Victorian ‘medieval’ tomb in the cloister, Chester cathedral

Two weeks ago, with the superb MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students, I made a brief visit to the wonderful Chester Cathedral to explore its memorials and tombs. We discussed their diversity in form, ornamentation and texts and their diverse spatial and temporal relationships with their subjects of commemoration. Some were always intended to cite bodies interred elsewhere in the cathedral, cemetery or further afield around the region, country or globe. Others were originally positioned in relation to the deceased but have become subsequently dislocated.


Pearson’s tomb

The long temporal citations of some tombs are fascinating. There are numerous 19th-century monuments that evoke the Middle Ages, memorial components to the Victorian restoration of the cathedral itself. Examples include the faux-medieval grave-slab in the cloister garden. There are also three Victorian effigy tombs, mimicking, adapting and transformating the medieval tradition where, in the case of Chester, none of this form have survived since the Middle Ages.


Part of the heritage trail of walking through the cathedral.

One of these is not a memorial to a contemporary, but a long temporal citation to famous individuals in Chester’s early modern past. This is the19th-century effigy tomb to 17th-century theologian and bishop John Pearson in the north transept. Commemoration in cathedrals is a complex business indeed, taking many different forms and locations.


Fragments of the medieval past on display, Chester Cathedral cloister walk

Commemoration is thus all about movement in cathedrals, both in the past and in the present. Today’s visitor perambulates past the tombs and memorials, seeing them in sequence (or in sequences, depending on the direction of travel). This is true of many tombs and memorials that have been dislocated from their original location. I am particularly interested in medieval memorial dislocations, and a selection of the monuments that have been found in Chester Cathedral are on display, not in the church itself, but in the cloister walkways. Here, commemoration of imagined and unknown medieval ancestors is negotiated by walking past them en route to other places: on the way in, on the way out, on the way through. The only exception is interestingly, and I suspect significantly, the restored shrine of St Werburgh herself. They sit in striking juxtaposition to the Victorian neo-medieval memorials within the cloister garth itself (above) and present surrounding the cathedral church in the graveyard.


The ‘Ripley Stone’

Among the dislocated and displayed medieval memorials in the cloister is the Simon Ripley Stone, discovered under the Chapter House in 1723 and bearing the initials ‘SR’ suggesting it was the tomb of Abbot Simon Ripley (1485-93). It was originally thought to be the tomb of Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester because of the wolf’s head upon it. The precise details of its original occupant, found ‘wrapped in black leather’, remain unclear. What is interesting is how this association endures and renders the stone a personality of its own within the cathedral space.


Medieval grave-slab, on display in Chester Cathedral’s cloister walk


Medieval fragment of grave-slab, Chester Cathedral cloister


A medieval fragment

Other dislocated medieval monuments lack text and images, but their form, ornament and fragmented character are testament to their dislocation and the deep-time heritage of the place. They offer a physical connection between post-Reformation and modern cathedral and the abbey that once was. Their anonymity is in itself powerful, prompting the desire to pin them to historical personages, but inevitably they wriggle free of specificity. Their memorialisation is mutable and thus different and strange.


The altar-monument that provides the memorial focus to the Garden of Remembrance, between the bell-tower and the cathedral


The memorial landscape is constituted by the trees, plants, flowers and backdrop of the cathedral’s south transept as well as the tomb- or altar-like cenotaph. Yet every path is made up of broken up old gravestones, reused from the early 19th-century graves that once populated the graveyard before its reuse as a garden of remembrance.

There is another coherent and prominent dimension to dislocated memorials outside the cathedral. Namely, in the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate the dead of the Second World War situated between the church and the bell-tower, overlying what was once part of the cathedral graveyard. The paths of this garden are replete with reused memorials from the 19th-century and earlier graves that formerly occupied this space. Here, the former occupants of the space are made into the walking experience of commemorating the absent dead of conflict. Also, cremation burials are added here, making this a space of multi-layered memorialisation, and the commemoration of many different kinds of absence: the dead buried here but their memorials dislocated and used as paving, those buried elsewhere but who are given a collective cenotaph, and those whose ashes are here but without a memorial.

Within and without, navigating cathedrals is all about ‘walking with ancestors’, named and unnamed, cited and installed, dislocated and fragmented.


Memorials in fragments – paving for the modern visitor



A view of Chester crematorium over the canal, under electricity pylons and (in the foreground0 under the abandoned railway bridge (now the Millennium Greenway cycle path from Chester through Blacon and Queensferry to Hawarden Bridge and Shotton.

The new Chester Crematorium is situated adjacent to its 1960s predecessor at the eastern edge of Blacon Cemetery, off Blacon Avenue, Chester. I recently visited with students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory to learn about the process of cremating the dead in modern indoor oven facilities followed by the crushing of the ‘cremains’ to create ‘ashes’ using a cremulator. We are very grateful to the staff of the crematorium, particularly Wayne Atkinson, for generously giving up time and accommodating our visit, as discussed here.


Approaching the crematorium

Looking at Chester crematorium offers an important case study for considering current architectural and landscape designs for the disposal and commemoration of the cremated dead in early 21st-century Britain. This is because it is neither an old (19th or 20th-century) crematorium nor one recently built on a de novo site; it is instead a recently built new crematorium adjacent to a pre-existing crematorium and cemetery. Thus, the new crematorium augments and transforms the existing cemetery space, including the incorporation of the old site of the crematorium, recognised as still a ‘sacred’ focus, within the existing garden of remembrance.


