The sculpture of the Armed Forces Memorial: topless pall bearers carry a stretcher up high while men and women suffer loss and death to conflict.

I recently presented my second keynote lecture of the year, entitled ‘From Stonehenge to the National Memorial Arboretum: Megaliths and Martial Masculinity in the British Landscape’ at the ‘Masculinity in the British Landscape’ conference, as discussed here. This was my first experience of Harlaxton College is discussed here. I now want to briefly outline my paper.

The Armed Forces Memorial seem from within the Greek Grove

I have now published twice in two related journal articles regarding the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire. The first was about the uses of the ancient past at the arboretum, focusing on its lithic memorials as well as its trees and plants in the International Journal of Heritage Studies in 2014: Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum.

On a recent field trip, students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory explore the latest names added to the Armed Forces Memorial. How quickly will this near-empty wall fill up with names? I hope never, but the addition of names is inevitable, trapping with memorial and the visitor into fantasising about future military deaths.

Subsequently, I published an article exploring the specific reuses of monuments and material culture brought from elsewhere to the NMA in the journal Archaeological Dialogues: Monument and Material Reuse at the National Memorial Arboretum. I have also discussed dimensions of the complex material dimensions of memorialisation at the NMA on my blog as follows:

  1. about the archaeology of the NMA,
  2. about antique allusions in the NMA’s memorials
  3. about First World War commemoration at the NMA
  4. about my Archaeological Dialogues paper focused on monument and material reuse
  5. about the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict at the NMA and elsewhere
  6. about the biographies of monuments at the NMA
  7. about the new Camp Bastion Memorial

I guess I am rather interested in the NMA as a microcosm of the many current strands in British and international commemorative culture involving the deployment of antique and prehistoric forms and the reuse of materials and monuments brought from other locations.

The metal wreath and obelisk in the Armed Forces Memorial

I used the opportunity at Harlaxton to discuss one further dimension that I hope to write about the NMA: the heritage and archaeological uses of megaliths to constitute memorials that constitute and facilitate the performance of mourning martial masculinity. I explored the many monoliths, megalith stone rows and clusters, and even stone circles to be found at the NMA.

A crack in the wall… allows sunlight to penetrate the innermost space and hit the head of the stretcher-lain corpse of soldier sculpted in bronze

I then focused on the Armed Forces Memorial as a monument inspired by the prehistoric, classical and Egyptian past to construct a memorial serving to commemorate those that lost their lives on active service in the British Armed Forces since the Second World War. In particular, I looked at the parallels between the modern-day visitor experience, landscape, form, symbolism and materiality of Stonehenge (discussed here and here) and the NMA.

There are clear differences in form and location. Still, both are multi-layered visitor experiences that operate as pilgrimmage sites and places of entertainment. They have their sacred centres carefully managed and access choreographed and carefully placed. They also have key solar alignments to them both. Stonehenge and the NMA also deploy carefully selected stone laden with meaning (Bluestones and sandstone at Stonehenge, Purbeck Marble at the NMA). They are both situation within an evolving and an array of less monuments to be visited en route to the centre.

As heritage experiences, there are further parallels. Both have visitor centres, cafes and land trains and footpaths to navigate the landscape. Both Stonehenge and the NMA are valued for their complex landscapes as well as primordial are regarded as memorials to war and peace.

There are of course significant differences. Memorialisation is cenotaphic at the NMA, while at Stonehenge through the Visitor Centre, male ancestors are created for the modern visitor to see: Neolithic and Bronze Age ones. Still, the comparison and contrast reveals how both millennium and ancient monuments are mobilised in contemporary British commemorative culture. Moreover, both are about the future: megaliths and stones used to project the act of memorialisation itself into the future, regardless of whom and what are precisely being remembered.

I posed the final questions:

  1. Is the NMA the Stonehenge for the nation’s future? Is it a new focus of national recollection into which many conflicting and diverse narratives can be poured?
  2. Conversely, is Stonehenge the NMA of our past? When we write about Stonehenge: their healing stones and the ceremonial feasting supposed to be integral to their design, are we really attempting to simply impose the functions aspired for the NMA onto prehistory?

The questions are linked, and draw out how much the way we engage with Stonehenge is a product of our commemorative culture in the early 21st century obsessed with national restitution and healing in the face of perpetual conflict, and how much the NMA is framed around these imaginings of primordial desires to memorialise and valorise death and sacrifice.

Topless male figure points towards the crack in the doorway through which sunlight can pour in November morning light, marking the passage of time and the readiness of the dead to be conceived of as going on a journey through a threshold into the undiscovered country.