I have just co-edited (with Joanne Kirton and Meggen Gondek) a book, due out in November, on Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape. Published by Boydell and Brewer, this collection of original research chapters includes a series of studies exploring the cultural biography of carved stone monuments in the British Isles and Scandinavia from the Early Middle Ages to the present day. The book also explores the interplay between materials and the multimedia dimensions of early medieval stone inscribed and sculpted stones, as well as the landscape locations and spatial relationships established by such monuments.
The themes of materiality, biography and landscape are also key to my work on Project Eliseg, which employs fieldwork and new theories to consider the location, character and biography of a mound and stone monument – in this case a ninth-century cross-shaft – from the mound’s prehistoric origins through to the mound and stone monuments management and interpretation today.
This triad of themes find a connection to a memorial space I encountered last year when I visited St Dogmael’s Abbey, Pembrokeshire. As well as exploring the abbey and adjacent churchyard, I encountered a very distinctive memorial space. The focus of the memorial area, between the lane and a house behind, adjacent to the duckpond and the small car park for the Visitor Centre and abbey ruins, is a stone circular platform. To its left, is a tripartite memorial.
The first part is a wood carved pillar loosely inspired by early medieval sculpted stone crosses of the 10th to 11th centuries like those from Nevern and Carew but perhaps given its fall pillar-like form, Llanbadarn Fawr. The brass plaque at the base of the pillar has a bilingual inscription which reads in English:
THIS STATUE OF ST DOGMAEL
WAS COMMISSIONED BY IAN GOLLOP TO
COMMEMORATE THE GOLDEN JUBILEE OF
HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II
JUNE 2ND 2002
SCULPTED BY JOHN CLARKE
I’m intrigued by the personal naming of the commissioner, since this in itself reflects the formula of early medieval stone monuments like the Pillar of Eliseg. This St Dogmael’s memorial is like the early medieval monuments that inspired it, as much about who commissioned it as what the memorial commemorates. This is a memorial commemorating an early Welsh saint, situated adjacent to the Tironian abbey that bore his name, that commemorates the reigning monarch. Founding saints and royal anniversaries are a powerful commemorative combination linking early times to present concerns and legitimising the latter through the former. The same kind of transtemporality is exhibited here as I have argued for the Pillar of Eliseg!
This leads us to the sculpture to the right of the pillar, of which the pillar is presumably illustrative of early Christian memorials and is intended to be read as companion or backdrop to the anthropomorphic sculpture of a bearded man in monkish apparel. The figure looks serious, determined but rather anonymous: he could be anyone. Given we know so little about St Dogmael, that is probably for the best. Anonymity through generic Christian symbols and dress are a common theme in modern representations of early Christian saints.
To the left of the sculpture and pillar there is a slate tablet, inscribed with Welsh first, English below. This is also a memorial linking place to UK royalty, for it is commemorating the visit of the Price of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall on 3rd July 2006 to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday.
Behind this triad of memorials – wood-carved pillar, wooden sculpture of St Dogmael and the slate tablet, is a wooden bench which is also commemorative, its plaque reading:
SIMON ANTHONY POWERLL 1974-2003
REMEMBERED WITH LOVE AND AFFECTION
BY ALL WHO KNEW HIM
If the dates memorialised reflect the sequence of installation, we therefore have a space with a short memorial cumulative biography as follows:
- wooden sculpture and carved pillar, 2002;
- memorial bench, 2003;
- slate tablet, 2006.
As well as this fascinating biography of cumulative memorials, with overlapping but discrete commemorative agendas, this memorial space is fascinating for a number of archaeodeath reasons.
- it shows us the interplay between medieval mpast and 21st-century present materialised in memorial spaces
- it also shows the relationship of commissioners to the artisans involved in their creation and the subject of commemoration;
- it illustrates the interplay between institutions, places and individuals that such memorials establish and adapt;
- it defines the power of wood as a commemorative medium in the modern world, when so often stone is the paramount commemorative medium as discussed here;
- it reveals another example of the reception of early medieval stone sculpture in the modern world to commemorate royalty and saints in combination;
- finally, it sparks my interest by illustrating, not in detail but in the overall impression it affords, how early medieval memorials might have once commonly appeared. We can imagine these were once prolific throughout the British Isles and the stone-carved monuments that survive were often inspired by them. The surviving stones are the only testament to what their wooden counterparts might have looked like. Seeing on in wood helps me to think about the similarities and differences between stone and wood as media for such monuments.
In summary, these memorials have much to tell about both modern and early medieval commemorative practice.