A hearse leaving the crematorium via a circular route back to the entrance and Blacon Avenue


‘No Entry': driving is carefully choreographed

Therefore, I want to consider the contexts in which the cremation process is taking place – looking outside the crematorium at both the designed memorial landscape and the facilities and dimensions associated the management of the space. I will then discuss the interaction with the juxtaposed surrounding industrial and residential landscape of Chester’s suburbs. In so doing, we can appreciate the planned and the seemingly incidental but key dimensions to the crematorium and memorialisation within its garden of remembrance. I will do this in the form of a photo-essay; we each picture prompting a discussion as we go along.


Car culture of the as-yet unoccupied burial spaces and the circular route out of the cemetery behind the crematorium



Looking at the front of Chester Crematorium – parking spaces dominate


Entrance to the cemetery and crematorium

Drive-Thru Death

First-up, this is a clockwise drive-thru experience: cremation reflects our car and motorised hearse culture. It is possible to walk in, but the principal emphasis is upon the driver. There is a new road with pavement on only one side, lighting and road-markings (double-yellow lines warding off random parking plus white lines marking out parking spaces. Above you get a clear sense of the approach to the crematorium building along a new road and adjacent path. Likewise, on the way out, there are parking spaces to facilitate visits to as-yet unoccupied plots for cremation burials. What is striking is that this is a landscape currently near-free of the memorials and remains of the dead, and yet kept trim for future years and future decades.

A Managed Space

Movement around the crematorium is, however, also intended on foot; whether visiting individual memorials or locales within the gardens of remembrance. A series of long lines of slabs mark out burial plots as yet unoccupied, and accessible by paths. There is also a dump for flowers and other recyclable materials, screened from site by earthwork banks in the corner of the garden of remembrance near the canal and cycle path. Signs warning of dangers and directing movement, bins encouraging recycling of materials, as well as small miniature headstones marking the zones of the garden of remembrance, are all material cultures of managing the crematorium grounds and garden of remembrance.


The new crematorium viewed across the pre-existing landscapes hill that is situated next to the earlier crematorium site.

Diverse Media: The Garden of Remembrance

Gardens of remembrance are more than managed spaces around the crematorium building; they have evolved into complex commemorative environments which give many different options for remembering loved ones. At Chester, the existing gardens of remembrance provide setting and context for the new crematorium. As well as containing specific burial plots for the cremated dead, they provide more diffused environments in which hundreds and hundreds of ashes can be scattered amidst trees, bushes and well-managed lawns. From the crematorium, they can be seen and visited; meanwhile from the gardens, the new crematorium is strikingly visible, its curved roof mimicking the contours of memory through trees, plantings, lakes and streams.


View from the hill towards the entrance to the crematorium and cemetery





Memorial trees and flowers help to mark sites of memory in the microtopgraphy of the gardens of remembrance.


Memorial trees within the garden of remembrance


MA student Aurea, one of the group exploring the gardens of remembrance. Behind this pre-2013 flower bed and garden of remembrance one can make out newly landscaped burial plots established to serve the new crematorium in the grounds of the existing garden of remembrance


The hill in the garden of remembrance incorporates a stream which is currently not working. Ashes are scattered in a range of intimate environments within this diverse garden space, including into the concrete stream bed.


Despite the dry hill-stream, water provides a key ingredient to the garden of remembrance, protected with a warning sign

The pre-existing garden of remembrance create micro-locales where ashes can be strewn and commemorated through ephemeral and modest material cultures, including flowers, cards and wind chimes. It is a landscape in which the media for commemoration extend beyond artefacts to include trees, shrubs, flowers, moving and still water. Also, the environment attracts bird-life, which gives a clear avian dimension to contemporary landscapes of memory. There is also a walled garden, allowing names to be added to small plaques in their hundreds to its walls. Finally, with the building of the new crematorium came the demolition of the old one: now the former crematoria’s site is transformed into a new element of the garden of remembrance: a circular garden set within the existing roads which had previously taken hundreds of coffins to their conflagration.


The walled garden – a built dimension to the garden of remembrance. Note the attention to recycling in the double-bin to the left


The site of the former crematorium has now been laid out as a circular garden; a sacred void, in which both the sites of ash-scattering, and the site of many thousands of cremations, are together commemorated.

Around the Crematorium

The crematorium and its garden of remembrance are not the only elements to be discussed. The association with the pre-existing cemetery to its west is also crucial; especially as a fraction of the ashes will not be taken away by mourners or scattered in the garden of remembrance, but will join family burial plots in the cemetery.

In addition, we might entertain the broader landscape into which the crematorium is situated. While in no way ‘planned’, I would suggest the crematorium’s wider surroundings reveal further dimensions of significance to the building and its environs. The crematorium is situated off Blacon Avenue and opposite the Police Station, while the cemetery is surrounded on two sides by private houses. To the south though, the former railway line, now the Millennium Greenway cycle path, brackets the site. To the east, electricity pylons and the Ellesmere Port canal mark its edge.

This location makes the crematorium and its striking design extremely visible to those passing by; this is not hidden away but a building and a landscape can be looked upon by all. As such, this is a very public memorial landscape. For instance, it is visible to walkers, cyclists and motorists from Blacon Avenue and walkers and cyclists using the canal towpath and Greenway. Visiting graves here, even with significant tree-growth, is always going to be a public act even if the site is securely managed and locked out of hours. This combination will presumably dissuade vandalism and casual uses of the site while facilitating a sense of public engagement and awareness of the crematorium and the garden. These qualities of location have many dimensions of significance to them, including perhaps dispersing any fears or uncertainties about this publicly operated and managed facility.

