Did you know that the names of all the British servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and indeed every conflict the UK has participated in since 1945, are inscribed on a monument directly inspired by British Prehistory? Let me explain where and why.
Earlier this year, I published an article on the theme of ‘contemporary archaeology’ focusing on the UK’s recently created national garden of remembrance: the National Memorial Arboretum. If you haven’t visited the NMA, it is well worth experiencing. Located near Alrewas, Staffordshire, I first visited in 2009 with a group of students and the experience was unforgettably moving and disturbing.
The NMA is a millennium memorial landscape. Hence, it is a very young arboretum, so while plantings of trees, woodlands and other plantings are everywhere, the site feels very open and the stone memorials within the memorial groves and gardens create an overwhelming monumental presence. It is also a striking space because it is bordered by rivers, road, railway lines but also an active gravel quarry. There are a number of foci for the NMA: the visitor centre, the Far East Prisoners of War memorial museum, but perhaps the centrepiece is the Armed Forces Memorial. It is this final monument that its architect and the NMA guidebook explains is inspired by antiquity.
It is near impossible to describe the variability in the other memorial woods and gardens. They embrace many themes and many groups, from regimental and war memorials to peace memorials and the SANDS memorial garden commemorating stillborn and neonatal deaths. Simultaneously within the NMA one can find monuments that are overtly elements of political discourse and legitimizing conflict to memorials that mobilise protest and challenge preconceived ideas. It is a bewilderingly complex and varied memorial landscape.
Sites like this have yet to receive much archaeological interest or attention. Yet they should be for a variety of reasons. If archaeology is going to offer both comment and critique on contemporary death-ways and commemorative practice, then sites like the NMA require investigation. This is of course a sensitive topic, because the NMA is a place used by a wide variety of modern groups, including those mourning the loss of loved ones in conflicts and accidents across the world.
The theme I explore in my article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies is how the memorials of the NMA appropriate and (sometimes) replicate various architectures of prehistoric, ancient and medieval origin within the memorial gardens. I explore the stone circles, burial mounds, temples and churches evoked in the design of the memorial gardens and how they operate in relation to the geological, celestial and arboreal metaphors of the NMA. For example the design of the Armed Forces Memorial itself incorporates a mix of British prehistoric monuments combined with Egyptian and Greco-Roman architectures and statuary. Explicit elements are taken – so the official literature tells us – from iconic British prehistoric architectures: the Neolithic passage-grave of Maeshowe, Silbury Hill and the burial mounds around Stonehenge. Likewise the memorial to the Royal Ulster Constabulary is a stone circle, each stone taken from one of the six counties of Northern Ireland. There is even a memorial timeline of replica memorial sculpture from prehistory to the present: the National Association of Memorial Masons…. Memorial. I hope that my article raised archaeologists and heritage professionals awareness regarding how antiquity continues to be mobilised in modern commemorative practice.
There are other obvious archaeological themes at the NMA. For example, the site not only replicates the past: it is part-museum since it is a resting place for the display of war memorials and artefacts brought from elsewhere and incorporated into the memorial landscape. It is also important because it is a place of cenotaphic commemoration, where memorials to individuals and groups are constructed away from the remains of the human dead. I aim to explore these themes in future publications.