Purbeck Marble at the NMA). They are both situation within an evolving and an array of less monuments to be visited en route to the centre.

As heritage experiences, there are further parallels. Both have visitor centres, cafes and land trains and footpaths to navigate the landscape. Both Stonehenge and the NMA are valued for their complex landscapes as well as primordial are regarded as memorials to war and peace.

There are of course significant differences. Memorialisation is cenotaphic at the NMA, while at Stonehenge through the Visitor Centre, male ancestors are created for the modern visitor to see: Neolithic and Bronze Age ones. Still, the comparison and contrast reveals how both millennium and ancient monuments are mobilised in contemporary British commemorative culture. Moreover, both are about the future: megaliths and stones used to project the act of memorialisation itself into the future, regardless of whom and what are precisely being remembered.

I posed the final questions:

  1. Is the NMA the Stonehenge for the nation’s future? Is it a new focus of national recollection into which many conflicting and diverse narratives can be poured?
  2. Conversely, is Stonehenge the NMA of our past? When we write about Stonehenge: their healing stones and the ceremonial feasting supposed to be integral to their design, are we really attempting to simply impose the functions aspired for the NMA onto prehistory?

The questions are linked, and draw out how much the way we engage with Stonehenge is a product of our commemorative culture in the early 21st century obsessed with national restitution and healing in the face of perpetual conflict, and how much the NMA is framed around these imaginings of primordial desires to memorialise and valorise death and sacrifice.


Topless male figure points towards the crack in the doorway through which sunlight can pour in November morning light, marking the passage of time and the readiness of the dead to be conceived of as going on a journey through a threshold into the undiscovered country.

??????????Well, it has been a crazy and busy year as Honorary  Editor of the Royal Archaeological Institute’s Archaeological Journal. I produced my first volume (vol. 169 for 2012) for the autumn of 2013 on the established schedule of production. It then became clear that, in preparation for entering a new publication contract with a commerical publisher, the RAI had to start getting the journal out in the year on its cover, not in the year subsequent. So, just over a year ago, 6 months earlier than previously, I brought out vol. 170 for 2013. Hot on its heels in the autumn of last year we published vol. 171 for 2014, bringing the journal publication schedule into the year on its cover for the first time ever. 3 volumes in my first 2 years as Honorary Editor was pretty exhausting.

What have I been doing in the last 12 months? I have now just finished work on vol. 172 for 2015. This is the first volume to be published in partnership with Taylor & Francis (Routledge) and it is already published online as two issues, one in January 2015, one this month (June 2015). This is a major achievement for me and the RAI, involving subtle changes to the appearance of the journal, while keeping the font and design as close to its existing look as possible. It has also involved considerable extra working on a new schedule, with a new electronic production system, and with a new production team at Taylor & Francis trying to iron out all manner of issues.

Summer Meetings Report Cover

Low res screen-shot of the cover of the 2014 Summer Meetings Report, a supplement to vol. 172 for 2015 of the Archaeological Journal

Another major shift in the Journal has been that the  journal is now fully and comprehensively available online via the T&F website. A full 172 years of archaeological knowledge and research. So if you are an RAI member or have library access, why not check out both current and past issues? The print version of volume 172 will be distributed this summer to members and subscribing libraries.

Also, I have been busy editing the 2014 Summer Meetings Report. This is a supplement to the Journal, produced each year and including a report on the previous year’s summer meeting. Apart from the years affected by the First and Second World Wars, every summer since 1844 the RAI have visited a city or region and explored its landscapes, architecture, sites, monuments and museums. Last year was the turn of the Scottish Borders, and the report on the Tweed Valley will be distributed with the Journal.

Why not join the RAI and get online access to these, and all previous volumes? Individual members can join here.

All this work would not have been possible without the support and work of my many anonymous expert referees, the Reviews Editor Kate Waddington, outgoing RAI President David Hinton, RAI Treasurer Andrew Williams, RAI Administrator Sharon Gerber-Parfitt and RAI Honorary Secretary Pete Wilson. My editorial assistants for vol. 172 – Anna Mackenzie and Ruth Nugent – also both deserve thanks and praise.

What of the future? The RAI have agreed that they want me to continue as Honorary Editor for another two years, editing vol. 173 for 2016 and 174 for 2017. Next year, they will be looking for a new Honorary Editor to replace me in May 2017.

Here is the final list of contents of articles in vol. 172. I hope you find something of interest!

Cover Journal

Low res second proofs of the front and back covers for vol. 172. Just a taster of what is to come!



