Wooden gravestone from 1989, St Dogmael’s churchyard, Ceredigion

Experts in church monuments will tell you how neglected awareness is of the widespread use of wood as a medium for the commemoration of the dead. This is probably as true for the 7th and 8th centuries AD as it is for the 17th and 18th centuries. We have regional evidence for medieval churchyard grave-markers from Kent, which surely represent the tip of a long-lost ‘iceberg’ of degraded, rotten, replaced and reused memorials comprised of wood that no longer survive. Wood need not be ‘low status’ and ‘transient’, since even church monuments from the Middle Ages and modern era can be compromised of wood, in part or wholly and endure for decades, even centuries, if carefully maintained.

Wooden cross: Stokesay churchyard, Shropshire

With the advent of modern transportation systems and most recently a global trade in stone for gravestones, the use of wood as a commemorative medium has all but ceased. The rise of stone as a widespread material for churchyard memorials during the 18th and 19th centuries is widely documented and discussed by (among others) archaeologists Harold Mytum and Sarah Tarlow.

Yet even within the near-ubiquitous monopoly of stone as a memorial medium, wood retained its symbolic signficance at times. For instance, there are early 20th-century occasions stone skeuomorphs of wooden monuments and there are instances where, for more recent graves, the family have chosen to retain and never replace temporary wooden crosses erected over graves. I discussed such instances in relation to Dyserth church here.

The choice to retain specific wooden memorials is idiosyncratic and striking; far less a statement of poverty but more a statement of social status and exclusivity for individuals and families. As such it is part of a broader trend towards absolutely unique memorialisation mediated by technology during the course of the 20th century and persisting into the early 21st century.

Detail of Stokesay wooden cross

I was particularly struck by two instances I have witnessed recently. For both examples, the choice was made to evoke versions of the same early medieval monument-type on contrasting scales: the circle-headed cross. The first I saw at St Dogmael’s churchyard, near Cardigan, Ceredigion, last year. A 1980s gravestone to a single individual stands out from its surrounding memorials, not in scale, but in colour, texture and material. The second I witnessed at Stokesay, Shropshire; it is a high cross of Victorian/Edwardian style and serves as a family grave, with miniature stone graveslabs abutting it on its eastern and northern sides (I confess because I was with my kids, I couldn’t stay long enough to explore the date of this monument, but I would imagine it is very early 20th century.

These are rare examples in my experience, yet they are noteworthy in two regards.

First they serve as firm illustrations that early medieval stone monument types might were probably regularly rendered in wood and quite easily so. It is often discussed how early medieval stone monuments incorporated skeuomorphic elements from wooden and metal artefacts and structures, and this shows how easy this transfer between media might have been.

Second, they are part of a wider pattern of using distinctive materials to convey specific messages about the dead, individually or as a family. Wood conveys a specific aesthetic and aura of authenticity. They are simultaneously impermanent yet such memorials can endure for decades, showing decay and patina, as readily as stone monuments.

In summary, even in the memorial stone worlds of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the equation of stone with permanence and wood with transience is not as clear-cut as many structuralist-inspired archaeologists would have us believe.