Tobias and the Eagle Tower

Today, my son and I visited Caernarfon Castle, the stronghold built by Edward I to militarily and ideologically consolidate and project political hegemony over Wales. Through its architecture, the castle imposed genealogical and royal claims over the past and the present. Following the birth of his son at the castle in 1284, Edward I also projected domination over Wales’s future via its architecture.

It is no coincidence that the choice of location for his new castle reused the site of an earlier motte-and-bailey fortification in close proximity to vestiges of the Roman fort of Segontium. Meanwhile, the castle’s polygonal and banded towers are widely argued to be an explicit mimicking of the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople. The focus of the castle is the famous Eagle Tower, the largest of the polygonal masterpieces of the castle which dominates the Afon Seiont and the Menai Strait and thus any maritime approach.

Welsh rulers on the ‘Game of Crowns’ chess board

Within the Eagle Tower is a new display for 2015: ‘Game of Crowns’. Clearly intended to invoke the popular appeal of Game of Thrones, this is (very) loosely set around the idea of chess pieces on a board. And yes, this is legitimate, because Wales’s history is very much a story of conflict between kings imagined, kings actual and those aspiring to lordship and kingship.

The pieces are colour-coded. There are white ones for English monarchs and red ones for Welsh princes. All are male. The sculptures of medieval personages are of different sizes, apparently (according to a passing tour guide) to reflect their relative importance. They depict various royal competitors and successors in the medieval politics of Wales. There is a chronological dimension here, for developing across the chess board from one side to the other is an attempt to distil English and Welsh rivalries from the Norman conquest to Edward I and his son.

The investiture throne and the timeline of events leading from the chess board to it

Trailing out of the board on one side is a simplified bilingual timeline of later medieval and modern claims over Wales, leading up to the displayed slate stool and throne used by Elizabeth II during the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle.

The other chronological dimension is one which explores the origins of Welsh royalty. Opposite the slate throne, this is summarised via the use of North Wales’s unique and only monumental genealogy in which claims of ancestry and association to ancient emperors, kings and saints are materialised: the Pillar of Eliseg. This fragment of an early ninth-century monument located near Llangollen, Denbighshire, has been the subject of sustained new archaeological research by Project Eliseg as repeatedly discussed in this blog, including here and here and here. A replica of the Pillar takes pride of place within Llangollen Museum.

Aaron Watson’s visualisation of the Pillar of Eliseg, utilised to illustrate the origins of Welsh kingship within the Eagle Tower exhibition

The text is headlined bilingually: ‘The Pillar of Eliseg: Bloodline of the Princes’ and then says ‘Our timeline of the princes begins with this monument’. It then states where the monument is located and that the kings of Powys claimed their ancestry back to Caernarfon. Five personalities are taken from the Pillar: Maximus, Sevira (I think the only female to appear in the entire display), Vortigern, Eliseg (Elisedd) and Cyngen ap Cadell. Arrows point downwards, hinting that you should follow the genealogical line from the legendary and historical personages mentioned on the Pillar across the floor, through the chess board, and straight up to the throne upon which our current Queen Elizabeth once sat.

IMG_20150607_143439This is a powerful spatio-temporal heritage display about royal conflict and descent. I was surprised and delighted to see the Pillar of Eliseg, a monument I have been working on with a range of local people from the Vale of Llangollen, students from Bangor and Chester, specialist archaeological contributors and co-directors Gary Robinson and Nancy Edwards, receive such direct and central treatment in this display. Immediately, I felt a sense of vindication and satisfaction that, perhaps our humble archaeological project had in some way inspired this use of the Pillar in this august fashion and at this premier Cadw heritage location.

For the purposes of my archaeodeath blog, I must however, take a critical stance on this display. There are two dimensions I want to talk about here.

The 2012 field season of Project Eliseg

A New Stage in the Pillar of Eliseg’s Biography

As argued elsewhere by Nancy Edwards and myself in different ways, the Latin text inscribed on the cross-shaft now known as the Pillar of Eliseg creates a temporal spiral. By this I mean that the text shifts from legendary past to present and future in a sequential see-saw. In so doing, it conflates and aims to appropriate time itself as a strategy for royal legitimisation. However, the text and monument do this in relation to each other. The inscription’s context: the materiality and form of the cross (now only a fragment of its former self), the prehistoric mound upon which it stands, and its landscape situation and setting, might have all been mobilised as part of this prominent performative early medieval monument. Read all about the temporal mnemonics of the Pillar of Eliseg here.

This was a monument to be experienced and a monument intended for a large audience and sadly this detail is lacking in this exhibition, as is a sense that the text is political propaganda, not a reliable historical record! Nancy has suggested a more specific significance to the text and monument. The cross and mound might have been an assembly site, perhaps even a site intended for royal inauguration.The key dimension that needs emphasising in relation to the Caernarfon exhibition is that the Pillar was not only concerned with claims over the distant legendary and mythical past, it tied these invented origins to Christian Powysian claims over the present and the future.

Excavations at the Pillar of Eliseg in 2011

Obviously little of this can be communicated in the Eagle Tower. Still, what is fascinating about the heritage use of the Pillar of Eliseg at Caernarfon is that the monument raised by Concenn (Cyngen) sometime prior to his death in around AD854/855 was intending to promote a specifically Powysian vision of Welsh history. It would have been alien to their rivals and eventual successors in Gwynedd. Powys may well have had affinity and claims over Segontium and Gwynedd, as much as they might have imagined claims over Mercian territory to their east including the ancient monastery at Bangor on Dee and the ruined Roman city at Wroxeter.

