In case no-one noticed; it was the UK’s general election yesterday. I voted at 7.10 am that morning before heading into work by bicycle to set out with students by Uni fleet vehicle on a day-long field trip. It was a fun way to spend election day, isolated from the radio and TV and from the buzz of polling stations, and instead being out in the rain and the sun and the wind.
I took the enthusiastic MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students out in the Vale of Llangollen to consider this striking landscape as a ‘topography of memory’. By this I mean that we considered not simply the rich and varied archaeological heritage of the Vale, but in addition we visited a selection of sites to consider the complex and varied myths and memories that can be shown to accrue around them. We can identify these in the literature and folklore, but also in the practical working and reworking of places over the long-term. In other words, we can explore the ‘topographies of memory’ in this landscape by looking not only at stories but at the archaeological traces and monuments themselves. What was the ‘prehistory’ of sites before they were built? What was their use? How did they operate as abandoned or ruinous sites? How were sites used and reused successively? Moreover, and significantly, how could these sites relate to each other, part of a network of sites of memory, not simply isolated locales where myths and legends resided? This is part of my interests for the Past in its Place project.
We went into the Vale via World’s End and Craig Arthur. We then visited Castell Dinas Bran: a steep walk up, around and down. Next, we went to see the famous house of the Ladies of Llangollen at Plas Newydd. We drove back through Llangollen to Valle Crucis Abbey and the Horseshoe Pass. Of course, whilst at Valle Crucis Abbey, we also visited my favourite site in the universe: the Pillar of Eliseg. At each site we discussed the past and present mnemonic dimensions of the monuments and their environs.
Read about our work at the Pillar of Eliseg in previous blog entries and also on our project’s website here. I have discussed these sites previously in a series of blogs, so I won’t repeat them here. Since our dig last season of fieldwork in 2012, we have been working hard on the post-excavation analysis and we are working it up towards publication. We have radiocarbon dates demonstrating the mound upon which the early medieval stone cross-shaft is now situated dates back to the Early Bronze Age. This helps us to explore the complex biography of the site as memories were worked and reworked by construction processes, performances and burials intermittently over millennia.
It wasn’t all work, work, work. We were misidentified as ‘Australians’ on the basis of our English and Spanish accents (and perhaps also our dress and appearance?). We stopped for cake and coffee at Plas Newydd, and also for more cake and crisps at the unique and fabulous Ponderosa Cafe.
Finally, I wanted to mention the landscape of placards proclaiming support for various political parties. I witnessed the Scottish referendum’s landscape of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in town, village and country in the Scottish Borders around Coldstream last year. The Vale was hardly as passionate, but it was interesting to see a few various different placards in Llangollen itself and in the fields surrounding.
The results are now in and the status quo has been maintained in Wales, more so than even in England, and in stark contrast to the radical shift towards nationalist politics in Scotland. Interestingly, the owner of the field neighbouring the Pillar of Eliseg promoted support for Plaid Cymru, who failed to make any significant in-roads into core Labour territories.
As for the Pillar itself? It has two Latin texts upon it, one hardly legible and ninth-century, one proud and prominent and eighteenth-century. Neither give a clue as to how their commissioners might have interpreted this election. Both were proudly ‘British’/’Welsh’ for their day, but had far-reaching connections and interactions. A ridiculous point you even raised and speculate on, one might say, but the Pillar is completely silent on the issue. In any case, it is not really a democratic monument in any regard past or present, it was a monument of oppression and laughs at democracy. So I suspect it did not promote any candidate… If you want me to guess further, I am quite certain it didn’t vote Liberal Democrat….
Incidentally, the Vale and the Pillar are in the Clwyd South parliamentary constituency which remained Welsh Labour.