Many archaeological artefacts go on display in museums, but few artefacts of such relatively humble character take on as important roles in modern commemorative practice as the Alrewas Beaker.
This post reflects on my surprise and fascination at its position in the NMA, having recently published two academic articles critiquing how the NMA’s many and diverse memorials quarry antiquity for their messages, materialities, metaphors and legitimisation of their very existence.
The recent redevelopment of the National Memorial Arboretum and the opening of its new pay-to-enter exhibition Landscape for Life within the ‘Remembrance Centre’, sees a systematic attempt to explain, educate and justify the existence and rationale of this memorial landscape. A key part of the exhibition is a series of displays that show-case 9 memorials to be found in the grounds as examples of the range and character of the memorial practices to be encountered.
To my surprise, one of the 9 selected isn’t a memorial to anyone or anything that is known. Instead, it gains its significance and place in the exhibition by providing an ‘ancestor monument’ to the very place where the NMA is designed. The ‘Ancient Burial Mound’ is the only part of the NMA that hasn’t been subject to draining, plantings of trees or shrubs, or mowed grass. This is a scheduled ancient monument of the 3rd millennium BC, now almost flat and therefore seemingly to most visitors a flat space.
The triple ring-ditch was identified on aerial photographs in the ’60s on the site of the planned Arboretum, when it was excavated in the 1990s. I haven’t consulted excavation reports, but enough of it was excavated for it to be clear this was a multi-phased prehistoric burial mound, situated close to the Tame and Trent’s confluence. Two sherds and a large fragment of Beaker Ware were recovered. Thanks to the NMA’s Interpretation Curator John Hughes for this information.
Poppy and white birds – British Legion symbolism
The display attempts to link current and past remembrance through the Ancient Burial Mound. The image is one that evokes a sense of large mounds covered in natural flowers, including poppies. Moreover, white birds (of peace?) fly above. Therefore simultaneously the ancient mound is linked to the natural landscape, to the disturbed soils of the First World War Western Front, and the forgotten graves of ancient ‘heroes’.
The burial mound apparently ‘symbolised importance’ (not sure what that means) and marked territory and ‘status’ (not sure for whom or what). They sent out ‘a message’ but it isn’t stated what or to whom the message was. This very much appeals to a conservative audience, where graves mark claims to land and wealth.
Next, we move to the Beaker itself and here memory is emphasised. The Beaker was placed in a pit beside the mound, and itself may have been a ‘family heirloom’, linking past and present for those depositing it. We are told this find is exciting because Beakers are found elsewhere, but their associations and story are not told in this exhibition. Instead, their ‘nationally important’ status is articulated.
This relatively humble, yet nationally significant find, and the scheduled ancient monument from whence it came, operate together, as space within the NMA and now within the exhibition, to consolidate the antiquity and legitimacy of both the place and its link to memorialisation since prehistory, but also the very media by which remembrance takes place – material culture and monuments. In this regard, I see a close parity between academic discourse in ‘archaeologies of memory’ and their focus on legitimations, power, territory and status, and the way memory is being deployed in our current strategies of remembrance for the nation at the Arboretum.
While some of our key politicians may struggle to fund and protect our national heritage, and archaeology struggles to find itself a place in our education system, clearly here at the NMA it finds a key role in an overtly political and martial discourse on remembrance.
As with all other memorials at the Arboretum, the Alrewas Beaker and the Ancient Burial Mound reveal how the memorial landscape is created out of a bizarre set of material affordances, strategies and facilities drawing the distant past into the present day.