The cast of the Bedd Porius stone: Photograph: Marion Page.

I am working my way slowly through the superb scholarship of Nancy Edwards’ A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales published by University of Wales press only recently in 2013.

A recent post on the EMWARG Facebook page by Marion Page of Dyfed Archaeological Trust alerted me to a fascinating example of the complex post-medieval biography of one of the earliest monuments in Nancy’s corpus.

The monument in question is Trawsfynydd (Llech Idris) MR23 (Meirioneth 23). This is a Roman-letter inscribed stone known as Bedd Porius and dated to the 5th century AD. There are online details on the Celtic Inscribed Stones Project website here and photographs on the Cistercian Way website here and the megalithic portal here.

This is a small c. 46cm high, 109cm wide and 44cm deep Arenite stone without signs of modification. It bears a 3-line Latin script which Edwards interprets as:

Porivs / hic in tvmvlo iacit /homo [x]p(ist)ianvs fvit

The stone setting created in the early 19th century for the 5th-century stone. Railings are later, presumably early 20th century and subsequently their once spiked tops removed at a later day, presumably because their low height rendered them particularly lethal. Photograph: Marion Page

She translates this as:

‘Porius lies here in the tomb, he was a Christian man’

The 5th-century attribution is based on the horizontal inscription and its epigraphy, as well as the lack of a cross, taken by Edwards to hint at a 6th-century date on other North Wales stones.

This is therefore one of the earliest early medieval monuments from Wales. Equally important, while its precise original location is unknown, it is closely tied to the vicinity. Edwards notes the first mention in 1209 as Bedyresgyb (‘Grave of the Bishops’) in a charter by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth confirming lands owned by Cymer Abbey and the earliest antiquarian recordings by Vaughan and Lhuyd locate it in relation to a standing stone 2 fields away and noted that the field is called maes y bedh (the field of the grave). Edwards notes that the Roman road is 100m south-west of the field and a roadside situation for the grave this stone originally marked makes a lot of sense.

The landscape context of Bedd Porius. Photograph: Marion Page

What interests me here is the biography of the stone in this location, for which there are three types of evidence: graffiti, its casting, and the monument that has accrued around its early 19th century relocation.

  1. Graffiti: Edwards notes the enhancing in modern times of lines 2 and 3. The early transcription by Vaughan might not be in error by recording letters no longer visible. The graffiti ‘1245E’ is not interpreted by Edwards but was already present in 1846. Further letters have been scratched below the left side of the stone before 1913.
  2. Cast: The Bedd Porius stone today is located in Cardiff: it was then acquired by the National Museum in 1932. The monument in the landscape today is a cast: a replica was allowed to be retained in situ.
  3. Monument: For me this is the most fascinating part. Marion’s photographs, and those on the websites cited above, reveal how its striking situation is clearly an early 19th-century construction, pre-1846. Edwards records how, from the 1846 account, what survives today can be taken to be the stone-walled enclosure erected to protect it by the landowner W.W.E. Wynne after he had rescued it from being built into a wall. Therefore, we have here the archaeology of early 19th-century restoration and conservation and thus the commemoration of a commemorative monument! Moreover, the 19th-century ‘grave’ created to protect the stone survived for less than a century and has subsequently retained protecting a cast of the original. It was perhaps at this point, in the 1930s that the railings were added and subsequently maintained regularly. If the original railings were spiked, subsequently they were not. Hence, we have a multi-phased monument created by landowner and state in succession to preserve a 5th-century monument and then to protect a 19th-century grave-setting around a 20th-century cast.

Why this deserves mentioning is that, in the format of Nancy’s corpus, only the textual biography of later inscriptions can be readily discerned. The archaeology of the cast itself, and the archaeology of the 19th and 20th-century history of the site is not the focus of interest in the corpus volume.

This makes the point very well as to why a biographical approach on early medieval stones is so important. Prioritising the early medieval stone and its inscription makes perfect sense, and even some consideration of its landscape situation is key given the possible longevity of the stone in the vicinity of its replica’s current location. However, it requires a different focus and emphasis when studying early medieval monuments to tackle replication and monumentalisation of the locations associated with early medieval inscribed stones. Such an approach, as advocated by Sian Jones, Sally Foster and Mark Hall, explores not only the original monument but its after-life to the present day.

In the case of the Bedd Porius stone, replication, translation and monumentalisation are but some of the processes at work and deserving of further investigation. Indeed,while a completely different early medieval stone monument, the biography of the Bedd Porius stone bears a strong resemblance in broad terms to the challenges we are facing in tackling the biography of the Pillar of Eliseg. The clear similarity is a post-medieval landowner creating a new monument from an early medieval one. The clear contrast is that the Pillar stayed in the landscape and its replica is found in Llangollen Museum; the opposite fate to the Bedd Porius stone…