In a previous blog-post in early 2017, I reflected on the many dimensions of the archaeology of Brexit, and proposed a raft of ways in which archaeology, and specifically mortuary archaeology, intersects with the 2016 Brexit vote and its aftermath leading to the momentous unfolding events of February and March 2019.
While Gardner (2017) reflects on the long-term trajectory of Britain’s relationship with Europe from an archaeological perspective, and Brophy (2018) and others have reflected on the current public archaeology and politics of the past in which archaeological narratives are used and abused in relation to Brexit (see Brophy’s recent piece here), I propose we should consider not only the implications of the Brexit process on the heritage and archaeology sector and how we narrate the stories of these islands’ prehistories and histories. In addition, we should critically explore the archaeology of Brexit, including the changing uses of flags and other memorials, symbols and material cultures linked to the European Union. I concluded with this statement:
If there is consensus among historians, heritage specialists and archaeologists that Brexit can bring little that’s good and nothing that’s certain, we look to the future with trepidation, but also with an archaeodeath gaze towards how our past will be changing…
Today, I witnessed a startling case study to support this statement within the realm of the mortuary archaeology and the archaeology of memory within a medieval church building. For in addition to the many building projects across the UK bearing the EU insignia that will immediately be rendered in a new relationship to the present-day political, cultural and economic climate once the UK leaves the EU, we should consider the EU flags within churches and other public spaces. We might well see a sudden shift taking place within our churches, town and city halls and many other public places regarding how memorials bearing references to the EU are perceived and presented.
St Collen’s, Llangollen
Today I visited St Collen’s church, Llangollen. Dedicated to the 7th-century saint, this is a triple-naved 19th-century remodelling of a medieval church dating back to the 13th century. It contains a host of post-medieval memorials as well as niches that once housed medieval tombs as well as a medieval 6-bay hammer-beam roof with striking angelic decorations.
In the 19th-century south aisle, we find a striking trace of the UK’s membership of the EU. Upon the south wall there is a row of three prominent memorials. Furthest east is the First World War memorial, a richly carved wooden monument framed by British Legion flags and commemorating the men of the parish who died in the Great War.
Farthest east, dating to the late 1930s, is a sculpture commemorating the town’s most famous former inhabitants whose grave lies prominently outside the south door of the church: the Ladies of Llangollen (Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler).
Between the war memorial and the Ladies’ sculpture, is the Council of Europe’s Flag of Honour. This is one of more than 1,000 awarded across Europe since 1961. The carefully hand-written bilingual text within an elaborate frame explains the significance of the Flag: awarded to Llangollen in 1983 for its ‘significant contribution to the European ideal’.
And there it is: currently and prominently suspended within the town’s church dedicated to the early medieval saint, situated between the town’s most famous residents and its war dead. The Flag of Honour proudly and valiantly displaying Llangollen as a hub of tourism, Welsh culture and proud recipient of an honour aimed at fostering sustained peace, reconciliation as well as heritage, cultural and economic contacts across Europe. The Flag of Honour is displayed like the flags of regimental chapels and war memorials: part of a network of mnemonic citations to the town’s past and its wider connections, displayed upon the walls of its church.
Next month, towns like Llangollen will mark the passing of this flag from a statement of sustained European ties to a relic of a failed dream. Some will celebrate this moment, the illusion that we are ‘taking back control’ and perhaps there will be a new era of nationalistic fervour in our monuments, museums and heritage sites. The rest of us will be suffering the cultural and economic consequences, and struggling to pick up the pieces, including the impact of Brexit on archaeology and heritage (both the sector and the UK’s landscapes, monuments and built environment).
In addition, as archaeologists, we must be attentive to the fates of these once-proud symbols and monuments, tying British localities to Europe. Will they remain on display? As such, will they serve to reminder us of what we’ve lost, or to celebrate the temporal and cultural disjunction that is Brexit? Alternatively, will they be relegated to less prominent locations inside and outside in public spaces and heritage environments? Or will they be removed altogether, either hidden like the relics of saints concealed by Catholic parishioners at the Reformation or consigned to the nearest recycling centre in an attempt to forget this stage in Britain’s late 20th and early 21st-century past? Much will depend on the politics but also to the choices of British people – national, regional and local. Much also depends on what precisely happens to the UK in coming years post-Brexit and how ‘history will judge’ Brexit. Certainly let’s not doubt this should be an archaeological responsibility to observe and critique. The church context is not arbitrary and reminds us that this is more than a political realignment, but also a fundamental revision of faith and identity rooted in perceptions of the past.
As of today, looking at this flag, one can almost taste the uncertainty in the still air of the church. The flag seems very sad indeed, mourning for its own future as it is consigned to the past.
Brophy, K. 2018. The Brexit hypothesis and prehistory. Antiquity 82: 1650–58.
Gardner, A. 2017. Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: a comparative view. Journal of Social Archaeology 17(1): 3–26.