The Life and Times of a Chambered Tomb: The Results of Survey and
Excavation at Blasthill Chambered Tomb, Kintyre, Western Scotland

Ritual, Rubbish or Everyday Life? Evidence from a Middle Bronze Age
Settlement in Mid-Cornwall

The St. John’s Hospital Cemetery and Environs, Cambridge: Contextualizing
the Medieval Urban Dead

The Post-Roman Foreshore and the Origins of the Late Anglo-Saxon
Waterfront and Dock of Æthelred’s Hithe: Excavations at Bull Wharf, City
of London

The Eleventh- and Twelfth-century Waterfront and Settlement at
Queenhithe: Excavations at Bull Wharf, City of London

The Clacton Spear: The Last One Hundred Years

Wood and Fire: Scotland’s Timber Cursus Monuments

An Anglo-Saxon Great Hall Complex at Sutton Courtenay/Drayton,
Oxfordshire: A Royal Centre of Early Wessex?

Living with the Dead: Human Burials in Anglo-Saxon Settlement Contexts

Foxes and Badgers in Anglo-Saxon Life and Landscape

Behind the Romanesque Frieze at Lincoln Cathedral

Review Article
Charlemagne’s Palace



Tobias and the Eagle Tower

Today, my son and I visited Caernarfon Castle, the stronghold built by Edward I to militarily and ideologically consolidate and project political hegemony over Wales. Through its architecture, the castle imposed genealogical and royal claims over the past and the present. Following the birth of his son at the castle in 1284, Edward I also projected domination over Wales’s future via its architecture.

It is no coincidence that the choice of location for his new castle reused the site of an earlier motte-and-bailey fortification in close proximity to vestiges of the Roman fort of Segontium. Meanwhile, the castle’s polygonal and banded towers are widely argued to be an explicit mimicking of the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople. The focus of the castle is the famous Eagle Tower, the largest of the polygonal masterpieces of the castle which dominates the Afon Seiont and the Menai Strait and thus any maritime approach.


Welsh rulers on the ‘Game of Crowns’ chess board

Within the Eagle Tower is a new display for 2015: ‘Game of Crowns’. Clearly intended to invoke the popular appeal of Game of Thrones, this is (very) loosely set around the idea of chess pieces on a board. And yes, this is legitimate, because Wales’s history is very much a story of conflict between kings imagined, kings actual and those aspiring to lordship and kingship.

The pieces are colour-coded. There are white ones for English monarchs and red ones for Welsh princes. All are male. The sculptures of medieval personages are of different sizes, apparently (according to a passing tour guide) to reflect their relative importance. They depict various royal competitors and successors in the medieval politics of Wales. There is a chronological dimension here, for developing across the chess board from one side to the other is an attempt to distil English and Welsh rivalries from the Norman conquest to Edward I and his son.


The investiture throne and the timeline of events leading from the chess board to it

Trailing out of the board on one side is a simplified bilingual timeline of later medieval and modern claims over Wales, leading up to the displayed slate stool and throne used by Elizabeth II during the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle.

The other chronological dimension is one which explores the origins of Welsh royalty. Opposite the slate throne, this is summarised via the use of North Wales’s unique and only monumental genealogy in which claims of ancestry and association to ancient emperors, kings and saints are materialised: the Pillar of Eliseg. This fragment of an early ninth-century monument located near Llangollen, Denbighshire, has been the subject of sustained new archaeological research by Project Eliseg as repeatedly discussed in this blog, including here and here and here. A replica of the Pillar takes pride of place within Llangollen Museum.


Aaron Watson’s visualisation of the Pillar of Eliseg, utilised to illustrate the origins of Welsh kingship within the Eagle Tower exhibition

The text is headlined bilingually: ‘The Pillar of Eliseg: Bloodline of the Princes’ and then says ‘Our timeline of the princes begins with this monument’. It then states where the monument is located and that the kings of Powys claimed their ancestry back to Caernarfon. Five personalities are taken from the Pillar: Maximus, Sevira (I think the only female to appear in the entire display), Vortigern, Eliseg (Elisedd) and Cyngen ap Cadell. Arrows point downwards, hinting that you should follow the genealogical line from the legendary and historical personages mentioned on the Pillar across the floor, through the chess board, and straight up to the throne upon which our current Queen Elizabeth once sat.

IMG_20150607_143439This is a powerful spatio-temporal heritage display about royal conflict and descent. I was surprised and delighted to see the Pillar of Eliseg, a monument I have been working on with a range of local people from the Vale of Llangollen, students from Bangor and Chester, specialist archaeological contributors and co-directors Gary Robinson and Nancy Edwards, receive such direct and central treatment in this display. Immediately, I felt a sense of vindication and satisfaction that, perhaps our humble archaeological project had in some way inspired this use of the Pillar in this august fashion and at this premier Cadw heritage location.

