Today I attended the first day of the Cambrian Archaeological Association‘s Easter Conference held at the Wild Pheasant Hotel, Llangollen. Details of the programme can be read here. I missed Friday afternoon’s visit to Llangollen Church and the evening talk by Dr Rhianydd Biebrach on ‘ Effigies of Bishops in south Wales ‘ . Instead, I want to share my notes about the three talks from Saturday morning.

Note: these are not intended to be comprehensive and detailed reports of what was said, but personal impressions of the key points. If you wish to accurately cite the presenter’s ideals and evidence, please read their published work or contact them directly, do not be lazy and cite this blog!

Health and safety! How not to move early medieval stones…

Mark Redknap – ‘Post Nash-Williams’ – the new Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales ‘.

Mark Redknap of the National Museum of Wales gave a detailed review of the history of scholarship leading up to V.E. Nash-Williams’s seminal corpus of Welsh early medieval inscribed and sculpted stones. Mark explained how the recently completed three-volume modern corpus differed from both Nash-Williams and earlier scholarship in a range of respects. While volume 1 was led up by Mark Redknap and John M. Lewis, and volumes 2 and 3 by Nancy Edwards, Mark emphasized how each volume had been a major collaboration with multiple scholars from geologists to linguists.

Mark identified many ways in which the new corpus is an improvement over Nash-Williams, including:

  • new analyses of how designs were created, including syntheses of cross-forms
  • now-lost monuments were included if there is evidence of authenticity
  • new biographies of the stones from first discovery to the present, including insights into the ‘real’ and ‘repaired’ elements of stones
  • the valuable information conveyed through comparing early art and photographs with the modern situation.
  • taking account of translated stones
  • from a linguistic point of view, there is now a much better understanding of the nature of the inscriptions
  • new reconstructions have also been possible
  • recent new discoveries were included in the new corpus such as the stone found at St Dogmaels in 1996 (P117)
  • new readings of stones have been possible, such as at St Arvans 1 (MN5) where the designs of angels suggest a resurrection. Also, at Christchurch (Bulmore 1) MN3 – a 10th- or 11th-century cross, beasts looking like frogs from above, through analogies with contemporary metalwork, are reinterpreted as lions framing the top left and top right corners of the cross-slab
  • In another example, Llanblethian (Nash Manor) 1, a plain cross was puzzling because of strange loops on its outer sides. Only with special lighting and merging four photographs could the faint traces of interlace on the cross be discerned
  • For volume 1, but not continued into volumes 2 and 3, a gazetteer was utilised to help contextualise the major finds from church centres such as Llantwit Major, Margam and Llandough, including relationships with stray-finds by metal-detectorists.

Despite all these developments, Mark went on to discuss how work has never finished and no corpus can ever include everything. For example, he discussed one Monmouthshire stone that only upon the year of publication of vol. 1, 2007, was taken off the wall to reveal that there was decoration on its back-side. In this instance, a revised publication of the monument is planned for the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis. In another example, a stone called Nash-Williams’s Silian 3, lost at the time of Edwards’s vol.2, was subsequently rediscovered, as posted here.

Mark went on to outline the continuing issues of interpretation, conservation and management affecting the stones, including external exposure, theft and vandalism. Private ownership is another threat, because continuity of location and management cannot be readily assured in the long term.  He also emphasised the value of the collection of casts, watercolours and old photographs of stones as they record not only details of context now lost, but also details of the inscriptions and sculpture subsequently damaged.

How can we curate this resource? He argued that there should be a compromise between the solution of moving stones to a museum or leaving them in their original context. Mark identified the redisplay of stones of mixed date at Ewenny Priory as a Cadw-led success. The Pillar of Eliseg was invoked as an example of a decision to make a cast of the monument and install this in a museum context in the locality (Llangollen Museum) while retaining the original exposed in its landscape context. The alternative approach was adopted at Ogmore: to replace the original with a cast and move the original into a museum context. Within this choice, and others, are issues of the value of the authentic original, the value within the local community and the significance of context to understand the monument.

A further interesting point about Mark’s talk was his comments on laser-scanning. He made the point that the results are monochrome and equivalent to virtual casts, some made over 100 years ago. In this regard, the persisting utility of laser scans seems to be accepted, but the potential of studying the casts, as well as the original where possible, cannot be denied. What I took from this is that the expense of laser-scanning requires careful use and a clear vision of what the scanning will achieve for research and heritage purposes.

In summary, Mark Redknap presented a detailed overview of the development of the study of early medieval stones in Wales up to and beyond the creation of the recent corpus volumes. Despite on-going challenges and new discoveries, the stones themselves and their full publication constitute a superb resource for future research and public engagement with the Early Middle Ages.

