Ok, I’m going to have to grasp the nettle and discuss the brand-new signs designed by Cadw about the Pillar of Eliseg. First up, the sign by Valle Crucis.
The Pillar of Eliseg
The multi-phased monument known as Eliseg’s Pillar, the subject of archaeological research most recently by Project Eliseg – a collaboration between Professor Nancy Edwards, Dr Gary Robinson and myself – is now established as a Bronze Age burial mound with multiple phases and multiple secondary burials. In the 9th century, it was reworked and surmounted by a columnar-shafted commemorative cross bearing a long Latin inscription.
This monument endured through the Middle Ages as a feature of the landscape, becoming part of the environs of the 13th-16th-century Cistercian monastery that took its name from the valley which took its name from the monument (‘the valley of the cross’). Sometime in the early 17th century it fell down or was pulled down.
In the late 18th century, the huntsmen of the local squire investigated and found a skeleton in a cist, and subsequently the same squire restored the base, inserted a fragment of the shaft, and reinscribed the monument.
The Pillar of Eliseg is a complex, multi-phased monument with a story only partly revealed. There is surely much more to learn through future investigations into and around this monument and into the surrounding landscape.
Our investigations hoped to eventually extend knowledge about the monument and encourage Cadw reinterpretation of it. We had naively expected our published work to inform the displays, when they took place. Our final monograph is forthcoming with University of Wales Press, but Professor Edwards rewrote the section of the Cadw guidebook a decade ago and her publications on the monument are readily available. I’ve also published a freely available academic publication about the monument.
Last week, I noticed that Cadw have gone ahead and reinterpreted the Pillar of Eliseg. This seems to have happened without consulting Professor Edwards, Dr Robinson or myself. At least Nancy’s interpretation of the monument is available in the Valle Crucis Cadw guidebook to add detail.
There are two new signs. One is visible as one leaves Valle Crucis Abbey. It is already part-obscured by an A-frame. The aim is to catch people’s interest in the Pillar of Eliseg having visited the ruins of the abbey. This is an important development, since many people who visit the abbey never go to the Pillar!
It’s a step in the right direction, but let’s set aside why:
- it doesn’t mention you can see the Pillar from the abbey grounds and this view is significant for the history of the Pillar and the abbey in itself for multiple reasons and at multiple stages of the life-history of the Pillar and the site of Valle Crucis Abbey from the Early Middle Ages to the present;
- it fails to point out to visitors that you can see a replica of the Pillar in the nearby Llangollen Museum together with finds from our 2010-2012 excavations.
- it might make some sense to encourage visitors to see the Pillar before they go around the abbey (or at least give them the option by making signs available earlier on in the tour).
Instead, let’s focus on the content of the board.
First up, the image is really useful, serving to crudely visualise the Pillar and situate it in terms of modern routes to allow visitors to work out how to walk there. However, I fear it isn’t sufficient without a clear walking route depicted. Hence, while this is an improvement over the complete lack of signage before, I suspect many visitors will not find their way to the Pillar of Eliseg. The monument remains without a sign-posted en route and even approaching the monument it remains unclear to unfamiliar walkers how to gain access and whether access is sanctioned.
Then there is the text. There are 5 points here about this very short text. Please note that I’m refering to the English text: I’ve been assured that some of my objections don’t apply to the Welsh text:
“A monument at the heart of Welsh identity”.
Perhaps it should be, but it really hasn’t been and isn’t. Our research shows local people and Welsh people at large know relatively little about the Pillar of Eliseg. They find it enigmatic but are unclear as to its significance. So they need to know more detail about its significance. As it stands, this statement is incorrect and aspirational.
“For more than a thousand years it has declared the rights of the Welsh princes to rule”.
This is an awkward one too, that glosses over the facts about how it does this, which ‘princes’ are being talked about, and which ‘land’ they are supposedly ruling, let alone the fact that it hasn’t been used to declare the rights of any Welsh princes to our knowledge since (hypothetically) the time it was erected. Having said that, the possibility that the Pillar was retained on royal land might explain the gift of land to the Cistercians at this location in the early 13th century. In other words, this is problematic and obscure, and it doesn’t mention the possible association with military victory or with the lands of Powys that are at the forefront of the Pillar’s significance.
“It bore the family tree from which all Welsh princes are descended back to their mythical beginnings”.