The view out from the crematorium also deserves note.  Greenery is abundant via the wooded former-railway embankment. Water is again significant, such a key element within the garden of remembrance is also reflected in the canal’s presence. The electricity pylons are more unfortunate an association. Finally, skylined to the north-east is the edge of the Countess of Chester hospital, marking a relationship between death and cremation in the urban topography which I suspect is neither purely coincidental (in terms of spatial proximity) nor an aspect which landscape designers will have consciously wished to invoke.


View over the future cemetery; the as-yet empty burial plots and newly planted trees to the south of Chester Crematorium, looking under the electricity pylons to a narrow boat plying its way along the canal and towards Upton and (notably) the Countess of Chester Hospital, presumably where many who are cremated end their days.




My students approach the Pillar of Eliseg


The Pillar of Eliseg

In case no-one noticed; it was the UK’s general election yesterday. I voted at 7.10 am that morning before heading into work by bicycle to set out with students by Uni fleet vehicle on a day-long field trip. It was a fun way to spend election day, isolated from the radio and TV and from the buzz of polling stations, and instead being out in the rain and the sun and the wind.

I took the enthusiastic MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students out in the Vale of Llangollen to consider this striking landscape as a ‘topography of memory’. By this I mean that we considered not simply the rich and varied archaeological heritage of the Vale, but in addition we visited a selection of sites to consider the complex and varied myths and memories that can be shown to accrue around them. We can identify these in the literature and folklore, but also in the practical working and reworking of places over the long-term. In other words, we can explore the ‘topographies of memory’ in this landscape by looking not only at stories but at the archaeological traces and monuments themselves. What was the ‘prehistory’ of sites before they were built? What was their use? How did they operate as abandoned or ruinous sites? How were sites used and reused successively? Moreover, and significantly, how could these sites relate to each other, part of a network of sites of memory, not simply isolated locales where myths and legends resided? This is part of my interests for the Past in its Place project.

We went into the Vale via World’s End and Craig Arthur. We then visited Castell Dinas Bran: a steep walk up, around and down. Next, we went to see the famous house of the Ladies of Llangollen at Plas Newydd. We drove back through Llangollen to Valle Crucis Abbey and the Horseshoe Pass. Of course, whilst at Valle Crucis Abbey, we also visited my favourite site in the universe: the Pillar of Eliseg. At each site we discussed the past and present mnemonic dimensions of the monuments and their environs.

Read about our work at the Pillar of Eliseg in previous blog entries and also on our project’s website here. I have discussed these sites previously in a series of blogs, so I won’t repeat them here. Since our dig last season of fieldwork in 2012, we have been working hard on the post-excavation analysis and we are working it up towards publication. We have radiocarbon dates demonstrating the mound upon which the early medieval stone cross-shaft is now situated dates back to the Early Bronze Age. This helps us to explore the complex biography of the site as memories were worked and reworked by construction processes, performances and burials intermittently over millennia.

It wasn’t all work, work, work. We were misidentified as ‘Australians’ on the basis of our English and Spanish accents (and perhaps also our dress and appearance?). We stopped for cake and coffee at Plas Newydd, and also for more cake and crisps at the unique and fabulous Ponderosa Cafe.

Finally, I wanted to mention the landscape of placards proclaiming support for various political parties. I witnessed the Scottish referendum’s landscape of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in town, village and country in the Scottish Borders around Coldstream last year. The Vale was hardly as passionate, but it was interesting to see a few various different placards in Llangollen itself and in the fields surrounding.

The results are now in and the status quo has been maintained in Wales, more so than even in England, and in stark contrast to the radical shift towards nationalist politics in Scotland. Interestingly, the owner of the field neighbouring the Pillar of Eliseg promoted support for Plaid Cymru, who failed to make any significant in-roads into core Labour territories.

As for the Pillar itself? It has two Latin texts upon it, one hardly legible and ninth-century, one proud and prominent and eighteenth-century. Neither give a clue as to how their commissioners might have interpreted this election. Both were proudly ‘British’/’Welsh’ for their day, but had far-reaching connections and interactions. A ridiculous point you even raised and speculate on, one might say, but the Pillar is completely silent on the issue. In any case, it is not really a democratic monument in any regard past or present, it was a monument of oppression and laughs at democracy. So I suspect it did not promote any candidate… If you want me to guess further, I am quite certain it didn’t vote Liberal Democrat….

Incidentally, the Vale and the Pillar are in the Clwyd South parliamentary constituency which remained Welsh Labour.


The temporary landscape of election. I never found out how the Pillar of Eliseg voted.

IMG_7889 I didn’t realise that right by the University of Chester, and right by where I cycle every day, is a fabulously odd metal milepost that relates directly to my archaeological, and archaeodeath, research interests. The reason I have missed this before is because I rarely go down to the canal itself but instead cycle between Shotton and the University on the Millennium Greenway. I only saw this milepost whilst walking with students back from Chester Crematorium to the University via its new and useful Greenway Gate.

This is a significant milepost, since it marks the northernmost milepost of the 230 mile-long Mercian Way that connects Chester to Salisbury. It is also known as Sustrans Cycle Route 45. Near-identical mileposts can be found along this route. The choice of milepost design is intended to invoke the fact that a large section of the route lies within the historic Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia which comes to prominence in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and disintegrates as an autonomous kingdom in the late 9th century AD.

Professor Pedantic says get on your bike! Here’s why:

1) The panels on the lower half of the milepost in which the distances appear contain simplified versions of pre-Roman Iron Age shields, akin to the famous Battersea Shield. Sorry, but this has nothing to do with Mercia or the Anglo-Saxons, geographically, chronologically or in any other regard. Shields of the 7th to 9th centuries are mainly known from 7th-century grave-finds and they looking nothing like these. Anglo-Saxon shields are widely understood to be circular in form, with a central boss, although they might also have a range of metal mounts and fittings on the panel. Therefore, this choice of design element for the milepost is more than a little bizarre.

