About howardwilliams

I am an archaeologist with research interests in death, burial and commemoration.

An Effigial Dinosaur


Bishop Yeatman-Biggs’ effigy tomb, set in the open-air ruins of St Michael’s cathedral church, Coventry

This entry from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog relates to his earlier blog about effigy tombs in cathedrals and another about Coventry Cathedral. It concerns the amazing survival of the effigy tomb of the excitingly named Bishop Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs (1845-1922).

IMG_6865IMG_6823Situated within the ruins of St Michael’s cathedral church Coventry, this is a striking example of an early 20th-century bronze effigy tomb with an inherent textual and material biography to it for all to see, charting its passage from its construction to the present day. This was the only tomb to survive nearly intact following the cathedral’s bombing in 1940 and so its significance speaks of its original subject, the bombing and the aftermath of the ruin as a symbol of Coventry’s identity and a powerful memorial environment.

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Corpse Pride: Parading Cuthbert’s Cadaver


St Cuthbert’s body in St Mary’s Lindisfarne


Processing through the south aisle

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The post-mortem biography of St Cuthbert’s corpse and its successive contexts is long and complex and ongoing. It began before his death, with his life (death needs a life usually, but not always). It then continued with the first translation of his corpse and ran on  through the journeys of his corpse until it reached Durham. Subsequently, the biography trundled forward through the embellishment and adaptation of his shrine and the repeated exhumation of his remains. Now his corpse cannot be exhumed any more (although you never know….) art fills a gap, allowing us to imagine not just his life, but his death and the journeys and translations of his relics.


Coffin and its bearers

The journeying of Cuthbert’s corpse is commemorated in a fascinating corporeal sculpture in elm wood by Fenwick Lawson. It was installed in, and subsequently dominates, the space of the south aisle of St Mary’s church, Lindisfarne.

Entitled ‘The Journey’, the sculpture depicts a narrow coffin with the body of St Cuthbert oddly raised above the edges of the coffin being borne by six monks frozen as if in movement. The focus is upon the monks and the coffin, but the corpse is clearly present, if difficult to see by anyone under 6 foot in height. Continue reading

Maelmin Afterlives


Visiting the Maelmin Heritage Trail


Philip at the Maelmin Heritage Trail

From Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath blog.

I recently reported on the Maelmin Heritage Trail at Millfield, Northumberland. The trail consists of a dedicated segment of woodland and grassland as a refuge for a wide range of flora and fauna. The heritage boards along the trail outline the prehistoric and early historic development of the Millfield Basin with vivid artwork. The car park area fronting the trail has a memorial to the airmen who died during the Second World War at RAF Millfield.


In the woods


In the post-hole

My second visit recently gave me an opportunity to acquire a free copy of Clive Waddington’s guidebook which accompanies the trail. I lacked this for my previous posting. I also got to look around the heritage trail again with the Past in its Place group and discussions with them about its effectiveness were insightful.

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Bells and Goats


The group visiting Ad Gefrin

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The latest Past in its Place group meeting was to Yeavering Bell, one of our ‘Ancient Habitations’, our Strand 2 theme for the project. I visited Yeavering two months ago on my own and blogged about it here and here, but this group visited promised the opportunity for me to exchange preliminary ideas with colleagues.

Incidentally, we stayed near Coldstream in an historic farmhouse close to the confluence of the rivers Till and Tweed.


The field


The ‘Old Palace’ on the right, above the cottages at Old Yeavering

Ad Gefrin

First up, we visited the site of Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations of the royal Anglo-Saxon palace of Ad Gefrin, the subject of a previous post. We discussed the nature of the site, the innovative and national standing of Hope-Taylor’s excavation and their legacy on how we think about early medieval settlement and society in Northumbria. In heritage terms, we noted how the site has condensed the story onto the Anglo-Saxon phase despite the complex and long biography of the locale revealed by Hope-Taylor’s excavations. We also noted the challenge of apprehending a site where no standing monuments have been preserved as earthworks. The quarry and largely featureless managed field requires considerable imagination. The few signboards present and some cool wooden sculpted gate-posts act as the principal foci of visitor engagement.


