To the north side (upslope) side of Llanbadarn Fawr churchyard one can see a fascinating slate gravestone. I noticed it upon a recent visit in 2011 and revisited again earlier this year to find it much more overgrown. On my 2011 visit I was struck by the fact that, depicted upon the urn was a prehistoric Collard Urn, rather than the usual neoclassical urn, as a symbol of mourning.
I then quickly realised that this was the subject of a research article by Zoe Crossland, Michael Freeman, Paula Jones and Brian Boyd, published in a book edited by Paul Rainbird called Monuments in the Landscape published by Tempus in 2008. You can read a copy of the article here. Let me briefly summarise their argument with all due apologies to the authors for any misunderstandings or unnecessary simplifications.
The gravestone dates to sometime after 1843 and they describe as an ‘accurate descripton of a cinerary urn, such as would be found in the local landscape lying under a Bronze Age barrow, or perhaps more usually today, in the display cases of a museum’ (p. 212). The inscription is in Welsh and their article translate as:
“HERE IS BURIED WILLIAM, SECOND SON OF LEWIS AND MARY HUGHES, OF LLUESTGWILYM, WHO WAS BORN ON THE 5TH APRIL 1824 AND DIED ON THE 26TH OF SEPTEMBER 1843.”
followed by the short verse, again in Welsh:
“Life is but one moment – and worthless/ Are the days of our lives/ From our coming into the world/ it is an unwholesome journey to the tomb’s entrance.”
In English, and below, is exceptional information linked to the exceptional depiction above:
“The Urn delineated at the top of this Stone/ wsa turned up in ploughing over the remains/ of a Tumulus, in a Field called Caerodyn on/ the Farm of Pyllau issa, in the adjoining Parish/ of Llanfihangel Glyndroed alias Creuddyn,/ in the Month of November 1840, it contained a / great quantity of human bones & had the mouth/downward/ R.K.”
Crossland et al. cite the broader context in which this allusion to the pre-Christian past was created was with the rise and intermingling of Egyptian, Gothic and neoclassical motifs in funerary art during the early 19th century but that allusions to ‘Celtic’ designs were yet to become popular until the late 19th century. Whilst unusual, they frame an explanation for the urn in terms of the parallel between British and Classical cinerary urns, the burgeoning archaeological awareness of the 1840s including the emergence of the Cambrian Archaeological Association and their publication Archaeologia Cambrensis.
The authors, like me, are aware of only one other famous representation of a British Bronze Age urn in a funerary context and this takes place nearly two decades later for Thomas Bateman – a famous barrow-digger – as discussed here. This provides no direct parallel in form and context and, unlike Bateman, the authors cannot find a direct connection between the deceased, his family and either the urn or the land upon when it was found. Instead, they pursue two arguments in search of a context for this distinctive representation of a Bronze Age cinerary urn on a 19th-century gravestone:
The Urn as Creation of Welsh National Identity
What the urn reveals about the urn and gravestone were part of changing relationships to the past through archaeological practice. This was too early for an interest in cremation per se, but the authors speculate that it reflected a link to primordial Welsh origins including the concept of druidism as prot0-Christianity, ideas emergent from the mid-18th century. In this context, the anomalous gravestone was ‘part of the re-making of Welsh identity and history in relation to the local landscape and with an eye to its wider significance in the history of Britain’. The key aspect of the gravestone, beyond the depiction of the urn itself, is the use of language; only the description of the urn is in England, reflecting ‘its intended audience of future antiquarians’ and hence the gravestone spoke of a national sense of “Wales’ place in history”.
The Urn’s Biography as Object of Knowledge
The authors then consider how the urn in question had a complex biography of circulation and display. Following work by Stephen Briggs, the authors explore how the urn is reported within the pages of 19th-century archaeological journals but the urn began to float free of its spatial moorings. Notably, they consider how misattributions were subsequently corrected by reference to the details recorded on the gravestone itself! Thus, the gravestone serves as a more reliable material testimony than scholarly records and discourse in the century following the urn’s discovery. Context comes into play at last in the 20th century, the authors argue, part of the emergence of an archaeological mode of remembering.
They authors conclude by seeing the Llanbadarm Fawr gravestone as an ‘”deal venue to record archaeological information, enduringly tying together the image of the urn with the details of its discovery in a local setting designed for memorialisation”, representing new approaches to objects and the past in tandem.
This is a fabulous piece of writing, one of few studies by archaeologists which, in a nuanced and not over-blown way, attempts to seek out how archaeology permeated into early Victorian culture and was integrated into a range of material cultures, including those relating to death.
Reflections on Place and Antiquity
Having visited the gravestone and reflected on the article, I feel inspired to outline five areas of reflection on Crossland et al.’s argument which coalesce around a strange disconnection their article has from the churchyard context in which the gravestone appears.
Crossland et al. refer to Llanbadarn Fawr indirectly and only as a ‘parish church’. Of course it was this, but it was far more than that. The church and churchyard represent one of the most ancient ecclesiastical foci of the Welsh church, recognised for its great antiquity by Gerald of Wales. This would have been familiar to anyone of antiquarian leanings in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Llanbadarn Fawr was the seat of a long medieval history and dedicated to St Padarn. In the 11th century, it became home to a famous clas family with Sulien and his son Ieuan. The church and parish had many celebrities down the ages, for example the parish was birthplace of Dafydd ap Gwilym and the church was the first benefice of William Morgan who first translated the Bible into Welsh. The parish was associated with surveyor and antiquary Lewis Morris. In short, the church in which Hughes’ funeral took place, was not merely a parish church, but a place steeped in Welsh history that informs the context of the urn gravestone as much as a general growth in Welsh nationalism outlined by Crossland et al. And of course, in addition to the gravestones bearing classical urns, any visitor would have been exposed to the older tradition of draped urns found upon intramural epitaphs, providing both exemplar and contrast to the aspirations of those utilising this motif in the churchyard setting.