For the purposes of my archaeodeath blog, I must however, take a critical stance on this display. There are two dimensions I want to talk about here.


The 2012 field season of Project Eliseg

A New Stage in the Pillar of Eliseg’s Biography

As argued elsewhere by Nancy Edwards and myself in different ways, the Latin text inscribed on the cross-shaft now known as the Pillar of Eliseg creates a temporal spiral. By this I mean that the text shifts from legendary past to present and future in a sequential see-saw. In so doing, it conflates and aims to appropriate time itself as a strategy for royal legitimisation. However, the text and monument do this in relation to each other. The inscription’s context: the materiality and form of the cross (now only a fragment of its former self), the prehistoric mound upon which it stands, and its landscape situation and setting, might have all been mobilised as part of this prominent performative early medieval monument. Read all about the temporal mnemonics of the Pillar of Eliseg here.

This was a monument to be experienced and a monument intended for a large audience and sadly this detail is lacking in this exhibition, as is a sense that the text is political propaganda, not a reliable historical record! Nancy has suggested a more specific significance to the text and monument. The cross and mound might have been an assembly site, perhaps even a site intended for royal inauguration.The key dimension that needs emphasising in relation to the Caernarfon exhibition is that the Pillar was not only concerned with claims over the distant legendary and mythical past, it tied these invented origins to Christian Powysian claims over the present and the future.


Excavations at the Pillar of Eliseg in 2011

Obviously little of this can be communicated in the Eagle Tower. Still, what is fascinating about the heritage use of the Pillar of Eliseg at Caernarfon is that the monument raised by Concenn (Cyngen) sometime prior to his death in around AD854/855 was intending to promote a specifically Powysian vision of Welsh history. It would have been alien to their rivals and eventual successors in Gwynedd. Powys may well have had affinity and claims over Segontium and Gwynedd, as much as they might have imagined claims over Mercian territory to their east including the ancient monastery at Bangor on Dee and the ruined Roman city at Wroxeter.

The Pillar of Eliseg is striking not only for its text, form, context and location, but for its survival. The monument survived for hundreds of years, accruing new uses and associations: a cultural biography. It could be argued that the use of the Pillar in the heart of the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon is a further dimension to this biography.

However, the portrayal of the story of the Pillar in the Eagle Tower display is problematic. It is clearly a back projection of later legends to suggest that because Powys claimed descent from the Roman Western Emperor Magnus Maximus, they bought into a geographically located narrative only connection Macsen Wledig to Caernarfon centuries later. To be generous, it is a clever and perhaps necessary play on limited evidence to create a simplified narrative and emphasise the iconic importance of Caernarfon and its Roman predecessor. Sadly, in doing so, it creates a confused vision of a unified early medieval Welsh kingdom and kingship that is at best unfortunate. The simplified timeline is a dangerous thing, and here we see the complex history of early medieval Wales obliterated by it. Incidentally, it isn’t clear how we know Eliseg died in AD 755.


Looking back through time from the investiture of Prince Charles to the Pillar of Eliseg

By being displayed in the context of the Eagle Tower this new exhibition is of course deeply ironic. If Gwynedd took over the lands of Concenn and appropriated earlier, different mythologies from Powys, and the Eagle Tower was (in part) Edward I’s attempt to assert an ideology of imperial hegemony over Gwynedd, then in heritage terms, Cadw’s display is a new form of hegemonic myth-making in the heritage context claiming the early medieval past for the present-day Prince of Wales. Yet, within it, the Pillar might well be projecting a vision of 9th-century Powysian legends to the public. In other words, this is the heritage appropriation of Powys’s history into the history of Gwynedd, yet simultaneously it affords Powys’s vision of the early medieval past with a new lease of life as the early history of all of Wales. So do Eliseg and his great-grandson Cyngen get the last laugh after all? Their monument survives and wins the day at the heart of an exhibit about their rivals.


The Pillar of Eliseg as it appears today

Visualising the Pillar of Eliseg

Sadly, our dig doesn’t get a mention in the exhibition, even if our finds take pride of place at the centre of Llangollen Museum. Yet as part of our project, Aaron Watson – archaeologist and artist – created a powerful new visualisation of the Pillar of Eliseg in dialogue with expert in early medieval stone sculpture Professor Nancy Edwards. You can read about this here. Aaron’s image is largely speculative: we don’t know what the cross-head would have looked like. Still, this was intentional and Aaron’s work has been powerful and versatile for our project and we are extremely grateful for his innovative work, as well as for a short film he composed, inspired by the 2010 field season with music by Jon Was. View the film here.