2) The Anglo-Saxon warrior, who is cloaked and helmeted, is wearing an interesting take on the helmet recovered by Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo during excavations initiated by Basil Brown and directed by  Charles Phillips. The fragments were painstakingly reconstructed after the Second World War twice. It is now on display as the centre-piece of their early medieval gallery, as discussed here and replicas have been made for display elsewhere, including the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre. It is perhaps the singlemost iconic artefact of early England and I have been among the people who have discussed its significance as a martial and ceremonial artefact, and the decision to inter it in the chamber constructed amidships within a seagoing vessel at this striking, and arguably ‘royal’ burial ground.

The milepost version has the diagnostic cheekpieces, neckpiece, and face-mask, as well as crudely articulated pressbleche panels containing incomprehensible decoration and a rather random non-descript swirly pattern down where the Sutton Hoo helmet has a pair of dragons comprising the comb. Is there some kind of beast on the crest? These details aside, the eyebrows, nose-piece and cheek-pieces alone demonstrate that this unquestionably a crude attempt to mimick the Sutton Hoo artefact.

IMG_7892The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of a small number of helmets known from pre-Viking England, the others are from a 19th-century excavation of a barrow-burial at Benty Grange, Derbyshire. Next we have the Coppergate helmet from York; while the dig is known for its striking detail about Viking-Age York, this was found in a pre-Viking well deposit. Then we have the 1990s excavation of an isolated weapon burial at Woolaston, Northamptonshire. Most recently, there is a fragment of helmet cheek piece interred with the Staffordshire Hoard. The fragment from the Staffordshire hoard, like the Sutton Hoo helmet, is likely a sixth-century helmet interred long after its manufacture. The Benty Grange and Woolston helmets are of seventh-century date, while the Coppergate artefact is regarded as belonging to the eighth century.

Helmets were martial implements, but also stark symbols of elite status and superbly wrought gift-exchange items. Helmets may have also been associated with pre-Christian masking practices with shape-shifting connotations. Helmets may therefore may have held key roles in ceremonial performances as well as warfare.

Certainly we imagine helmets were varied in style and their form was not restricted to, or diagnostic of, particular ethnic groups or polities. They were widely circulated among elites, given by lords to retainers and inherited by descendants. Unfortunately, the helm from Sutton Hoo is unlikely to be of East Anglian manufacture but postulated as a product of high-status craftsperson(s) working in sixth-century southern Scandinavia.

Incidentally, in my 2011 article in the Journal of Social Archaeology, I proposed an original interpretation of the Sutton Hoo helmet’s use in the mortuary process and the burial context of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo as  affording the sense of an animated chamber through its ocular agency: affording the sense of a seeing, sensing presence.

There is nothing wrong with using the Sutton Hoo helmet, as an item of war-gear and ceremonial practices buried in an East Anglian princely grave, appearing in a Mercian heritage/cycle trail context. Helmets like that found at Sutton Hoo might have been readily worn by Mercian royals and nobles. Still, it is a pity that the designer didn’t realise that the Sutton Hoo site is still almost exclusively related to the East Anglian bid, despite one attempt frame the cemetery in relation to the East Saxons. Either way,  it has nothing to do with the Mercians directly. In contrast, both Benty Grange and Woolaston are demonstrably within the Mercian orbit and might have been more historically sensitive emblems of a trail that spans much of western Mercia.

In summary, with my Professor Pedantic helmet on, I must judge this design to be insensitive and ill-considered from an archaeological perspective. Why isn’t the Benty Grange helmet here?

Having said that, with my Professor Positive helmet on, I am very pleased to see the Anglo-Saxon past receiving such a bold representation in the contemporary landscape. I am ashamed it has taken me so long to notice and comment on this important heritage find!

Finally, I also like image King Raedwald of East Anglia out on his bike, struggling across western Merican to find a zero-hour minimum-wage job in a fashion that would make Norman Tebbit proud.

Of course, he would have ‘Route 45′ around his neck….

Ironic, it’s election night!

Crematorium small

My students and me being shown around Chester Crematorium by Mr Wayne Atkinson. Photograph reproduced courtesy on Cheshire West and Chester Council


Chester Crematorium from the south, showing all the new burial plots as yet unoccupied.

Last week, I led a group of postgraduate students from our exciting and unique MA Archaeology of Death and Memory on a very special field visit to explore the contemporary  material cultures and landscapes of burial and commemoration in today’s Britain. The course is thematic, and we consider the complex and dynamic relationships between death, mourning and commemoration across cultures from prehistory to the present. Through this field trip, we focused on the theme of cremation as a disposal method and how it facilitates the continued use of the traditional grave plot and cemetery spaces, but also new and diverse commemorative strategies with and without various different dimensions of burial plot and memorial. This is the subject of my own research and publications, but it is a wider theme of interest to historians and sociologists of death too.

With this aim in mind, we arranged for a special guided tour around Chester Crematorium, run by Cheshire West and Chester County Council. This is a newly built crematorium: only 2 years old. It is built on a greenfield site adjacent to the previous location of the old crematorium at the eastern edge of Blacon cemetery. The original crematorium was established in the 1960s. Since the 1960s, over 84,000 dead bodies have been cremated on this site, serving the city of Chester and its environs and each week day usually between 9 and 10 cremations take place on the premises.

