Like many churches across England and Wales, within the cathedral church of Chester there are no surviving in situ medieval tombs; they are all post-medieval memorials situated on floors (in only a few surviving instances) and (mainly) walls.

Instead, select fragments of medieval tombs and graves found during renovations and excavations over the centuries are installed on display in the south and west aisle of the cloister of the former Benedictine Abbey. Indeed, this is the principal locus of much of the cathedral’s recent memorialisation, with the stained glass commemorating the great and good of the city and county of Chester from the 1920s as well as a panoply of saints. So in this cloistral space, the ancient dead and the recent dead’s memorials coincide in juxtaposition.

As part of the Speaking with the Dead project I hoped to explore these, and I took my MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students around there recently.

There is a series of 12th/13th/14th-century grave-slabs, some bearing floriate crosses and other vegetal ornamentation. A few have fragments of texts, commemorating abbots of the monastery.

Together, therefore, the tombs populate the space with memorials to the medieval monastic life. Even if dislocated from their original locations, together they operate as an assemblage commemorating the medieval dead within the cloister.

There are framed, smartly hand-written notices explaining (in English) what these are, if only crudely positioned in relation to the tomb-covers. Here’s an example:

Others are barely discernible in the light available, so their decoration is difficult for visitors to apprehend.

The Simon Ripley stone is an intriguing example where antiquarian fantasy and folklore persist. The ornamentation shows a wolf’s head, which led to the antiquarian attribution of the monumental fragment to Hugh Lupus. However, it also bears the initials ‘SR’ which might more readily be explicible in relation to the 15th-century abbot of the Benedictine Abbey. Neither attribution is close to certain. Still, the accompanying framed text tries to accommodate both scenarios, postulating that the stone might have been reused… Pseudo-histories are therefore not completely diffused, but instead partly integrated in this account.

The stone sarcophagus is particularly intriguing. I’ve discussed their significance for medieval mortuary practice, and in modern displays, elsewhere and in regards Norton Priory.

In the cloister at Chester Cathedral, there is but a single example, and it is afforded an illustrious narrative. Despite the lack of inscription, the accompanying text panel – a newer one than the hand-written texts accompanying the other sculpted stones – attempts to afford an identity to the sarcophagus of Abbot Richard de Bec – the founder of the new monastery in the late 11th century who died in 1116. The supposed unusual height of Richard is claimed to be reflected in this large sarcphagus.

Well, first up, the stone coffin looks a standard size to me, and comparable to scale of the grave-slabs also on display and adult-sized sarcophagi I’ve seen elsewhere. Second, the perception of size is illusory: lots of medieval skeletons and tombs are callled ‘giant’ in popular and antiquarain descriptions: this is part of the visual game their placing on the floor affords.

What these attempts at interpretation stem from is the particular tension between presence and absence set up by displaying sarcophagi without tomb covers and out of context. When often a precise narrative of attribution is problematic, sarcophagi hold a power to conjure the absent dead into the imagination of modern visitors. This is prompted by the way the stone coffin’s form implies the human body. Still, a crudely 12th/13th-century date is plausible for this tapering style of sarcophagus, even if a specific identity to its original occupant is elusive.

Then there is a plaque alerting visitors to the fact that the cloister was the burial place of the abbots of the monastery, and that one of the slabs in the wall opposite bears one of their names: Ralph, possibly the 12th-century third abbot. Another, largely illegible, marks the grave of the fourth abbot, Robert Fitz Nigel. The plausibility of these attributions might not be secure, but the grave-slabs – situated on the floor and installed as a triad into the cloister’s wall – collectively operate, as displayed today, to evoke the medieval monastic community and their use of the space.

Of course, there is no academic text and no clear, coherent guide book to outline the stone’s significance and local, regional or national parallels. The stones float free physically and historically, lacking moorings in comparable study and thus only comparable in relation to each other, and to a generic ‘history of the abbey’. This is pretty standard, and a deliberate, casual, long-term neglect of writing coherent stories from medieval mortuary monuments. They are either given an ‘identity’ in terms of tomb-occupation/location, or they are simply spolia. Yet as the latter, and with hints of the former, they do have a powerful resonance within cathedral spaces.

There are also difficult to apprehend in the lighting, making them merely colourless fragmented stones to many visitors. The potentially rich, albeit fragmentary, stories that might be told through careful digital recording and 3D modelling of the stones, applying layers of original colour, is but one of the ways in which they might be ‘brought to life’ for modern audiences.

These remain neglected and de-contextualised medieval funerary monuments. They have an unintended mnemonic power as such. Still, whatever precise new initiative is proposed, I would argue these stones deserve better, and demand a rich story of monastic commemoration to be told using them.