This post is about the first-ever modern heritage board installed at the Pillar of Eliseg.
After 1 season of survey, 3 seasons of excavation, loads of public talks, blog posts, our interim report written and our project monograph coming together and contracted with University of Wales Press, Project Eliseg has made a lot of progress.
I’ve long been told by Cadw’s inspectorate that they plan, when money is available, to commission a sign board for the Pillar of Eliseg. The aim was that it would incorporate the results of the fieldwork we conducted and Cadw part-funded. There is already a major display around the replica of the Pillar in Llangollen Museum, and Nancy Edwards’s section of the Cadw guidebook to Valle Crucis, but nothing to read about the monument on site.
Knowing this, I had expected the ‘heritage interpretation’ would be in liaison with my colleagues at Bangor University and myself. If not, I’d imagined that they would want to incorporate our suggestions and specialist knowledge regarding the Pillar of Eliseg in the 9th century given our book isn’t out yet. I envisaged they would wish to know about the text, the cross, and the prehistoric mound upon which it sits, although admittedly we’ve publicly disseminated quite a bit of info in our interim reports and publications. Following the thrust of our fieldwork, I’d hoped they would wish to also explore the longer life-history of the monument from the Bronze Age to the present day. At least, I’d anticipated the chance to correct any bloopers to their text, even if input on the design I imagined wouldn’t be welcome.
News of Change
Very recently I learned from archaeologist and artist Aaron Watson – who was especially commissioned to create an artist’s impression of the Pillar of Eliseg in 2010-11 – that he had been approached for permission to reproduce his image of how the cross might have looked. This art was created in dialogue with early medieval stone sculpture specialist Professor Nancy Edwards on the heritage board. He also created this cool video based on Season 1 in 2010 here.
Aaron asked me whether I had been approached about this and I had to say ‘no’. I encouraged him, if he wishes, to grant permission. He told me he would encourage them to be in touch with Nancy or myself to discuss it. At least I was assured that Aaron’s art would appear in this context, itself the results of our collaboration and fieldwork.
Previously there was only a very brief and out-of-date Ministry of Works sign, monolingual and stark. As of 2 weeks ago, there are two bilingual signs. In a recent post, I have discussed my reservations regarding the one at the abbey itself. Here, I wish to consider its companion at the site itself.
When I first encountered the sign it was a complete surprise. I was visiting with students taking my ‘Landscapes and Memory’ Masters module. I was shocked. Nothing could prepare me for this moment when, in front of students, I had to face the brand-new board that resulted directly from a project I co-directed!
Subsequently, I went back and explored it with my twins, Dr Lorna Richardson and Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and try to get my head around it without students present.
So here are my initial thoughts.
The Old Sign Survives!
First up, I like the fact that the old sign wasn’t abandoned. This is important. I’ve argued that the older sign is an integral part of the 20th-century ‘biography’ of the monument, so I’m glad that the existing post and board have been augmented rather than replaced by the new board. Historically, the sign had faced the road, but now it is invisible to passersby, but readily viewed by standing within the gate to the field. The result is that one gets two ‘stories’ one from sometime in the 1950s (I’m honestly not sure of the precise date) and one from 2017.
So all this is good. Let’s next consider Aaron’s art. This works very well to frame the text. We have no clue what the original cross-head looked like, so Aaron and Nancy’s suggestion is as good as any. It is important to note that this was designed to deliberately contrast with previous artist’s recontructions, including that by Howard Mason still on show on a heritage board about the Pillar within the abbot’s house at Valle Crucis. Again, I think, regardless of your view of the art, this is an important contribution, giving the viewer a sense that this was never originally a pillar, but a cross.
The name ‘Eliseg’ is on fire – like the letters of ‘Black Speech’ on the One Ring. It shines out at the viewer, which at one level is dramatic and effective, but at another it makes it seem like you are looking at the matt sign struggling against the reflection of the sunlight. Not to my taste, but fine.
Here’s where it starts to become more problematic in my view. I appreciate heritage board texts need short, snappy, journalistic ‘stories’. However, to complement the ‘soil’ promoted at the Abbey sign as the function of the Pillar – to claim the land – here we have ‘blood: the ‘Bloodline of the Princes’. Blood and soil are the core ingredients of the narratives of the two signs. ‘Princes’ is also anachronistic and makes no sense in relation to the internal logic of the sign’s text, where they are regarded rightly instead as ‘kings’.
The first paragraph is fine, the pillar is a ‘blunt statement of royal authority’. That’s fair enough.
The second paragraph is accurate too – the monument was raised by Cyngen ap Cadell to honour his great-grandfather. However, it says that Cyngen raised the ‘pillar’. Of course this introduces a confusion: he raised a ‘cross’ (or we think he did based on the fact that this was presumably the ‘cross’ that gave its name to the valley and abbey from the 13th century). Contrary (thankfully) to the headline, Cyngen is called a ‘king’ and that’s fine.
The third paragraph is good, since it emphasises that the pillar (well, cross) promoted the independence of Powys and legitimised rule in relation to legendary figures and genealogy. However, the phrasing is problematic. ‘Bloodline’ is fine I guess, but as I discussed in a previous post, the text is about two distinct genealogies and it isn’t all about blood. Instead, it’s actually more about WAR: martial victory.
This brings me to my next critical point. A further problem with this paragraph is in reference to ‘English agresssion’ and that the the ‘border’ was 5 miles away. It might have helped the popular reader to know that the ‘English’ in question were unquestionably the powerful Mercian kingdom, not ‘England’, which didn’t exist yet. Also, the distance from the border is problematic, since I think this is an indirect and unhelpful reference to Offa’s Dyke. In actual fact, the likely defended frontier in the early 9th century was probably slightly farther away: Wat’s Dyke. Also, this presumes that the dykes were actually ‘borders’, which is largely seen as unlikely: instead they likely were positioned to dominate a frontier zone before in front and behind them. The Pillar of Eliseg was clearly in territory won at least once, perhaps many times, by Mercia.
The final paragraph works best for me. It is the most flowery, but I like the point that Cyngen is evoking holy and legendary power invested in an ancient mound. This is a distinctive, and better, take than that portrayed on the heritage board at the abbey. Pity it doesn’t mention Germanus, since that would tie in this point very nicely; the dynasty was sanctified by Germanus, not only descended from a Roman emperor.
What is odd is what is missing from the text and what is missing is crucial. The monument is supposed to be read out loud, to proclaim to a crowd. Nancy Edwards has suggested this was a cross placed on an ancient mound to serve as a place of assembly, perhaps even royal inauguration. Also, what is missing, is any mention of warfare: it wasn’t English agression that the cross resisted. Instead it was Poywsian victory (or victories) that were being announced, both to Mercia and Gwynedd!
This board is not as atrocious as the one by the abbey, even if I find their combination of ‘blood and soil’ more than a little disturbing. For the moment, I can cope with this one better, despite some anachronisms and misunderstandings that might readily have been corrected had we been consulted! Indeed, it contains some of the key points about the Pillar that will interest visitors, if missing many other crucial ones in its text including the association with military victory and assembly. The use of Aaron’s art and the retention of the old sign are very good points too, so I can celebrate their inclusion.
So is something better than nothing? In this case I think so.