IMG_7869Mr Wayne Atkinson, crematorium technician and assistant registrar, gave us a detailed tour behind the scenes into the operational procedures surrounding the cremation of the dead. Mr Atkinson answered all our questions and provided many fascinating insights into the workings of a modern crematorium. I have been to see a crematorium before – at Pentrebychan, Wrexham – but this time I had my understanding refreshed and I saw elements I don’t recall seeing before; namely the charging of bodies into the cremation ovens.

The cremation process can be crudely summarised thus. Once the chapel is clear of mourners, a light alerts the technicians that the coffin is ready for collection. A sound-proof hatch comprising of twin doors is opened and the coffin tested for its weight and then dragged towards the technician and rolled onto one of two trolleys. In the case of a backlog of bodies (for example, if one of the ovens is broken), there is a freezer to store bodies awaiting cremation. Bodies must be cremated within 24 hours of the funeral service in the chapel.

When the oven is ready and the previous body’s remains have been removed, the oven is ‘charged’ by rolling the coffin off the trolley and, in one single fluid motion, throwing it into the oven foot-end first. The technician is an expert at this and it is a subtle movement; not a dramatic tossing of the coffin. Most striking was the powerful roar of the oven as the door was open; a memorable moment for me and perhaps understandable that this experience tends not to be one shared by mourners.


Chester Crematorium from the road to the north

The oven door is then closed, but there are portholes to allow the technicians to view in to check on progress at either end of the oven. Cremation is always feet first, to ensure charging is easy and consistent and also because the gas jets are positioned with this expectation. Cremation takes c. 1.5 hours (depending on a range of factors, including the size and composition of the body).

Having witnessed the transportation and charging of a coffin and then we moved around to the operation room (pictured) to see how the computers managed the twin ovens on the site. This was a cramped space, but it allowed us a sense of the complexity of the ovens as a mechanism of fiery transformation of bodies to ash.

Finally, at the back of the ovens, we got to see the process of raking out the remains into a cooling chamber. I was struck by the beauty of this moment, and the bright sparkling of still-hot embers as the raking took place. All that survives is bone and metal; everything else is dispersed. There are also complex filter systems to prevent pollutants (including mercury and plastic residues) from entering the atmosphere of Chester.

Once the ashes are cooler but not cool, they are tipped into a metal tray for transportation to the second stage of the cremation process: the cremulator. It is important to note that most ancient cremation processes would have ended with these cremated human remains: which are shrunken, broken and showing heat alteration to their colour and texture, but remain discernibly the bones of a human being. Witnessing cremated bone at this stage is akin to the cremated bone we find on archaeological sites. It is the cremulator that is employed in modern cremation to make the ground grains which we regard as ‘ashes’. These make cremated bone less emotionally striking and tangibly ‘human’, but the rationale given during our visit was to reduce further the size and weight to make them more readily transportable. From this practical perspective, the smaller-sized grains of crushed human bone make the cremains ready for collection by relatives in a box or for transportation to the garden of remembrance for scattering in an urn.

The cremultor machine that looks akin to an old-fashioned tumble-dryer. Metal items are removed (false limbs usually) before the bones are ground to a powder for scattering or returning to the family. We got to see a display of the artificial knee-caps and proximal femurs that have been retrieved from recent cremations; these are recycled and proceeds given to charities chosen by the mourners. Upon their removal from the cremulator, the technicians then place the cremated human remains s in a box ready for mourners to collect them, or else they can be transported in a bronze urn for ash-scattering on the grounds, either in the presence of mourners or simply with a representative of the cemetery staff in attendance.

Identity is key to cremation. Throughout the process, name tags move to the ovens and to the cremulator and the box/urn to ensure that only the remains of that one person are kept separate and identified at all times.

This process is a technical process taking place out of sight of mourners; and so there is considerable folklore and anxiety surrounding the ‘hidden’ nature of cremation. Death professionals are very keen to dispell much of this and so the staff are keen to be completely open about the process. While few opt to use it, there is a viewing gallery which can afford those that wish to the opportunity to watch the charging of the ovens.

What struck me about the staff was the balance between informality and ritualisation even behind the scenes. The staff work and talk and conduct themselves without hindrance from noise restrictions, but there remains a quiet respect for the bodies, even though this process is out of sight for relatives and friends of the deceased. Therefore, professionalism and subtle postures and movements create a sense of dignity and respect, rather than dress and demeanour.

I want to thank Mr Atkinson and all the staff of Chester Crematorium for their generosity in allowing my students to visit this striking facility.



The conference delegates walk through the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh


Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh – the shell of the burnt out church and the restored tower seen from the distance to the west

During last month’s two-day conference on the Past in its Place at Buckfast Abbey, Devon there was scheduled an excursion on foot up the steep slopes of the nearby hill to the south of the modern abbey to visit the beautiful churchyard and ruined church of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh.

Prominently situated overlooking the valley below, recent excavations have demonstrated the existence of the foundations of a late Anglo-Saxon church associated with multiple generations of burials contained in wooden coffins with iron nails, and charcoal scattered in at least one of the graves investigated. Together the evidence serves to indicate high-status late Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices. In turn, this is commensurate with Holy Trinity marking the original site of the monastery known to have been in existence by AD 1018 and prior to its translation to the valley floor in the 12th century.

This was an apposite location for our Past in its Place conference, not only because of the church’s long history as a time-mark in the landscape, but also because this church and churchyard are wrapped  in folklore as described here.

Stories focus in particular on the penthouse building on the north side of the church, containing the tomb of seventeenth-century squire, Richard Cabell. Viewed by peering through iron bars and weighed down by a large white slab, this is a distinctive dimension to the churchyard.