Revising Gresham with Brian and Moira Gittos
Revising Gresham with Brian and Moira Gittos

Brian and Moira Gittos – ‘ Gresham revisited: recent research on the medieval monuments of North Wales 

Brian and Moria Gittos have recently published a reassessment of Gresham’s study of late medieval stone sculpture in North Wales, exploring a reappraisal of the dating of individual pieces, the overall chronology and the context. In this paper, they outlined how their arguments were founded through a discussion and qualification of Gresham’s supposed three phases of sculpture.

They began by looking at the distinctive half-effigial monument from Beaumaris, seen by Gresham as the beginning of the sequence, dated around 1240. Brian and Moira outlined a range of arguments to suggest that it is much more likely that the style and combination of biting dragon and the tree of life depicted make much more sense in the context of the later 13th century through parallels with other sculpture and metalwork. This argument shifts the date for this monument to 1280, and thus the entire sequence forward to the period of the English conquest and after.

Brian Gittos and a mason's  problems with years.
Brian Gittos talking about English parallels: the Bunbury monuments, Cheshire

At the other end of the sequence, they explored the detail of the armour on the effigies explored by Gresham. They suggested that there are no 13th-century effigies, and confirmed a 14th-century date for all. However, they argued that many dated earlier than Gresham supposed, to the mid-14th, rather than late 14th, century.

They were able to identify some distinctively Welsh components of the effigies of the 14th century in Wales, including the disproportionate use of inscriptions, and the near-complete lack of Norman-French but also the complete absence of Welsh. In particular, the significant use of a sunken relief lettering in a Lombardic script seems to be rarely used on English monuments and reflects the design of the memorial text on the west-end of Valle Crucis Abbey church, dating to the restoration of the structure by Abbot Adam in the mid-14th century.

The text is not simply peripheral on the North Welsh memorials, but also on the borders of shields (23 instances) and down the centre-line of the monument (11 cases). In one example from St Iestyn, Llaniestyn, the text covers many edges, including a pillow. The clear desire is to identify the individuals memorialised in a tenacious textual fashion, almost wrapping their corporeal representation in text.

Finally, Brian and Moira revealed a fascinating example where a seemingly minor revision of Gresham has interesting implications. An understudied effigy monument at Llanuwchllyn has an inscription recording the date 1387, or so previously thought, but it now looks like the date was 1398. The point is that this is the longest year inscription of the 14th century, and the mason had not left room, when making the monument, and had clearly anticipated his patron would have died before or after this year! The rest of the stone is carefully planned, so rather than a mistake made in 1398 in arranging the text upon the monument, it is much more likely this monument was sculpted in the 1370s or 1380s ahead of the patron’s death. Unfortunately for the mason, the patron lived far too long (or not long enough) and died in the most inconvenient of years for the mason! In this instance, the last three numerals had to be squashed onto a new line!

In summary, Brian and Moira offered a detailed and scholarly analysis of the North Wales sculpture, showing how their extensive knowledge of memorials in England and Ireland help to inform the study of the Welsh material and offering revisions of their date and context. This is a ‘part II’ building on their just-published study and it will be only when it appears in print will the full implications of their many detailed observations come to the fore.

Maddy Grey on post-Reformation cross-slabs and IHS trigram motifs
Maddy Grey on post-Reformation cross-slabs and IHS trigram motifs

Maddy Gray – ‘ Catholic symbols on some post-Reformation tomb slabs’

The third talk of Saturday was by Maddy Grey (University of South Wales). Her focus was upon post-medieval cross-slabs – a hitherto poorly investigated group of monuments. Her research shows how they are not as rare as first thought, and that claims by some post-medieval specialists that ‘you don’t have cross-slabs post-Reformation’ is clearly false, certainly in the Welsh context. She showed how many of these memorials, whilst often seen as the reuse of medieval cross-slabs in the post-medieval era, were sometimes instances of fully post-medieval cross-slabs. In some cases, they are post-medieval cross-slabs reused within a century.

Her focus was on the occurrence of the IHS trigram. While popularised by the cult of the holy name of Jesus and the Society of Jesus, born of late medieval mystical practice, she argued that this need not be a symbol of post-Reformation Catholic identity. In some cases, those with IHS on their memorials were clearly Catholics, in other cases, it might be an extension of conservative, traditional practice. She argued that contemplating on the name of Christ was not in itself counter to reformed thinking and practice.

She honestly and bravely identified the challenge of coming up with a full sense of the distribution of this tradition and an explanation of where the IHS motif was used and conclusively not used. Also, new examples are being found all the time, as she demonstrated with a church she is intimately familiar and yet still new examples of IHS trigrams on post-medieval cross-slabs could be overlooked until a context came – on a student fieldtrip – when many pairs of eyes were looking explicitly for them!

A fascinating set of morning talks. I will outline the afternoon fieldtrip in a subsequent post.