The replica Pillar and the new display of the Bronze Age cist burial from our excavations. Llangollen Museum

I am so familiar with Aaron’s Pillar of Eliseg that it has, in some ways, taken over from the fragment surviving in the landscape in my mind. I use it so regularly to illustrate lectures and public talks and on our website, that the fact that the Eagle Tower version of the Pillar of Eliseg looked the way it did at first didn’t strike me as problematic at all.

But then it did strike me: this wasn’t just any Pillar of Eliseg. It wasn’t the Pillar of Eliseg as seen in the landscape today, the replica in Llangollen Museum or visualised in any book. It is not even the Pillar of Eliseg one can find in the Valle Crucis Cadw guide book and visualised on the heritage board at Valle Crucis itself. These are different Pillars of Eliseg. What is depicted in the Eagle Tower is our Pillar of Eliseg; the version of the monument designed bespoke for Project Eliseg through dialogue between Aaron and Nancy and appearing on our website.

I should state that I have had it confirmed that permission was sought from Aaron for this use of the exhibition. I must still mention that I am disappointed that no-one bothered to consult or tell me given that I co-directed, funded and instigated this visualisation and the project it formed a key component of. I am getting used to this in my dealings with Welsh archaeologists and heritage bodies though…


A monument behind bars no more?

That aside, it is a palpable measure of our project’s success, or at least the measure of the power of Aaron’s visualisation of the Pillar, that ‘our’ Pillar of Eliseg is incorporated into this new exhibition in the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle. Project Eliseg’s aim has been to explore the biography of a monument from its prehistoric origins to the present day. In doing so, we have created new Pillars of Eliseg, both at the site, in the vicinity, and elsewhere virtually and physically, in a range of new locations. Caernarfon’s exhibition is one of these, a new Pillar for a new audience.

The Pillar of Eliseg has been sadly neglected as an ancient monument and a heritage attraction, as discussed in our latest paper on the Pillar of Eliseg which you can read in the pages of Internet Archaeology. Whatever we make of this new exhibition and its take on royal genealogy and conflict, and however long it lasts, we cannot claim the Pillar of Eliseg is neglected any more. It was always going to have a mix of nationalist and royalist agendas attached to it, given the nature of the text and the monument but there remain challenges in how we situate and explore these associations. Incidentally, it is a darned shame this wasn’t planned in 2014: Bangor’s and Chester’s REF submissions might have benefitted!

So, in summary, in Wales’s particular Game of Thrones, the Pillar of Eliseg was an early ideological statement by the ruler of Powys, promoting Cyngen’s vision of past, present and future. Thanks to Project Eliseg, we now know the monument was situated over a prehistoric mound of Early Bronze Age date. The Pillar and mound had a long biography of use and reuse to the present day, also revealed in part by Project Eliseg’s fieldwork. Over a thousand years later, I think the long-dead Cyngen, and perhaps even his ancestor Eliseg, might just get the last laugh at the Eagle Tower. The Pillar of Eliseg’s biography certainly gets a new twist…


The Pillar of Eliseg from the west, on a Bronze Age burial mound


West front of the abbey church: Lilleshall


View along the church

Ok, so this is becoming a common archaeodeath theme: I visit a Cadw or English Heritage monastic ruin, I comment on the basic guidebook narrative of the site, the phases of the ruins and how they are conserved and presented, and then I identify the mortuary dimension. Get it? Good. Here it goes again, this time for the English Heritage site of Lilleshall Abbey.


Reconstruction of the abbey on the heritage sign



Looking west in church



Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire is the extensive ruin of an Augustinian house, founded in 1148 with canons from Dorchester Abbey. The abbey was wealthy by the late 13th century drawing wealth from legacies, gifts, farms, watermills and property investments, as well as tolls over Atcham Bridge.  The community declined in the 14th century and was suppressed in 1538 when the east range was converted into a private house. The house was fortified by a Royalist garrison and saw action in the Civil War in 1645 when it was besieged by the Parliamentarians. A canal cut through the precinct in the 18th century.


The grand west front


The cloister

The modern visitor experience involves a couple of signboards, only one decent staircase (but still a valuable one affording views from height along the church) and a sense of both the church and the claustral ranges. Dimensions of the landscape have been revealed through survey and excavation over the years, including a dovecote and fishponds. A phase plan of the site can be downloaded here.


