Yesterday, as part of the Department of History and Archaeology research seminars, we had a talk from Professor Harold Mytum of the Centre for Manx Studies, University of Liverpool. Harold is well known for his work on the ‘long’ Iron Age from the first millennium BC to the first millennium AD in Ireland and Western Britain, particularly through his excavations at Castell Henllys, Pembrokeshire. He is equally known for his work in historical archaeology, manifested most recently in his research on the archaeology of 20th-century internment focusing on the Isle of Man.
Given my mortuary interests and that of our audience of UG and MA students and academics, Harold is best-known as the leading British scholar to have investigated post-medieval mortuary monuments. His work has involved graveyard surveys in Ireland, Yorkshire, SW Wales, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar and elsewhere in the English-speaking world including North America and Australia.
For Harold’s talk, he focused on the biography and materiality of gravestones from Irish, Welsh and English graveyards. He focused on the biographies revealed in the treatment of individual stones, not only in terms of the individual life-histories revealed, as illustrated here in a gravestone from Hale churchyard, recording the circumstances of an individual’s death. Harold also discussed family gravestones with ‘biographies’, many stages in their maintenance, with texts appended and evidence of cleaning and repair. A second example from Hale shows this clearly: at least three, possibly more, stages in the inscription of the memorial are revealed.The talk also addressed how we can look at the biographies of memorials in churchyards, looking at the complex ways in which memorials were added to, and responded to, existing memorials. Also, how memorials are shifting around the graveyard for practical and other reasons. Also, we can consider the biographies created across the landscape through the interactions between, and choices regarding, where to bury and memorialise the dead.
The talk also addressed the complex materiality of gravestones, a text in context, and therefore a focus of interdisciplinary research from a range of disciplinary perspectives. The focus should not only be on the text, the langugage employed, the script and the decoration, but also the properties (colour, texture and so on) of the stone selected as well. Through materiality, as much as decoration and text, conformity and social inclusion, and individuality and social distinctions, might be articulated in death.
One aspect of the biography and materiality of recent gravestones are examples of citation of far older memorials. To provide an interesting example of how a recent gravestone’s shape and materiality invokes links to earlier monuments, I want to here use the example of a grave from Sjogestad churchyard, in the Swedish province of Ostergotland. Here, it seems that one particular grave deliberately copied the form of the Viking-age rune-stone prominently displayed at the western entrance to the churchyard. The recent memorial is to Per and Else Svard, who died in 2003 and 2006 respectively and their memorial is immediately behind the rune-stone as one enters the churchyard. Hence, while no antiquated text is utilised, form and materiality is here employed to connect the memorialised couple to the place and its deep Christian commemorative heritage.
Harold’s research is of interest to me since I have also conducted graveyard surveys in Devon: at Stokenham, Slapton and Kingskerswell using his CBA churchyard survey handbook. I have also conducted surveys of memorials in Chester’s Overleigh cemetery. One of my MPhil students – Alison Smithson – is researching the expression of nonconformity in death on either side of the English/Welsh border. I am working on a range of aspects of recent and contemporary commemoration in England, Denmark and Sweden (see publications). Finally, I am looking at church and churchyard memorials as part of my work on commemoration in English and Welsh cathedrals.
Harold’s published research and his talk have proved inspirational, showing firm foundation and identifying a range of research questions which archaeologists bring to the study of death and memory in recent centuries. This approach isn’t all about memorials, but it does encourage the use of gravestones as more than a source of written information, but as monuments with biographies and materialities that were key to the commemoration of the dead.