The memorial beside the roadside commemorating the baptism of the Bernician folk by Paulinus

One of our project team, Paul, offered preliminary ideas into the place-name and its possible significance. Meanwhile, I summed up my musings regarding the sequence and significance of the Anglo-Saxon phases and the wider topographical and settlement context. At this stage, all I can add to my earlier blog is that, revisiting the site for a second time was extremely useful.

On our walk, we also took in the ‘Old Palace’: now a barn but formerly a house of the 17th century. The name was presumably inspired by antiquarian readings of the landscape in relation to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History through the lens of sources like Camden.


View from the ramparts

Yeavering Bell

After visiting Ad Gefrin we ascended Yeavering Bell hillfort to take in views and to appreciate the size and features of this large prehistoric hillfort. The views are indeed astounding and it was amazing to see the ships moving to and fro along the Northumbrian coast from this vantage point.


Tobias at the summit

We also marvelled at the large stone rampart, the many hut platforms and the summit enclosure and cairn.

The hillfort’s relationship with the Anglo-Saxon palace site on the glacial whaleback ridge to its north were the key focus of discussion. As an observation point, we cannot imagine a situation where people gathered beside the River Glen and would have failed to place observers on the Bell. However, we have concerns with a scenario in which the Bell persisted as a practical and readily accessible refuge for Ad Gefrin’s populace to flee to in times of conflict.


While our group meeting involved other site visits and other meetings, this was the key element of our assembly. Most project members were there for the first time and to appraise the landscape and the archaeology afresh. Despite this, we have already identified some potentially original lines of enquiry based on the historical, place-name and archaeological evidence. I was also proud of my 3-year-old son who enthusiastically scaled Yeavering Bell with limited assistance: a true goat of the Bell. We didn’t actually meet any real goats, or any real bells.

Undead Graveyards?


The Birmingham bombings memorial, prominently located beside one of the main paths through the churchyard


Recent memorial plaque in eighteenth-century style of initials only

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog. In archaeological discussions, the date-range for cemeteries and churchyards is often taken from the memorials or dated graves. When these run out, the site is presumed to be abandoned.

We often don’t muse about what happens next. It is often implicitly assumed that the site rapidly becomes invisible unless marked by prominent monuments. Even the function and significance of these structures might be soon forgotten. Of course we encounter many instances where burial sites are reused after long periods of disuse. However, the absence of evidence between use and reuse is so often taken as evidence of absence. Often this is justified, but is it always so?


Second view of the Birmingham bombins memorial – traces of where formerly wooden crosses had been appended can be clearly seen

So how quickly did cemeteries ‘disappear’ once ‘fresh’ burials cease to be inserted? Were they abandoned utterly? Or did they persist as vibrant memoryscapes? Or do post-burial cemeteries remain significant but at a lower-level of use-intensity: a kind of half-light undead existence?


The back-side of the angel fountain

The modern world provides many examples of cemeteries that, once abandoned, can be rapidly reused for other purposes and their funerary functions forgotten. Equally though, our British townscapes and landscapes are punctuated by thousands of abandoned cemeteries, burial grounds and churchyards with memorials in situ or at least still on display. These are still important and often protected (listed) components of our historic environment; they linger on with no or infrequent use as ‘heritage’ but also as used spaces in a variety of sometimes eclectic and complex uses and intermittent memorial practices.

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The Tenacious Dead


One of the tenacious memorials in Birmingham Cathedral’s churchyard


Birmingham Cathedral


Obelish and memorial to burial vault


Neo-Egyptian memorial

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog. The churchyard of St Philip’s, Birmingham Cathedral, might be regarded as a useful place to ruminate on the futility of remembrance. Over 60,000 bodies are thought to have been interred here between the church’s opening in the early 18th century until its closure for burial in 1859. So few of these received a memorial and only a tiny fraction of these have survived to be viewed today. Commemorate as we might (as Bill and Ted once said, citing the epic masterpiece by Kansas) all we are is dust in the wind... dude.

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Death and Memory Inside Birmingham Cathedral

IMG_6527IMG_6507IMG_6523From Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath blog.