In the church

In terms of burial archaeology, an inhumation grave was discovered outside the east end of the church in 1891 and excavations in 1990 revealed a burial they did not excavated it. What intrigued me was the arrangement of grave slabs and gravestones, all on display in the chapter house of the abbey. The modern heritage panel explains that these memorials resumably reflecting (a) stones retrieved during excavation in the Victorian era and (b) graves found at this time that are demarcated by grave-sized stone arrangements. In other words, these are restored and created graves, the accuracy of their location and the details of their original occupants is not known. The sign tell us that these are a ‘reminder’ of the use of the Chapter House for burial. IMG_8875


Grave slabs and settings within the Chapter House

I am fascinated by these heritage displays of graves, constituting arrangements and elevations of the dead in absentia; their covers and containers serving as cenotaphs for bodies hidden below or removed elsewhere. This is another powerful example of how the medieval dead populate heritage sites through their material traces, not their bones.IMG_8873









Edward Bujak talks about the history of the house and its landscape from the 19th century onwards

Recently I attended and presented a keynote paper at the Masculinities in the British Landscape conference co-organised by the superbly amazing Kate Weikert and the amazingly superb Edward Bujak.  The venue was Harlaxton College, formerly Harlaxton Manor, the UK campus of the University of Evansville and venue for conferences and events. See my blog about Harlaxton here.


Jessica Streibel McLean on white male creole identities on Montserrat

The conference was all about the archaeological, historical and literary evidence for the interaction of masculinity and landscape. The event incorporated a fascinating field trip to Belton Park on the other side of Grantham, to be discussed in a future blog. There was also the added bonus of an outside pair of talks by the co-organisers Edwards and Kate about the evolving landscape of Harlaxton Manor itself and how it reveals dimensions of the conference theme. The indoor papers addressed a wide range of source materials and themes in exploring the relationship between masculinity and landscape.

The first session explored Bloodied Landscapes of masculinity. Margery Materson looked at landscapes of the British duel in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, John Martin exploring battue gaming shooting and its impact on the late Victorian and Edwardian countryside, and Kaja Franck investigated the lupine dimensions of wilderness in the novel Dracula. Also considering imagined landscapes was Lucy Ryder investigating the folklore of masculinity in the British landscape. More me this quartet of papers provided so much food for thought I will be full for months and all identified relationships between death, masculinity and real and imagined landscapes, which are key to my research interests.

An afternoon session of four papers explored Property in the Landscape opening with Linsey Hunter on gendered language in medieval charters of the Anglo-Scottish Border region. She was followed by Spencer Gavin Smith exploring the architectural symbolism of royal display in the castle of North Wales and Rachel Moss looking at the orchard as a setting for father-son relations and the construction of masculinity in late medieval England. Alexandra Logue then explored contestation over property and masculine identities in early modern London and Essex. Together, while eclectic in their source material, these papers explored architecture and space in the performance of identities in the medieval and early modern world.

Following these sessions, I then gave my keynote lecture on ‘From Stonehenge to the National Memorial Arboretum: Megalithis and Martial Masculinity in the British Landscape’. I will discuss this separately in a future blog.


Spencer Smith on masculinities in medieval castles.

The next day, after the conference wine reception and dinner, we have two more sessions. Colonial Landscapes began with a paper by Xavier Guégan exploring photography in the construction of Indian masculinities and Rosalind Carr on masculinity in the colonial landscapes of late 18th-century New South Wales. Jessica Streibel McLean gave a fascinating archaeological paper on white creole masculinity in the 18th-century Little Bay Plantation of Montserrat, West Indies. The last paper in this session by Helen Goodman  had the best title of all (‘Exploring Sheba’s Breasts’) and explored literary portrayals and interactions between masculinity, adventure and the African landscape.

The final session considered Emotional Landscapes of masculinity, comprising a triad of papers. Oliver Knight considered rural geographies of sexuality through autoethnography, focusing on rural Essex. Nathan Booth considered the diaries of a 19th-century resident of Stalybridge and the relationships between landscape and masculinity thus revealed. Nicola Bishop considered literary potrayals of rambling clerics in the books of the early 20th century.


Kate Weikert talks about the landscape history of Harlaxton’s hinterland

It is difficult to sum up and appraise such a wide range of literary, historical and archaeological approaches to masculinity in the landscape. There were many highlights for me and I wouldn’t like to select out some papers for fear of appearing to disregard the others. Still, many authors considered the active role of landscapes and built spaces in the construction and performance of memories and identities of male individuals and concepts of masculinity in different social realms. My archaeological bias meant that I got a great deal out of papers by Spencer and Streibel McLean, while the theme of death and landscape was most relevant to my research came across clearly in the papers by Masterson, Franck and Ryder.

