At the recent TAG14 conference at the University of Manchester, I spoke in a session on the archaeology of fire. This blog provides a summary of my argument.

Background – Speaking with the Dead

As part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded Speaking with the Dead project- itself part of the ERC-funded Past in its Place project –  I am looking at cathedral tombs and memorials in a new way. Instead of focusing upon the specific texts, ornamentation, motifs and form of memorials, I am exploring the interaction of tombs and memorials with each other in the evolution of cathedrals. By taking this approach, we can explore emergent themes, rather than simply those designed, through memorial construction and placement within and around cathedrals. Furthermore, I am exploring the contrasting narratives and commemorative strategies over the long in different cathedrals. In particular I am focusing on how both designed and accidental disruptions and transformations, particularly through new connections being made between memorials as they accrue through placement and relocation, fragmentation and destruction, create commemorative themes and associations.

In this context, the theme of fire – its traces, affects on memorials and its incorporation into memorial programmes – is revealing. Fire links together materials, monuments and spaces with accidental and unexpected affects of fires that transform irretrievably the cathedral’s space and foster new commemorative trajectories.

Fiery Material Cultures

Cathedrals need fire and incorporate fire-transformed materials through a variety of means which inform their liturgical and commemorative significance. Worship and other rituals, including funerals, in cathedral churches and crypts required lighting and (certainly in recent centuries) the expectation of heating. I highlighted wax was one such incendiary material culture that has explicit memorial dimensions in votive candles and also votive offerings since the Middle Ages, like those found in Exeter Cathedral discussed here.

18th-century memorial urn with mourning figure
18th-century memorial – York Minster – with flaming urn taking centre stage

Fiery Texts

I then discussed memorials with incendiary themes, such as Lockyer’s tomb from Southwark Cathedral which his virtues and the fame of his pills will not diminish with time:

‘But they’ll survive his dust and not expire/ Till all things else at th’universall fire’.

Thus, fire is an occasional dimension of the textual commemoration of the cathedral dead.

Frozen Fire

Far more common than fiery texts are fiery representations and materialisations. Hence, in addition to these material and textual dimensions to fire in cathedral commemoration, there are also renditions of antique cinerary urns, a common motif in mural monuments from the 16th to the 19th centuries and prevalent in many cathedral memorials. In addition to urns, often draped, there are overt examples of fiery urns, with flames rising from their apertures to symbolise the resurrection of the soul from the tomb. It is not simply that these urns and flaming urns were designed during these eras, but that that accrue to become a powerful presence in some cathedrals through the centuries. They may be present or absent in individual memorial designs, but together they become an intermittent but ever-present theme in intramural mortuary commemoration.

Memorial plaques in York Minster – potentially covering ash interments, or possibly cenotaphs. The memorial form conceals but implies corporeal presence as part of the rise of cremation and cenotaphic commemoration in and around cathedrals
Urn with sword – York Minster


In the last century, these fiery dimensions have been enhanced further still. Cremation has itself had a modest, varied yet important contribution to cathedral commemoration since its rise to prominence during the last quarter of the 19th century through to the present. Part of a wider move towards cenotaphic commemoration, the cremated dead make their way back into cathedral closes, cloisters and churches in a fashion unavailable for unburnt bodies. In my previous blog on cremation in cathedrals, I have already gone into considerable detail.

Fiery Biographies

While the above themes perpetuate all cathedrals, and indeed, most other churches in England and Wales to varying degrees, there are more distinctive themes created between sites. Specific cathedrals have contrasting histories of memory in which real fire events interact with these underlying themes. For some cathedrals, fire is an intermittent or latent theme, but for others, the interaction of fiery materials, texts, subjects and allusions becomes a dominant theme in response to specific fiery events. My paper contrasted three case studies in this regard: Canterbury, St Paul’s London and Coventry.