Right, this relates to the complex temporalities of the text and it is important this is mentioned. It is an attempt to tie the Pillar into the same national story one can find in the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle. Indeed, the text cites this exhibition as a resource to learn more. This is an important part of the story of the Pillar, but the way it is written is an appropriation of the Pillar of Eliseg into a single ‘Welsh’ (Gwynedd) narrative that is a tad anachronistic since it doesn’t account for the early 9th-century Powysian context in which it was written. Furthermore, the Pillar doesn’t actually contain a ‘family tree’ in any sense like what we imagine in the modern era. Instead, it contains two sets of temporal relationships – Cyngen’s immediate patrilineal ancestors – and a series of legendary figures that are imprecisely linked to this immediate ancestral line. Indeed, I would question whether a ‘family tree’ was what was being intended. Even if this is simplified and called a ‘genealogy’ or ‘lineage’, I’m not sure how visitors can understand what this sentence means: what mythical beginnings? Why was this important to ‘Welsh princes’? And surely ‘prince’ is anachronistic too,since this might be taken to allude to the princes of Wales and thus to the later history of Powys’ 9th-century rival – Gwynedd – in the 12th and 13th centuries!? We are dealing with kings really…
“Lodged in a Bronze Age mound it connected them even further back to their long forgotten prehistoric ancestors”.
I love the phrasing (‘lodged in…’) and I really do appreciate what they are getting at here since this is an important part of the significance of the Pillar: its position upon a far-earlier prehistoric mound. I sympathise and appreciate the attempt to make clear that the prehistoric mound was important as a setting and as substance to the story being created through its form and text in the 9th century. Yet there is so much awry with this sentence I’m unsure where to start. Our archaeological work has proven the mound is Bronze Age. I would and have argued strongly in print that its ancient character would have been a discursive rationale for the placement of a cross on the mound. I’ve also argued in print that this is part of the multimedia mnemonics of the monument – drawing on legendary pasts through its text, materiality, form and location. However, this argument gets so confused in conflation into this sentence that it makes little sense. If the ancestors were forgotten, how did Cyngen and his family in the 9th century know they were theirs? How did they know they were ‘prehistoric’, a term that is archaeological and relates to the 19th century? I think the point is that the mound didn’t connect them ‘even further back’, it perhaps connected them to events in Eliseg’s time and/or to those mentioned in the legendary section of the text….
This is our Land
Cadw perhaps need to start again with this one. I concede that the cross might have been about claiming land. As Nancy Edwards argues, the Latin text upon it might have been a legal claim to land by the dynasty of Cyngen. However, it was also about the commemoration of the winning of the land, and of restitution of the region/area by Cyngen’s dynasty from the Mercians through conflict. Yet the result of the individual statements in the text which might be incorporated into a slogan that might be misread as borderline racist/xenophobic – ‘this is our land’ (unless one is forgiving and thinks of this only in terms of land-claiming by royalty, but it is too ambiguous).
Since publishing this blog, it has been rightly pointed out to me that the Welsh title is very different: ‘land of our forefather’s’. While bringing its own baggage, this has a more direct internal logic to the text, with the focus on how the cross drew links with place and the past.
If it identified that the enemies of the dynasty that inscribed this text were both Welsh and Anglo-Saxon would have helped. If the relationship to Wat’s Dyke and its predecessor Offa’s Dyke were explained, that might have helped too (although to be fair, the panel at the Pillar itself attempts this), since the monument was perhaps originally commemorating military victories, and thus land-taking, from the Mercians!
The conservation, management and interpretation of the rich and exciting monuments and landscapes which tell the story of Wales since the Palaeolithic should be a priority for the next generation, not reduced to giant meaningless artworks and incomprehensible heritage boards. I appreciate the text needs to be short and succinct, and I realise that simplifications and stark reductionism will be present. However, ‘this is our land’ – as a sign and slogan – is deeply problematic.
The relationship with contemporary politics is bald and troubling. Let’s remember that Wales may have voted (just) for Brexit, but Wales has never come close to voting for independence. We’ve seen scenes across Europe of policies and public outpourings of xenophobia against immigrants, and this makes such a de-contextualised simplification of the message of the Pillar open to misuse. Issues of language and identity are thorny and complex in Wales, with linguistic, socio-economic, demographic and political dimensions. Appropriating the Pillar into a North Welsh story focusing on Powys’ rivals in Gwynedd is troubling enough: a pan-Welsh story is simply bizarre in the context of discussing the early 9th century when Wales was composed of competing dynasties and kingdoms. The complex relationship with Mercia needs to be overtly tackled too. While a welcome antidote to equally problematic Anglo-Saxon scholarly discourses on dyke-building that celebrate the ‘vision’ and ‘power’ of the Mercian kingdom in ‘creating the frontier’ with the Welsh, a more nuanced view of the Pillar of Eliseg is required. Fighting heritage nationalism with more heritage nationalism is hardly a productive way forward.
Heritage does matter, and how we present it does too. Let’s all try harder all round please to get coherent messages across to the public, rather than furnish them with nationalist delusions under the guise of ‘celebrating’ the past.