On reflection, while I make no claims at being a gender theorist, there are a wide range of ways my work dabbles in the theme of masculinity and its relationship with, and constitution through, various material and spatial media. From understanding early Anglo-Saxon weapon burial, tenth-century stone sculpture, medieval effigy tombs and conflict commemoration in the 19th-21st centuries, I have and continue to explore a wide range of materials key to the mortuary performance and reproduction of masculinity. This conference gave me both thinking time and listening time to mull over these dimensions and consider new trajectories for my research.

On all these grounds, it was a superb success as a conference. I do hope to explore more of these ideas in print in the near future. Certainly, the organisers are planning an edited book comprising select proceedings of the conference. This is a project that deserves support and nurturing. Congratulations to Kate and Edward on a fascinating, rich and varied conference.


Harlaxton Manor

Recently, I got the opportunity to visit Harlaxton College for the first time (formerly Harlaxton Manor). Today, Harlaxton College is a higher education institution: the British campus of the University of Evansville as well as a venue for many events, conferences and study groups. I was attending a conference that I will discuss in a separate blog entry: Masculinities in the British Landscape co-organised by the awesome Kate Weikert and the equally awesome Edward Bujak. This archaeodeath blog doesn’t really deserve Harlaxton, there were no graves and only one memorial – commemorating the presence of the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War in the appropriately named Pegasus Courtyard. Sadly, I even forgot to photograph it (justifying another visit methinks). Here I want to briefly review my impressions as a first visitor rather than the conference itself. Still, I want to highlight the fact that, as keynote speaker at the conference, I am very grateful for the opportunity to both participate in the conference and experience Harlaxton.


View over the Italian colonnade to the house

I get to go to academic conferences in many different venues. Recently, I have been to three other conferences in very different settings. I have been from the splendid Riverside Innovation Centre of the University of Chester (as discussed here), down by the River Dee in the heart of the city of Chester for the Contest and Collaboration conference organised by Sara Elin Roberts and Rachel Swallow. I then jumped north of the border to the pub- and curry-ridden University of Glasgow for the Runes Network organised by Anouk Busset and Elizabeth Walker (discussed here and here and here). Straight after, I went down to explore bits of Dartmoor (see here, here and here) and to Buckfast Abbey for the Past in its Place conference beside a real-live monastery (discussed here). Given this variety of venues, Harlaxton in all its splendour was actually not the shock to the system it could have been. Obviously, it was pleasant and fun being at such a ridiculously audacious architectural monstrosity set within extensive grounds, but it didn’t wow me as that unexpected. Perhaps I am jaded and indifferent to conference venues if even Harlaxton does not surprise me! Perhaps I am covering up for the fact that I always feel a bit of a fish out of water in these environments…


The back of the house and the conservatory

What is Harlaxton like? Grand? Certainly. Hideous? Quite possibly. Merging Baroque, Jacobean and Gothic styles and constructed 1832-37, Harlaxton Manor was designed for the local squire Gregory Gregory by architecture Anthony Salvin. The house is amazing from a distance, terrifying in their proportions close up. The taxi driver from Grantham railway station told me that approaching American students always say long and awe-inspired ‘wow’s when they see Harlaxton for the first time. I am sorry to say that, while I obliged the taxi-driver out of politeness, with all the passion and enthusiasm of Louis Theroux, my internal response was more of a ‘urgh’ followed by a shudder. I have to confess that country houses are not my personal thing. Having said that, it was distinctive, memorable and the staff were friendly. The atmosphere was perfect, and I got the bestest room in the place to stay in, which I am sure I have Edward and Kate to thank for. There was also an amazing pre-wine reception in the conservatory, wine reception in the hall and post-wine reception in the staff common room. I cannot complain and I won’t.


One of the Harlaxton lions


The conservatory

While much of my trip was spent in one of the rooms listening to conference paper (or else eating and drinking), I got to see some of the surroundings which for me make up for the architecture. We walked the mile-long drive to gorge on the first evening at the local pub. We also had time to walk about the grounds a bit (but I need to go back and see more!). The house is surrounded by a range of formal gardens intended to serve as a walk around Europe, with French-style terraces, Italian Colonnade, Dutch Ornamental Canal and English landscape walks. There is also an enclosing woodland, a walled garden and gatehouse half way along the one mile drive. I liked the lions best in terms of surviving sculpture. There are also crazy geese…

In summary, a unique venue, splendid surroundings and a fabulous stay. I must get back to Harlaxton at some point and improve my appreciation of 19th-century elite architecture. If I do, I will insist (or beg) to get the same room with its view down the 1-mile drive and the fabulous desk in the window.