The Pillar of Eliseg is striking not only for its text, form, context and location, but for its survival. The monument survived for hundreds of years, accruing new uses and associations: a cultural biography. It could be argued that the use of the Pillar in the heart of the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon is a further dimension to this biography.

However, the portrayal of the story of the Pillar in the Eagle Tower display is problematic. It is clearly a back projection of later legends to suggest that because Powys claimed descent from the Roman Western Emperor Magnus Maximus, they bought into a geographically located narrative only connection Macsen Wledig to Caernarfon centuries later. To be generous, it is a clever and perhaps necessary play on limited evidence to create a simplified narrative and emphasise the iconic importance of Caernarfon and its Roman predecessor. Sadly, in doing so, it creates a confused vision of a unified early medieval Welsh kingdom and kingship that is at best unfortunate. The simplified timeline is a dangerous thing, and here we see the complex history of early medieval Wales obliterated by it. Incidentally, it isn’t clear how we know Eliseg died in AD 755.

Looking back through time from the investiture of Prince Charles to the Pillar of Eliseg

By being displayed in the context of the Eagle Tower this new exhibition is of course deeply ironic. If Gwynedd took over the lands of Concenn and appropriated earlier, different mythologies from Powys, and the Eagle Tower was (in part) Edward I’s attempt to assert an ideology of imperial hegemony over Gwynedd, then in heritage terms, Cadw’s display is a new form of hegemonic myth-making in the heritage context claiming the early medieval past for the present-day Prince of Wales. Yet, within it, the Pillar might well be projecting a vision of 9th-century Powysian legends to the public. In other words, this is the heritage appropriation of Powys’s history into the history of Gwynedd, yet simultaneously it affords Powys’s vision of the early medieval past with a new lease of life as the early history of all of Wales. So do Eliseg and his great-grandson Cyngen get the last laugh after all? Their monument survives and wins the day at the heart of an exhibit about their rivals.

The Pillar of Eliseg as it appears today

Visualising the Pillar of Eliseg

Sadly, our dig doesn’t get a mention in the exhibition, even if our finds take pride of place at the centre of Llangollen Museum. Yet as part of our project, Aaron Watson – archaeologist and artist – created a powerful new visualisation of the Pillar of Eliseg in dialogue with expert in early medieval stone sculpture Professor Nancy Edwards. You can read about this here. Aaron’s image is largely speculative: we don’t know what the cross-head would have looked like. Still, this was intentional and Aaron’s work has been powerful and versatile for our project and we are extremely grateful for his innovative work, as well as for a short film he composed, inspired by the 2010 field season with music by Jon Was. View the film here.

The replica Pillar and the new display of the Bronze Age cist burial from our excavations. Llangollen Museum

I am so familiar with Aaron’s Pillar of Eliseg that it has, in some ways, taken over from the fragment surviving in the landscape in my mind. I use it so regularly to illustrate lectures and public talks and on our website, that the fact that the Eagle Tower version of the Pillar of Eliseg looked the way it did at first didn’t strike me as problematic at all.

But then it did strike me: this wasn’t just any Pillar of Eliseg. It wasn’t the Pillar of Eliseg as seen in the landscape today, the replica in Llangollen Museum or visualised in any book. It is not even the Pillar of Eliseg one can find in the Valle Crucis Cadw guide book and visualised on the heritage board at Valle Crucis itself. These are different Pillars of Eliseg. What is depicted in the Eagle Tower is our Pillar of Eliseg; the version of the monument designed bespoke for Project Eliseg through dialogue between Aaron and Nancy and appearing on our website.

I should state that I have had it confirmed that permission was sought from Aaron for this use of the exhibition. I must still mention that I am disappointed that no-one bothered to consult or tell me given that I co-directed, funded and instigated this visualisation and the project it formed a key component of. I am getting used to this in my dealings with Welsh archaeologists and heritage bodies though…

A monument behind bars no more?

That aside, it is a palpable measure of our project’s success, or at least the measure of the power of Aaron’s visualisation of the Pillar, that ‘our’ Pillar of Eliseg is incorporated into this new exhibition in the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle. Project Eliseg’s aim has been to explore the biography of a monument from its prehistoric origins to the present day. In doing so, we have created new Pillars of Eliseg, both at the site, in the vicinity, and elsewhere virtually and physically, in a range of new locations. Caernarfon’s exhibition is one of these, a new Pillar for a new audience.

The Pillar of Eliseg has been sadly neglected as an ancient monument and a heritage attraction, as discussed in our latest paper on the Pillar of Eliseg which you can read in the pages of Internet Archaeology. Whatever we make of this new exhibition and its take on royal genealogy and conflict, and however long it lasts, we cannot claim the Pillar of Eliseg is neglected any more. It was always going to have a mix of nationalist and royalist agendas attached to it, given the nature of the text and the monument but there remain challenges in how we situate and explore these associations. Incidentally, it is a darned shame this wasn’t planned in 2014: Bangor’s and Chester’s REF submissions might have benefitted!

So, in summary, in Wales’s particular Game of Thrones, the Pillar of Eliseg was an early ideological statement by the ruler of Powys, promoting Cyngen’s vision of past, present and future. Thanks to Project Eliseg, we now know the monument was situated over a prehistoric mound of Early Bronze Age date. The Pillar and mound had a long biography of use and reuse to the present day, also revealed in part by Project Eliseg’s fieldwork. Over a thousand years later, I think the long-dead Cyngen, and perhaps even his ancestor Eliseg, might just get the last laugh at the Eagle Tower. The Pillar of Eliseg’s biography certainly gets a new twist…

The Pillar of Eliseg from the west, on a Bronze Age burial mound