Fire Watcher’s memorial – Canterbury Cathedral
The solitary candle on the memorial space commemorating the former presence of Becket’s shrine


My point about Canterbury is the general absence of fiery themes in its memorials and tombs. However, a striking juxtaposition along its axis brings fire centre-stage. This fiery duality can be found between the solitary memorial at the west end of the nave to commemorate the building’s salvation from fire by its Second World War fire watchers with the commemoration of absence through fire at the very heart of the choir where a solitary candle marks the spot where Becket’s shrine was positioned before the Reformation.

St Paul’s

For St Paul’s Cathedral, the Great Fire of 1666 set up an irreversible chain of operations leading to new commemorative practices replacing the medieval and early modern memorials destroyed in the fire through demolition, encountering old tombs and cadavers in the process, and Wren’s rebuilding and subsequent developments. Individual components of this include:IMG_0425

  • The discovery of medieval tomb fragments and revealed cadavers during the demolition
  • The commemoration of St Paul’s rebuilding, including the multiple memorials to Wren, his family and the craftsmen involved in the reconstruction.
  • The century or so of memorial void until new memorials begin to creep in during the Napoleonic Wars, first to men of peace and then to a catalogue of British war heroes.
  • Commemoration of the lost memorials through the antiquarian record
  • Commemoration of the lost memorials within the crypt today
  • Commemoration of lost memorials through the rehabilitation and display of calcined memorial fragments in the crypt
  • John Donne’s memorial: a monument that fulfils its own subject by surviving uniquely intact the Great Fire whilst holding as its memorial subject a resurrectionist theme of shrouded figure rising from an urn, thus alluding to cremation and regeneration in a Christian context.
  • While not exclusively incendiary, St Paul’s endured extensive bomb damage during the Blitz, and the memorialisation of the Second World War is a further dimension to the cathedral’s fiery commemoration.
  • Against this background, the receiving of ashes into the cathedral, such as those of Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, join a building already long configured and understood in relation to fire.
Coventry’s first bishop – the only surviving tomb from the 1940 bombing, now restored and displayed within the shell of the medieval church
View of the ruins, now an open-air memorial space in front of the new cathedral, commemorating war, peace and individuals associated with the bombing and the restoration


My third case study was Coventry Cathedral, which I had talked about in an earlier blog entry here and here so I will be more brief in this blog. Suffice to add here that the entire commemorative significance of the cathedrals is framed around the German fire-bombing of the site in 1940. The ruined shell of the old cathedral remains a powerful commemorative monument to itself, but it also contains medieval and early modern memorials – monuments once inside exposed to the elements. The cathedral also commemorates destruction and its ‘miraculous’ (in some instances) survival and thus is littered with a complex series of commemorative memorials. I explored further the peace memorials, art and other memorials that populate the spaces of the old and new cathedrals and how they frame together the theme of death and resurrection, of peace and reconciliation.


While fiery destruction and reconstruction dominate St Paul’s and Coventry, framed their respective conflagrations in a Christian framework whether accidental and deliberate acts of destruction, these themes are not restricted to these two buildings and their distinctive fates. Canterbury, and indeed other cathedrals under investigation, reveal these themes too, not only residing in the subjects of individual memorials or in accidental and deliberate fires, but the accrued relationships between memorials over time in relation to their built environment. I proposed in my paper that this approach offers fresh look at cathedrals as environments of death and memory over the long term and perhaps sets a new agenda for archaeological engagements and explorations of cathedrals. This approach considers comparisons and contrasts between cathedrals reveals both distinctive and shared commemorative themes to the present day. In relation to the session, it might illustrate the potential of new approaches to the archaeology of fire in historical mortuary archaeology beyond fire use in rituals and cremation, in which fire was medium, subject and process for commemoration, of varying significance in different places of worship, and sometimes becoming a predominant theme. Finally, I emphasised how fire facilitated new commemorative programmes but also new engagements with the dead, and how it involved the interweaving themes of conflagration and restoration connecting bodies, material cultures, monuments and buildings.