West front of the abbey church: Lilleshall
View along the church

Ok, so this is becoming a common archaeodeath theme: I visit a Cadw or English Heritage monastic ruin, I comment on the basic guidebook narrative of the site, the phases of the ruins and how they are conserved and presented, and then I identify the mortuary dimension. Get it? Good. Here it goes again, this time for the English Heritage site of Lilleshall Abbey.

Reconstruction of the abbey on the heritage sign


Looking west in church

Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire is the extensive ruin of an Augustinian house, founded in 1148 with canons from Dorchester Abbey. The abbey was wealthy by the late 13th century drawing wealth from legacies, gifts, farms, watermills and property investments, as well as tolls over Atcham Bridge.  The community declined in the 14th century and was suppressed in 1538 when the east range was converted into a private house. The house was fortified by a Royalist garrison and saw action in the Civil War in 1645 when it was besieged by the Parliamentarians. A canal cut through the precinct in the 18th century.

The grand west front
The cloister

The modern visitor experience involves a couple of signboards, only one decent staircase (but still a valuable one affording views from height along the church) and a sense of both the church and the claustral ranges. Dimensions of the landscape have been revealed through survey and excavation over the years, including a dovecote and fishponds. A phase plan of the site can be downloaded here.

In the church

In terms of burial archaeology, an inhumation grave was discovered outside the east end of the church in 1891 and excavations in 1990 revealed a burial they did not excavated it. What intrigued me was the arrangement of grave slabs and gravestones, all on display in the chapter house of the abbey. The modern heritage panel explains that these memorials resumably reflecting (a) stones retrieved during excavation in the Victorian era and (b) graves found at this time that are demarcated by grave-sized stone arrangements. In other words, these are restored and created graves, the accuracy of their location and the details of their original occupants is not known. The sign tell us that these are a ‘reminder’ of the use of the Chapter House for burial. IMG_8875

Grave slabs and settings within the Chapter House

I am fascinated by these heritage displays of graves, constituting arrangements and elevations of the dead in absentia; their covers and containers serving as cenotaphs for bodies hidden below or removed elsewhere. This is another powerful example of how the medieval dead populate heritage sites through their material traces, not their bones.IMG_8873