How do we theorise the mechanics of social memories through the investigation of the building, demolition, burning and re-building of early medieval great hall complexes? A range of sites have been identified across seventh-century England that show monumental axial alignments of great halls, often positioned to respond to/adapt prehistoric ceremonial complexes. These sites can include sequences of hall-buildings, ancillary dwellings and ceremonial structures, as well as burial sites.

Their reuse of the prehistoric past – ‘monument reuse’ has been central to understanding how these elite groups created and bolstered their social, political and religious identities at a time of Christian conversion and kingdom formation. I wonder whether they might have been what anthropologists call ‘ephemeral monuments’: places of feasting and ceremony geared to social memorialisation in that they were temporarily occupied and elaborated to create memorable and fame-creating spectacles. Moreover, their destruction and replacement might also be considered mnemonic practices in their life-histories. If so, their mnemonic dynamics relate to architectonics and tempos of building and re-building, as much as citation in relation to the distant past. It is in the life-histories of halls, and their genealogies in relation to each other, in which social memories may have been played out in seventh-century Britain and beyond.

I’ve just returned from 4 days of academic papers, conversations and explorations at the 25th International Medieval Congress held at the University of Leeds and organised and administered by their Institute for Medieval Studies. Here’s my Twitter Moment for the Congress.

This year’s congress theme was ‘memory’, which is perfect for me and my Archaeodeathly fascinations. So I proposed a paper on a session organised by Dr Susan Kilby and Dr Duncan Berryman: 1231: Memory, Settlement and Landscape, II: Buildings and Memory. The full programme of the 2018 conference can be downloaded here: IMC 2018 programme.

Back in 2014 I outlined my preliminary ideas as part of the Past in its Place project about the Iron Age hillfort on Yeavering Bell and the royal residential/palatial site of Yeavering/Gefrin in a series of blog posts:

I did, however, promise to write a follow-up blog regarding my preliminary ideas. Unfortunately, despite enjoying the Durham workshop, I sniffed a whiff of the usual early medieval archaeologists’ polite-but-silent treatment following my talk and so I decided not to bother until I had found time to write it up. The work is slated for a forthcoming monograph of the Past in its Place project.

Still, I thought it might be useful to present the ideas again, and to an open audience of medievalists. Indeed, returning to this theme now reinvigorated, I feel I was on track with my initial arguments, not least by looking into John Blair’s fascinating newly published book Building Anglo-Saxon England. So it felt timely to air my arguments at the IMC and I’m very grateful to Susan and Duncan for allowing me to join their session.

Here’s my paper title and abstract:

Building Memories within Ad Gefrin

Howard Williams

Richard Bradley’s influential 1987 paper in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association argued that the layout and development of the early medieval palace complex excavated originally by Brian Hope-Taylor involved the deliberate and selective appropriation a prehistoric ceremonial complex as a strategy of political legitimation. In doing so, Bradley’s ground-breaking perspective challenged passive models of continuity, identified at both Yeavering and Sutton Hoo, and inspired a new raft of work on the ‘past in the past’. Thanks in no small part to Bradley’s paper, the next two decades saw new research into other specific 10 sites and monuments as well as broader patterns and themes in the early medieval interest in, and deliberate appropriation of, monuments of prehistoric and Roman date across these islands in mortuary, ceremonial and settlement contexts. However, despite the power of Bradley’s ideas, looking back to his article with the benefit of hindsight we can identify both limitations and flaws in his interpretation of Hope-Taylor’s excavations. With the assistance of new work on early medieval central place sites, but also drawing on new perspectives within archaeologies of memory, this article critiques Bradley’s interpretation of Yeavering’s hall buildings, their alignments and sequence. It suggests a different interpretation of how social memories were created and recreated in the early medieval phases at Yeavering, focusing less on mythologizing the past and more upon the selective remembering and forgetting through acts of construction and destruction. Subsequently, I present a refined interpretation as to the potential mnemonic significance of the settlement and burial evidence within early medieval Gefrin.

Here are the slides of my talk, and I hope they prove to be interesting. However, you will have to await the publication of the research for further details and additional ideas.


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