Richard Cabell is recalled as an immoral person who murdered his wife (despite the fact she may have actually outlived him 14 years, but there’s no smoke without fire as they say). On the night of his burial, a pack of phantom hounds bayed at his tomb and have done so since on the anniversary of his death or some such nonsense.

The building and slab are interpreted as strategies by villagers to put his soul to sleep but even then a red glow can be seen emitting through the iron bars. If you were ever inclined, running around the tomb seven times and sticking  your hand through the iron bars will result in the squire or the Devil himself biting your fingers. A system of caves, including one with a demonic-looking combined stalagtite/stalagmite, add to the otherwordliness of the environs. Of greatest literally interest is the suggestion that the story, known to Conan Doyle, was the principal inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The church’s isolated hill-top spot has historically made it a target for body-snatching, vandalism and arson as well as meteorological mishaps. Arsonists set fire to the church in 1849, it was hit by a lightning strike in 1884 and then if that wasn’t bad luck enough it was hit by German bombs during the Second World War. Arson had a last and devastating affect on the church again in 1992, destroying all but the church tower and blowing apart the Norman font. Blamed by some on Satanists who worshipped at Cabell’s tomb, it must be kept in mind, as we have discussed elsewhere for Hawarden church, Flintshire, churches can frequently fall victim to fires, whether deliberate or accidental, and in many circumstances other than supernatural instigation and devil worship. Still, Buckfastleigh church has had a particular run of bad luck and unsavoury attention.


Delegates listen to the grisly folklore told by Professor Philip Schwyzer

What strikes me is the materiality of the folklore; a persistent theme. It is the grandiose position and size of the tomb and its building and the very weight of the slab bearing down upon it, that together provoke the demonic associations. Ambivalence to the isolated location, separated from the dwellings of the living, may have fostered this narrative.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the aerial and fiery dimensions of the site and its folklore too. Such a prominent tower and hill-top location prompts real aerial attacks from lightning and the weather more generally.

Incidentally, I can now add to the folklore: a good archaeological friend of mine who was on the dig says that he found a petrol cap…. was this related to the 1992 fire? Or was it the demonic petrol cap of a 17th-century hell-hound?

In any case, the shell of the church has become a memorial to its own illicit destruction by forces unknown; whether they were really the result of those who believed in devil worship or not. There is indeed a plaque inside the structure memorialising the criminal act. The additional plaque is merely a warning sign against litigation due to the perils of a roofless structure, but given the supernatural dimensions of the locale’s folklore, it might read as a more ominous warning:


Commemorating destruction and a warning to the wise






This 19th-century monument is simply bizarre: let me know if you have any parallels for this one please

Finally, there are many dimensions to Buckfastleigh church that are simply worthy of attention for anyone: a war memorial and many distinctive gravestones, most from the 19th and 20th centuries as one might expect. Still, there is one particularly odd example of a 19th-century church monument close to Cabell’s much-feared mausoleum. Given the folklore surrounding weighty stone monuments, I presume there must be some story about this most bizarre feat of mortlockery and skeuomorphism. I would like to hear more about comparable monuments from elsewhere please!


View north from the ruins of Holy Trinity to the Benedictine Abbey of Buckfast, home to the conference and much tonic wine.

After our visit, we returned to the conference for more papers on memory in the landscape, inspired and invigorated by this most eerie and stimulating of places. Abandoned churches with still-active churchyards have a distinctive atmosphere wherever they are found. Still, the recent and devastating impact of arson on this location makes this a particularly sad and bereft place of worship.


The Hembury motte

When in Devon last month, I briefly visited an ancient monument that is an old favourite of mine: Hembury Hillfort. This is a wooded hill-top on the south-east edge of Dartmoor above the River Dart and close to Ashburton. This landscape is managed by the National Trust as a part of Holne Woods.

Note: this is not to be confused with the east Devon ‘Hembury’ which is a very impressive ancient monument in its own right: a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and Iron Age hillfort.


Another view of the motte

Having walked from the small roadside car park through the woods along the ridge from the hillfort, I then decided not to enter into the monument straight away. Instead, I  perambulated the earthworks clockwise inside the ditch before walking around the inside of the hillfort. Finally, I explored the much denuded Norman motte marking the highest point of the site just within the Iron Age earthworks. I enjoyed my walk through the early spring landscape of flowering  bushes and thorns but still-bare trees in the early morning, watching chats and thrushes tweet and dart and listening to an elusive but noisy woodpecker.


View of the landscape and Dartmoor beyond, looking from the road near Hembury hillfort

What of Hembury’s archaeology? Unlike the east Devon Hembury, the south Devon Hembury has received no modern and recorded excavations. Hence, all the information on the heritage board is informed speculation. What I mean by this is that Hembury hillfort is only ‘Iron Age’ in  morphological comparison with many other hillforts in the South-West. Likewise, the motte-and-bailey castle is ‘Norman’ by comparison, not from evidence gleaned from the site itself, but from excavations and surveys of similar monuments across Britain and Ireland.


The fortifications: Hembury hillfort. Possibly Iron Age


Unidentified chat: Hembury hillfort

For both periods, the location tells us a story in itself; of the many possible locations, this hillfort, and subsequently the castle, is strategically situated to control movement in its hinterland, around the southern edge of Dartmoor and to control routes towards the coast along the Dart valley. It would have also controlled the upland resources of the moor itself. Hence, despite unquestionably different societies and situations that led to their building, there may have been similar military and strategic motivations – in the broadest terms – that marked the choice of location in prehistory and in the Middle Ages. We might also speculate, as noted in many other locations, whether the reuse of an earlier ancient site afforded the Norman castle-builders with a legitimacy: appropriating pre-existing understandings and perceptions of the site and shutting down alternative uses and narratives that might be connected to resistance to the Norman occupiers.

