Saturday evening was a rare moment where multiple strands of my academic research and public archaeological interests synergised! It was an even rarer moment when I got to attend a public event post-lockdown!

Hosted by Soulton Hall, near Wem, Shropshire, Beowulf at the Barrow was a performance of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem by the fabulous living history/reconstructive archaeology group Thegns of Mercia.

An Anglo-Saxon meal and greeting was followed by the performance of first two parts of the poem – Aed Thompson played the scop and other members of Thegns added dialogue and acted out key scenes. Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother. All this took place in Soulton Court, adjacent to the historic manor itself.

The style adopted for the performance was informal and insightful, with conversation breaking out amidst the players serving as audience, commenting on the character and context of the poem, an English creation set in a legendary south Scandinavia. Carefully composed asides allowed the introduction of other sources, from Widsith to the Venerable Bede.

To listen to this tale in such an historic indoor ‘fireside’ context evoking an early medieval hall was special enough. However, what marked the evening as truly inspirational and awesome was that, after an intermission and a walk along a track for c. half a kilometre, the third part of Beowulf was performed within the evocative megalithic architecture of Soulton Long Barrow.

In the candle-lit interior of the main chamber – a columbaria for the modern dead – Beowulf and Wiglaf’s fought the dragon whose presence was evoked with a shadow puppet, and then Beowulf’s death and funeral was enacted. The elder Beowulf was played by one of the Thegns – Dr Andrew Thompson – dressed with the clothing, sword and famous helmet from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. Audience members added gifts to join Beowulf’s pyre.

The barrow is one of a distinctive new development in 21st-century mortuary commemoration inspired by monuments from British later prehistory: I’ve discussed these before on this blog here and here, featuring the first of this phenomenon at All Cannings, Wiltshire. Initiated in 2014 in collaboration with Sacred Stones, this chambered long barrow provides a facility for the deposition and commemoration of the cremated remains of loved ones amidst the countryside of the Soulton estate. A story about death and memory in a setting that marks a shift in contemporary deathways was both powerful and poignant.

In the barrow…

For my part, I was delighted not only to be there in the audience, but to be asked to say a few words to both audience and players within the long barrow before the start of the third act, reflecting on what we know about early Anglo-Saxon period perceptions of burial mounds both old and new, and how these ancient funerary practices echo in 21st-century mortuary practice and commemoration.

Binding art, archaeology, living history and contemporary commemoration, the performance was unforgettable. For me, it revealed the wider potential for responsible, well-researched and carefully choreographed public engagement, education and entertainment inspired by early medieval archaeology and poetry.

I truly hope this sets the precedent for future creative collaborations at Soulton Hall and other settings in which mortality in the past and present is a focus of reflection and performance.

Also, I got the opportunity of taking a selfie with the Thegns’ fascinating interpretation of the Benty Grange helmet!

Benty Grange reproduction selfie!