My luxury desk at luxurious Harlaxton


My room with a view over the Lincolnshire countryside


Blurred photo: View from my hotel with the minaret of the East London Mosque in foreground and St Paul’s dome in distance, both framed by the City


The White Chapel sign

It was a recent rainy morning in East London. I had spent the previous day at Editorial and Committee meetings followed by the AGM and President’s lecture and meal at the Royal Archaeological Institute at Burlington House, Piccadilly. I stayed in London overnight, in Whitechapel, because rather than heading back to Wales, I was on my way the next day to Harlaxton Manor (Grantham) to a conference on Masculinities in the Landscape.


Commemorating Altab Ali

I had planned to spend the morning and early afternoon in London doing something fruitful and interesting; a museum, a park, explore a cemetery and/or public monuments etc. Instead, I wasn’t in the mood. I had a paper to prepare, I really don’t like London that much and it was raining. So I stayed in my hotel as long as possible preparing my powerpoint to the talk the next day and then I walked out of my hotel and along the Whitechapel Road towards Aldgate East station and departed for Harlaxton Manor earlier than I anticipated.


The gate to Altab Ali Park

Incidentally, I was staying at the Whitechapel Ibis Hotel, on the seventh floor, and my hotel room gave me a fabulous and distinct sight-line that even adherents to theories of ley lines would find difficult to see as anything but total coincidence. And yet still, this sightline – linking the minaret of the adjacent East London Mosque (established in this location in 1985) with the 17th-century dome of St Paul’s designed by Wren in the far distance – speaks so much of the complex religious and cultural history of London. This chimed also with my encounter with a very special place on my short walk west-south-west into the City.

In the heavy rain, I encountered Altab Ali Park: a site that is a prominent case study in recent archaeological engagements with urban communities and the regeneration of public urban spaces. This is the former site of St Mary Matfelon Church – the White Chapel – a church that went through many incarnations since at least the 13th century to the last church on the site destroyed by German bombing in the Second World War. It was finally demolished in 1952 and turned into St Mary’s Gardens in 1966 and renamed as Altab Ali Park in 1994.

The park as it appears today is a relatively new creation: opened 12th March 2012. Developed by Tower Hamlets Council, English Heritage, The Greater London Authority and Transport for London, over half the £1 million redevelopment was funded by the Mayor of London’s Great Outdoors programme. While elements of diversity already populated the park before 2012 (including the park’s entrance arch to commemorate Altab Ali and victims of racist violence and the Shaheed Minar monument commemorating the Bengali Language Movement), the designers – Muf Architecture/Art – created a new urban public landscape that incorporated many different material fragments with varied historical and cultural resonances. This took place ahead of the 2012 Olympics, creating a series of landscape improvements from Stratford High Street to Aldgate. The key elements to this were a new entrance at Adler Street and a raised walkway parallel to Whitechapel Road, a 38-m bench for users of the park (the footprint of the 19th-century church, see below), history boards and Portland stones illustrating the archaeology of the site and marking the footprint of older 17th-century church, and a new landscaping of the surroundings of the Shaheed Minar monument.


Plans and reconstructions of the 17th- and 19th-century churches


Detail of the placed fragments, marking the walls of the former White Chapel church

IMG_20150514_110630Before this, and informing the design, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) were contracted by Muf Architecture/Art to lead a community archaeology project on the site during 2010 and 2011. This engaged c. 900 school children, local residents and others in the complex archaeological history of the site. The self-conscious aim was to turn the park into an open-air museum. Their video can be found here and the grey literature reports of the evaluation, community dig and watching brief can be found on David Sankey’s blog here with links to his Flickr photos and sketches. They found parts of the previous churches on the site and Roman occupation beneath.

The Muf photo gallery on their website explains the design as reflecting the ‘secular and sacred multilayered history and character of the Whitechapel neighbourhood’. Kieran Long’s commentary on the design in the London Evening Standard fleshes out an interpretation of the design and its deliberate ‘urban collage’ of fragments, regarding the landscape as ‘…dense with meaning and pregnant with the rhythms of daily life and the deeper rituals that define the identities of the people who have lived in Whitechapel over centuries’.


Memories in fragments – marking the footprint of the 17th-century church

The archaeology and the landscape design together contextualised the park’s dedication to the victim of a racially motivated murder, 25-year-old Altab Ali on 4 May 1978, showing the rich and varied influences on the site and the neighbourhood down the centuries from at least the Roman period. The bench and the rest of the design is intended to create a ‘matrix of the religious history of the site and of the secular, making a setting for the Shaheed Minar, a spatial traces of the realm of faith and acknowledgement of the attachment to place; to landscape’ (Muf’s Katherine Clarke is quoted for this).


