Students approaching the west end of the Valle Crucis church
West front of Valle Crucis church

A group of MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students led by Dr Adrian Maldonado headed out to the Vale of Llangollen on 11th Feb. I took the opportunity to join them. We visited the famous Pillar of Eliseg but after gorging on a fine lunch at the Abbey  Farm, we exploring the beautiful ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey. Last time I visited was with Katy Meyers, mortuary archaeologist and death-blogger (Bones Don’t Lie) from Michigan State University.

Valle Crucis is one of the sites within a Strand 3 study area of the Past in its Place project, in which I am working with historians, geographers, literary scholars and other archaeologists to explore the history of memory in the English and Welsh landscape.

Valle Crucis was founded at the very begining of the thirteenth century. At this point, the Pillar of Eliseg – then likely to have remained intact as a large stone cross – was still within the landscape, and presumably the inspiration for the place-name ‘Valley of the Cross’. Hence, the monument was co-opted into the landscape of the Cistercian monastic foundation under the patronage of the princes of Powys.

Abbey reuse: the Abbot’s house reused as a post-medieval farm
Trevor Lloyd’s summer lodge

The ruins today are the ‘product’ of centuries of building, use, attacks, fires, rebuilding, dissolution (1537), ruination, quarrying, reuse as a farm, managing and conservation. For example, the only roofed section is the abbot’s house, reused as a post-medieval farm. Subsequently, in the grounds is the Summer Lodge built by Trevor Lloyd  in 1773: his repositioning of the Pillar was likely connected to this building and the gardens he built around the fishponds. Is it a coincidence that the Pillar is on the middle-horizon from this dwelling?

MA student Ben wading through the chapter house
The refectory under water

The Cistercians were famed for their hydraulic engineering, draining and diverting water to serve the ritual and economic needs of their foundations. At Valle Crucis, their fishponds survive and were reused as a garden feature by Lloyd, the mill leat of the monastery can be charted, and Lidar has picked up traces of further fishponds upstream of the monastery. Hence, another interesting feature of the visit was the water damage. The deluge of water pouring on the Welsh hills in recent days has had a noticeable affect on the site. The refectory was flooded and so was the chapter house. This is not the kind of water that the Cistercians would have welcomed. Fortunately, some of us had wellies!

Finally, I must point out a few aspects of mortuary commemoration. In the previous blog, I talked about the display of patron’s and abbot’s graves within the abbot’s house. This is inaccessible during winter times. Instead, I want to talk about the graves in the monastic burial ground to the east of the abbey church. These were excavated in the 1960s and their fragments have been raised up and consolidated as a part of the modern visitor’s landscape. This ‘raising of the dead’ is a distinctive feature of many former monastic sites subject to archaeology – the dead are literally put back on display, not using their bodies, but using their containers.

I am interested in this phenomenon since it is one of the ways by which the dead are made a part of museums, heritage sites and other public places through cenotaphic commemoration – citing bodies that are no longer there. A topic for a forthcoming research paper perhaps…

Death in absentia