Unfortunately, that is probably as much as we can say; sites like this are conserved in ignorance; the detailed picture of their micro-histories of use and reuse are only hinted at through the stark presence of at least two phases of earthwork building in the Iron Age and Anglo-Norman periods. Hence, while a striking example of a wider pattern of medieval reuses of hillforts, one wonders how much more might be revealed through excavation and new remote sensing techniques to reveal further details about the history of the site. As it stands, Hembury isn’t a place without a past, but it is a ghostly apparition; tangible only through the hint of a generic narrative about the region’s and nation’s past, rather than a refined and rich local narrative. It reminds us that, for many ancient monuments in the British landscape, the histories of occupation, and the histories of memory, that we write are only as good as the archaeological fieldwork at our disposal.


View from the motte across the interior of Hembury


Early spring at Hembury hillfort


The heritage board at Hembury


Hembury Hillfort, National Trust sign


View over Hountor from Haytor


View west from Haytor

In early Feb 2014, I was down in Devon with my colleague Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores exploring key sites for the Past in its Place project.  Last month we were back again for the Past in its Place conference at Buckfast Abbey.

What was frustrating about visiting Devon so briefly was how little I had time to re-connect with its landscape. Still, with little time to explore, it made sense to head to a striking highlight that is readily accessible to tourists and locals. In the autumn late afternoon light of the first day down in Devon, Paty and I revisited Haytor.

This granite tor is an iconic natural landmark is visible from large swathes of south and central Devon. It might be far from ‘typical’ of Dartmoor and its surroundings, yet from it one can look out over the countryside of southern Devon and over a moorland landscape which bears many traces of prehistoric, medieval, post-medieval and industrial archaeology. From cairns to tramways, from field systems to abandoned settlements, from quarries to roads, from Haytor one can gain a sense of a landscape transformed by human activity. One can also see Houndtor, famous for me because of its deserted medieval settlement and associated field system as much as for its folkloric and literary associations.

Previously, I mentioned that Haytor is not only a place for the living to visit, but also a place of memorialisation and ash-scattering. It also bears traces of the 19th-century steps cut in it to facilitate visitors: Haytor is a natural tor and a natural monument bearing natural and human action. It is stone sculpted for the tourist, just as the landscape surrounding it, its ponies and its car parks, its vegetation and woodland, are part of a national park managed for visitors and locals alike.

For Paty and I on this trip, it is little other than a casual stop-off on our way to an academic conference. Still, it served to reinvigorate me for tackling academic debates about memory and landscape that were to come in the following days at Buckfast Abbey. In this regard, Haytor was a snapshot of landscape and a snapshot of memory.


View south-west from Haytor


Horse at Haytor car park

Paty on Haytor

Paty on Haytor


Whittington Castle: the gatehouse from the inner ward


The gatehouse

Recently I visited Whittington Castle in Shropshire on two occasions: with heritage students as part of a field trip for their first-year course looking at the range of ways in which castles as heritage monuments are managed and conserved, and once with my kids.


View along the walls of the inner ward

Whittington Castle is in a low-lying situation within a series of far-earlier prehistoric earthworks. This seemingly accessible location to the modern visitor is actually heavily defensible. This is because it is situated to utilise natural springs and bogs, augmented by earthworks to create moats, rendering it a striking residence and fortification. In later life, this watery environment created key dimensions of the medieval gardens that populated the outer ward.

Unlike Cadw and English Heritage sites, this is a site run by an independent charitable trust: the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust. As their website proudly states, they are the only castle in England run by their own community. Visiting the site is a very different experience to an English Heritage castle like Beeston. It is only £1 to park and then free to enter. There is a nice cafe and bookshop (mentioned above) and lots of friendly doves, ducks and even swans.


The 14th-century garden ‘mount’.

Learning all about Whittington Castle is easy. The castle’s website might not be fully up-to-date and slick in its presentation, but it more than makes up for it with regard to detail. Indeed, it is also far more detailed than any nearby English Heritage and Cadw castle’s website. With the support of English Heritage, the Trust has produced a very useful guidebook by Pete Brown, available from the cafe and bookshop beside the gatehouse. The website and guidebook combine to provide full interpretations of the buildings and earthworks.


The extensive stream-fed moat

Details of the dating of the prehistoric ditches are obscure in the guidebook, and a possible Iron Age date seems reasonably but still conjectural. Still, the motte-and-bailey castle dates to the 12th century and is attributed to William Peverel. The site remained in the hands of Roger de Powis before being taken over by Fulk Fitz Warin III.  This castle was destroyed in 1223 by a Welsh attack but rebuilt in stone and occupied and adapted by generations of Fulks down to the Glyndwr rebellion and the subsequent lordship of Fulk XI. The castle remained an elite residence through the later 15th and 16th centuries. Its long decline is charted through the 17th century to recent times with not even the drama of the English Civil War intervening.


Exploring the inner ward

The features of greatest interest for the visitor are the gatehouse, the ‘mount’ which might be a 14th-century  feature which together with a fishpond and platforms indicate the transformation of the outer bailey from a fortified residence to a lordly designed garden. The inner bailey is regarded as a monument of four principal stages beginning life as  a motte and subsequently evolving through timber and then stone keep and curtain walls and towers.


In the stocks

My students enjoyed putting their heads in the stocks (something I would like to do to all of them who didn’t turn up for their formative assessment presentations) and wandered about the ruins. We discussed the contrast between the way the site is maintained and English Heritage and Cadw sites. We also debated different options for how to manage, conserve and present the remains. The students and I also bought cake in large quantities from the aforementioned cafe.


