First day at the EAA and the morning session was on Outstanding Biographies: The Life of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe. Organised by Marta Diaz-Guardamino, Leonardo Garcia Sanjuan and David Wheatley, it was a densely packed session of papers spanning Europe and looking at different periods, but focusing on the Iron Age, Roman and medieval appropriation of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.
There were 12 papers in total and I was one of them. I wasn’t very satisfied that I got across my point and my case study of my collaborative work at the Pillar of Eliseg, Denbighshire, was put to good effect. Still, I presented my thinking on our 2010-12 fieldwork and the wider implications for studying the biography of monuments. My paper came up again and again in discussions, so clearly I said things to interest and annoy people in equal measure.
Of the other 11, there were nine that explicitly addressed the conference theme. Of these, I liked all of them but will briefly report on three.
Heather Sebire looked at the life-history of statue-menhirs on Guernsey, and their adoption at weddings, baptisms and May Day as clothed ‘actors’ within the celebrations of the churchyard. For me, this was a fascinating example of the active role of prehistoric monuments in the recent and modern commemorative landscape.
Session organiser Marta Diaz-Guardamino looked at the life-histories of prehistoric stelae and statue-menhirs in Iberia during the Iron Age, Roman and Medieval times. She has some fabulous case studies and how they illustrated very different appropriations and transformations of these monuments through time. I liked the medieval tower rebuilt of stones brought over a kilometre and including an Iron Age stelae, perhaps a conscious incorporation of the past into a new structure.
I also liked Franceso Fedel’s paper on the Copper Age monoliths from Val Camonica, Italy, and how one has produced 4th-century AD radiocarbon dates suggesting ritual activity at the site, and its reactivation at the time of Christian conversion. Was this quite ephemeral activity a pagan reactivation of the distant past as religious resistance to conversion?
A challenge of this session theme is where it is useful to select out specific categories of monument and chart their biographies through successive eras; I feel this approach remains theoretically suspect and methodologically flawed on a number of grounds, including the fact that it presumes a prehistoric and early historic knowledge of artefact and monument typology. I think it might be preferable to look at how specific landscapes develop, and monuments within them of different categories interacting successively. To me, this is a much more refined way of writing about the biographies of places and localities, not writing histories of single monuments or monument-categories. This is an approach that the last paper, Borja Legarra Herrero, did very well indeed. Also, I think it preferable to consider how different categories of monument are subject to reuse or other treatments in specific times, foregrounding context over the archaeological phenomenon of cultural biography itself.
Still, I am in no way dismissing the biographical approach. The contextual examination of specific monuments and specific monument types can lead to some fascinating insights into the significance of the past in the past and changes, patterns and variations in this significance. Moreover, unique and distinctive biographies need not form part of a pattern to be significant and important, this was a point made very clearly in discussion by Marta. This session showed the geographical and chronological breadth of this approach and its application across Europe. As Estella Weiss-Krejci’s paper showed, processes of archaeological use and reuse, this is a theme that links prehistoric and historic archaeologies. But as David Wheatley’s paper clearly showed and my paper also tried to address, image and text do make a difference to other kinds of stone monument, although as Estella’s and my case studies showed, the presence of text doesn’t guarantee perpetuity in the commemorative messages of monuments.
Lunch and afternoon were spent with long conversations with some fabulous and diverse archaeologists. Mark Hall, Sally Foster, Faye Simpson, Duncan Sayer, Dawn Hadley, Mats Burstrom, Richard Hingley, Harold Mytum, Katharina Rebay-Salisbury to name a few. I only got to go into the very end of one of the afternoon sessions. Then an evening at a Czech restaurant with a wide range of archaeologists, those who presented in the Outstanding Biographies session and others too, including Alisdair Whittle, John Robb and Dave Wheatley.
On the whole a good day and lots discussed. On reflection, what struck me as a little odd was the one name who I associate with the biographical approach to megaliths didn’t get a mention, Cornelius Holtorf… Still, I feel his influence was lurking in the background in many ways…