In and around medieval monastic sites, traces of the dead are ubiquitous yet rarely discussed. Sarcophagi and grave-slabs are often displayed on site but out of context with little explanation or interpretation. Sometime though, they are displayed close to or over their original position, after archaeological excavation, therefore marking the original funerary dimensions of the religious space. For examples, see my discussions of Valle Crucis Abbey, Dorchester Abbey and Buildwas Abbey. However, even when this happens, they are hardly ever discussed in guidebooks or heritage interpretation on site.
Another mortuary dimension of ruins is when post-medieval graves focus on monastic ruins, as discussed at St Dogmaels and Slane Friary. Again, the relationship between ruins and more recent graves is rarely considered. A further scenario still is where there are memorials to the retrieved and re-interred dead found during archaeological interventions, as at Talley Abbey.
At Mellifont Abbey, Co. Meath, I visited the ruins of the Cistercian monastic foundation of the early 12th century. This is a beautifully managed site with low ruins and up-to-date heritage boards outlining the history of the abbey and its landscape. It is best known for its surviving lavabo in the monastic cloister garth. However, nothing is said about the graves of the dead buried on the site.
Here I found another permutation of this phenomenon. Throughout the ruins of the monastic church are consistently sized rectangular tapered concrete grave-slabs, evidently modern and part of the heritage management of the site. They aren’t placed at random and therefore it is reasonable to presume they are 20th-century attempts to mark the sites of graves identified in the church but whose original memorials have been removed elsewhere and perhaps those excavated. There is no information on site to tell the visitor any details about this.
The grave-slabs are safe for tourists; mostly flush with the gravel surface that evenly fills the ruins. They are therefore a manageable and neat way of marking the dead.
A pair of monuments – one clearly an original sarcphagus inset at a consistent and safe height into the gravel floor of the north transept
In addition to these prosaic elements aspects, there is a particular aura created by this form of display. Apart from one inset sarcophagus and adjacent grave slab. The rest are all consistent in material and all anonymous. At one level, this again reveals the powerful presence of the anonymous medieval dead. In a further sense, they create a comparable collective sense of memorialisation to the consistent gravestones found in military cemeteries across Europe or, specific to the Catholic Irish context, the burial plots of priests and nuns.
I visited recently during the winter months and therefore did not have access to either the visitor centre or the available guide book. The internet is useless in this regard and I would appreciate guidance on any recent academic literature about Mellifont’s archaeology and, in particular, when and why this consistent heritage marking of historic graves took place.