This deep history of the site was manifest in the church’s medieval architecture but also in two striking early medieval crosses, now on display in the south transept and formally (before 1916) on display opposite the entrance to the south porch. Earlier still, before 1830, they had been situated in the angle between the south transept and the nave. Therefore, around the time that the gravestone for William Hughes was being erected (in or after 1843), the crosses were prominently positioned and would have been past by all worshippers including those attending Hughes’ funeral and burial. I discuss these crosses here. I wonder whether this physical manifestation of the distant past further enhanced the reading of both neoclassical gravestone forms in the churchyard, including the Collarded Urn. Is it simply my imagination, or might the rosettes on the Collared Urn gravestone mirror the early medieval cross-head or is this merely coincidence?
Hillfort and War Memorial
The church and churchyard sat within an ancient landscape too. One manifestation of the ancient past in the vicinity is Pen Dinas hillfort, visible on the skyline to the south-west. Soon after Hughes’ burial, in 1852, a chimney-like memorial was raised by public subscription to commemorate Waterloo and the victory of the Duke of Wellington. This is but one part of a broader landscape of antiquity being discovered, reworked and engaged with, not simply the cairn from when the urn was found, but the environs of the churchyard itself. Although much later, other antique allusions augmented the ‘real’ past at the church and its broader environments. An example is the First World War Memorial close to the church in grandiose neo-Celtic style that actually pays sparse but some attention and citation to the ‘real’ early medieval crosses within the church.
The Churchyard and its Evolution and Ascent
The gravestone was added on the northern, traditionally less favoured, side of the churchyard and at the time of its creation it must have been situated at the upper-limit of its extent. However, what is fascinating is how this location would have shifted in significance whilst remaining in situ in relation to the broader the continued evolution of the burial environment.
This is because Llanbadarn Fawr is a 3D burial ground. The ascent of this churchyard has never ceased since 1843, rising up a ridiculous incline to assure the persistence of the churchyard as a place of burial and memorialisation. Hence, as well as charting the biography of the object, we can chart a horizontal and vertical stratigraphy of memory at Llanbadarn Fawr as graves ascend to stay within the ever-expanding sacred ground.
However, the visual interplay with the church has been powerfully retained and the space has been utilised in its steepest parts by inhumations that require heavy terracing and cremation memorials that cling to the slope in a precarious fashion.
Through this evolution, the cinerary urn, arguably unwittingly, evolved from being a peripheral location to a prominent one as more and more mourners and coffins ascended from the church to newer graves above. Of course now there is a new entrance at the top of the hill with a car park, so the route to the newest graves no longer leads through the older gravestones….
Gravestones as Assemblage
Crossland et al. hit the nail on the head when they argue that the idiosyncrasies of the gravestone represent the struggle of general trends to erase individual histories: burial grounds remain places for imaginative play. I love this point. However, to partly counter or compliment it with another: I would suggest that (using an only partly appropriate linguistic analogy and I think Crossland et al. might agree), that while the Bronze Age cinerary urn used different ‘words’ to broadly contemporary neoclassic urns, they were utilising a similar dialect and were in conversation with each other. The rosettes to either side directly mirror the way the classical urns were represented in near-contemporary slate memorials. ‘Failed’ or ‘unique’ experiments like this were perhaps designed not to be readily replicable; to render themselves distinctive from the crowd. Yet simultaneously, they reveal broader trends. The symbol becomes specific and escapes the norm, and yet recognises the grammatical fashion in which it is occupied. In this way, the gravestone, in its uniqueness, is still in ‘conversation’ with earlier, contemporary and later gravestones.
I would also emphasise the shared materiality of the gravestones of this era, a materiality that endured in its significance in creating a sense of what could, and what might, be inscribed upon memorials through the 19th century.
While I have not conducted a detailed study here, it would be profitable to ascertain whom exactly did use neoclassical urns at Llanbadarn Fawr and how they were situated in spatial and material conversation with each other at the time of construction and subsequently.
A further theme I am interested in here is how these assemblages are recreated into new lines and collections as they are displaced, accruing afterlives that are collective as well as individual. Whether in situ, lain horizontally and redisplayed vertically elsewhere, gravestones were an evolving collective.
This blog celebrates how much we can say from a single gravestone but exploring its contexts as much as its contents. I am clearly a fan of Crossland et al.’s article and I believe it succeeds in showing us this very clearly as well as showing, in broader terms, the rich potential of research in historic mortuary archaeology.
Still, in its published form, its attention to the relationship between the biographies of gravestone and objects, while fascinating, feels unsatisfactory because of the absence of interplay between the individual memorial and its environs and fellow-memorials. In other words, what for me is underplayed here is the relationship between the biography of the gravestone and its depicted urn, and the biography of the churchyard and environs, including its microtopography and the cumulative assemblage of gravestones and evolving spatialities down to the present day.
Every archaeologist looks at data differently, and this is a case in point. Perhaps also this simply reveals that distinctive allusions to antiquity on this exceptional gravestone should never be treated anecdotally, but, as Crossland et al. both advocate and demonstrate, they serve as embarkation points down many interpretative routes and by exploring contexts of meaning and significance on multiple scales.