Picking daisies




Moat and wildlife

On the visit with my kids, we spent less time on cake and the stocks. Instead, my kids enjoyed themselves outside chasing pigeons and ducks and picking daisies. On the castle’s interior, they had far more fun scaling the ruins of the inner ward.


View over the prehistoric earthworks in the field west of the castle

Perhaps most frustrating, as alluded to above, is the appraisal of the prehistoric remains where the disconnection from, and contrast with, other Iron Age fortified sites in the region, including Old Oswestry hillfort, could have been raised and explained. This is a truly distinctive and rare low-lying survival of a prehistoric fortified site and, even as someone like me who has little knowledge or expertise in later prehistoric settlements, I found it disappointing how little is known and discussed about these earthworks compared to the later medieval castle remains.

Finally, some points about the display of the site. The heritage boards are distinctive and visual, if a little more dated than your standard EH versions. Targeted by local vandals who seem to have enjoyed impaling every human figure upon them with darts or some similar projectile, they are still readily comprehensible.




I would fully recommend Whittington to any visitor. Still, I was disappointed at the lack of archaeodeath dimensions, although I guess I could have gone off to lurk around nearby graveyards… Surprisingly, I didn’t spot any memorials or ash-scatterings; something that as previous blog entries show, are surprisingly common at heritage sites.


Posted: April 30, 2015 in Archaeorants

SkullThis is a short blog entry aims to:

  1. to propose a new derogatory remark bespoke for archaeological discussions and uses,
  2. outline a couple of working definitions while encouraging its widespread use beyond these,
  3. describe some of the recent instances that prompted me, personally, to invent it and mutter it to myself.

This may seem to be a very negative blog entry, and the word might be a problematic spin-off from other unfortunate and negative words in the English language. However, this blog entry is actually meant to be a positive one and substitute ‘tard’ for ‘wit’ or ‘head’ if you prefer. Also, please be assured, dear reader, I don’t want to have to use it regularly at other individuals, groups or institutions. Still, I do get angry occasionally, and if muttering this word helps me to get through the day, have sympathy.

Troweltard/Troweltardery noun

Defintion 1: individuals and/or groups who do not recognise or respect and/or actively insult and disrespect, the value of archaeological enquiries and investigations.

Definition 2: individuals and/or groups who actively disrupt and denigrate archaeological research.

Definition 3: individuals and/or groups who have archaeological expertise and knowledge but flagrantly squander or deprecate themselves and/or archaeological research.

Definition 4: individuals and/or groups who simply get right up my nose by bleating about how little we know rather than positively promoting how we refine and enhance our disciplinary research and its interdisciplinary endeavours.

Troweltard/Troweltarding/Troweltarded: verb

Definition: to actively work as, dabble in, or even observe and fail to prevent, acts of flagrant, obscene and/or public troweltardery.

Troweltardacious/Troweltardic: adjective

Definition: to be, or be like, a troweltard

Troweltardly: adverb

Definition: get the idea?

Illustrative Uses:

“S/he is a complete and utter troweltard”.

“Do I look like a troweltard?”

“Respect archaeology you troweltard!”

“The council’s consistent troweltardery in refusing to fund museums and art galleries must be stopped”

“The company are a bunch of troweltards who fail to acknowledge their participation in the destruction of key heritage resources”

“The student is a third-year and yet still doesn’t seem to understand basic archaeological methods and theories: what a troweltard!”

Possible Applications

Applications might be many and varied.

We can all be troweltards at times. In fact, I have to confess that I feel like a troweltard much of the time and seek to make amends.

Academics can be particularly odious troweltards. Museum and field archaeologists can also be troweltards, for example, by denigrating academic or voluntary amateur research as ‘not archaeology’. Students can be troweltards as well. Large swathes of the British public can be troweltards.

Even animals and plants can be troweltards: I love badgers but they are well-known as large annoying troweltards. Tree roots are incredibly troweltardacious and they know it!

Perhaps, even trowels can be troweltards (for example, if wasted in bricklaying rather than archaeological excavation). Equally as a fan of WHS trowels, Marshalltowns are inherently a bit troweltardic.

Perhaps even past people were troweltardacious too. Can we conduct an ‘ archaeology of prehistoric and early historic troweltardery’? or ‘Troweltards in Roman Britain’ in which we explore feckless disregard for ancient remains across time and space?

Still, I’ll focus on one example of utter, bare-faced troweltardery that got my gander up. Recently, a colleague at another university relayed to me a very depressing scenario where she was in a meeting with senior academics who were not archaeologists discussing her career and future research plans, only to find her presence and her career ignored by these two individuals who went on a diatribe between themselves about how fruitless archaeology is as an academic subject. What absolutely, complete troweltards!

Having said that, archaeologists and heritage professionals themselves can be worse troweltards, denigrating their own subject with short-sighted obsessions with our own failings and obsessing about petty feuds about the validity of methods and theories.

If you don’t like archaeology, fine. If you don’t fully understand what archaeologists do and you aren’t interested to find out, then fair play. But don’t go around pretending to be an archaeologist or insisting on passing only negative judgement on archaeological research: that ain’t good! Fringe archaeology is stacked high with gross troweltardery by the way. Politicians are regular and insidious troweltards.

We’re all supposed to be archaeologists now, so really, there is no excuse for troweltardery and trowelwittery. And yet it is everywhere, choking us from inside and outside the discipline.

So don’t be a troweltard (or indeed a trowelwit or a trowelhead). Instead, respect and love archaeology and all it stands for!