Commemoration through replication – Shaheed Minar

The park creates a utilitarian space for walking, sitting and conversing as well as public gatherings. It also creates a landscape of fragmentation – fragments from the past, fragmentary histories. The landscape foregrounds absence: the building, re-building, deliberate destruction – as well as death and sacrifice incorporated into its design from early times to the Second World War and foregrounding recent racial, religious and linguistic conflicts. Yet there remains an attempt to sketch a coherent timeline of influences and events within the texts and their arrangement, if not spatially.


Memories in Fragments again

Yet the varied materialities of the park contradict and challenge this coherence. I would also emphasise the way the design ‘calls out’ beyond the park, with boards explaining the complex history of the site displayed for those passing by on the pavement. Despite claims to the contrary, the park does still sit in tension between a homogenising temporal narrative that seeks to demarcate different cultural and religious influences into particular chronological horizons, and the aspiration towards the celebration of local and national heterogeneity that is the mantra of multicultural Britain.


Displaced gravestones on display at the park’s edge

There are three commentaries on this design that prompt my archaeodeath attention.

  1. First, archaeologically retrieved fragments were used as part of the open-air display. I have seen this elsewhere, including in Exeter and Chester, and it is a striking way in which fragments can form an artistic display and evoke the passion to learn more about them individually. They should have added ‘Now visit the Museum of London’ more clearly to the display. Also notable is that the display merges indistinguishably artefacts from the dig and those gifted by local people: the display merges past and present in this regard. The assemblage is more than archaeological finds, and less than archaeological finds since none are labelled. Their power to present the past is both enhanced and diffused by this manner of presentation.
  2. The retention of historic gravestones and tombs in the park are regularly utilised as active components of links between past and present, as discussed for Birmingham Cathedral here. They should be regarded as key, not as window-dressing for the newer ‘invented’ fragments and designed elements of park design. They have the power of forging links to other times and past individuals’ and communities’ aspirations for commemoration. The detail of the closing of the churchyard following the 1855 London Burial Act is outlined, but the memorials themselves are not. It is a pity that these are not foregrounded at all in the displays, which focus on the churches as buildings for worship rather than the place as for the burial and commemoration of the Christian dead.
  3. The replication of monuments from elsewhere replicates a recent trope of British conflict commemoration as seen as the National Memorial Arboretum. The 1999 Shaheed Minars Martyr monument is a memorial to the 1952 deaths during language protests in Bangladesh: it claims to directly replicate the form of a monument in Dhaka designed by Hamidur Rahman in 1957 but demolished and rebuilt following Bangladeshi independence. The abstract design represents a weeping mother and her four children. Replication as a commemorative strategy is a powerful way of conflating geographical distance. In this environment, the tension creates is that the attention of the new design was about making this place significant, when of course the different dimensions of this place are networked worldwide to various peoples and cultures.

For me, this was a short, inspiring and thought-provoking space. I am not from the area, and I have no particular attachment to it. Yet the park speaks to me on many levels as an archaeologist and a UK resident regarding the complex, eclectic and heterotopic nature of urban parks and the aspirations of heritage practitioners and landscape designs to submerge and meld these into a narrative and spatial order.


An early 19th-century tomb

IMG_20150514_110718This leads to a further critical archaeodeath perspective. Recently Natasha Powers and colleages address in the Chris Dalglish edited book Archaeology, the Public and the Recent Past how the archaeological project in the park put care and attention in its location of trenches and screening of the dig to avoid the public interacting with the remains of the dead.  The desire to afford respect to the dead and shield the living from them might be expected in an urban context amidst a community with many diverse attitudes and responses to the dead.

The desire not to disturb and display the dead the park during the dig is understandable. Equally however, the downplaying of the tangible presences of the dead above and below ground in this space is perhaps open to question and might be seen as impoverishing the rich narratives of this urban space and the communities it has served over the centuries. MOLA have produced stupendous work on London’s medieval and post-medieval dead, and further work is ongoing, especially with the excavations taking place as part of the  Crossrail project. Moreover, in the 2010/11 dig, brick vaults were uncovered and significant unspecified amounts of human charnel material. Also, hints of a Roman cremation burial was among the oldest discoveries encountered. While this last fact is mentioned in the text of the display (although the actual evidence for an early Roman cremation seems circumstantial in the evaluation report), the overal low profile of the material traces of the dead, interpreted for what they are, prompts me to consider the redesign of the park as being as much an act of archaeological forgetting as remembering.