Recently I had the opportunity, as part of the Past in its Place project, to visit Birmingham Cathedral and explore its memorials together with my doctoral student Ruth Nugent. We met their new and superbly helpful Heritage Manager, Jane McArdle, and explored the churchyard and inside the cathedral church itself.IMG_6403


Birmingham Cathedral from the south gallery

In previous blogs, I have outlined some of the interests we have in cathedral commemoration over the long term here and here and here and here and also… here.

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Tangible and Intangible Pasts


Sign: White Horse Hill, Oxfordshire

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

I want to discuss the tension between tangible and intangible heritage in specific relation to social memory in British landscapes with complex multi-period collections of monuments. My example is White Horse Hill.


My son exploring the hillfort ditch

This might be old news to many of those working in the profession and academia, but it is something that I have only begun to think about regarding mortuary archaeology and the spaces I am investigating as part of the Past in its Place project; cathedrals, ancient habitations and topographies of memory involving monumental and literary traces.

The textual and material traces of all our sites and landscapes of investigation have dimensions  that are still today tangible: including monuments, buildings, memorials. Others are no longer visible but might be apprehended in books. Texts on things, things on text, as well as many, many text-less things and material traces. Yet these dimensions persist and interleave with many traces that are now hidden, stories that are only known indirectly, many intangible dimensions and facets.


The Manger


Uffington Camp

Therefore, situated between the tangible and the intangible are traces that are seemingly imperceptible to the casual visitor because of their scale; their grand dimensions or their sleight proportions, as to render them poorly defined as either a fully ‘material trace’ or as an intangible presence. For example, is a management scheme for maintaining grassland through sheep grazing a ‘thing’ that is fully perceptible? Are hut circles, denuded round barrows, field systems only visible from the air perceptible or imperceptible? A bit of both, but in very different ways, is surely part of the answer. For example, a hillfort is both perceptible and imperceptible: some elements are monumental, others only known from archaeological excavation and survey. Other bits have long gone. What is ‘man-made’ and what is ‘natural’ in such a landscape?

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Speaking with Effigy Tombs

1 - Medieval Lordly Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

Medieval Lordly Tomb, Worcester Cathedral

2 - Carew monument, Exeter Cathedral

Carew monument, Exeter Cathedral

Early 19th-century praying portrait, Winchester Cathedral

Early 19th-century praying portrait, Winchester Cathedral

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Here are some very basic musings about tombs in cathedrals prepared for the Speaking with the Dead exhibition at Exeter Cathedral. Church monument experts: expect to find errors and happy to be corrected and additional examples pointed out.


Effigy tombs are complex, varied, striking and prominent monuments to the elite dead which can dominate even the largest of cathedral churches. These space-gobbling monuments can be placed in wall-niches or free-standing within cathedral aisles, chapels or transepts. They are among the most interesting to visitors and most commented upon monuments for any cathedral.

These are body-centred monuments. Effigy tombs (and effigy slabs) depicted the dead in prayer or holding artefacts that denote their office and identity. The sculpted bodies wore costumes befitting the deceased’s status or rank held in life and that aspired for recognition in Heaven.

Recipients of effigy tombs included archbishops, bishops, abbots, deacons and priests. For the secular elite: royalty, nobility, gentlefolk were sometimes joined by lower social classes. Continue reading

Cremation and the Cathedral

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

As part of Strand 1 of the Past in its Place project – Speaking with the Dead – I am writing (with my PhD student Ruth Nugent about cremation and cathedrals) in England and Wales.

In considering cathedrals as environments for ongoing literary and material engagements between the living and the dead, it would be easy to dismiss the last 150 years as a time of commemorative decline. Scholarship on monuments and memorials bears out this impression. After all, the vast majority of scholarly research on cathedral memorials has focused on medieval shrines and effigies, early modern mural monuments, and sometimes the grandiose edifices of Victorian clergy.

Our research suggests the contrary. By looking at a sample of English and Welsh cathedrals to reveal wider trends and practices in cathedral commemoration, the Speaking with the Dead project has identified that cathedrals have sustained and adapted themselves as nodes in a complex topography for remembering the dead. While burial in cathedrals has all but ceased in the late 19th century, cenotaphs to bodies interred elsewhere, and memorials to the cremated dead, persist as key dimensions of how cathedrals operate as places of memory. Furthermore, the ashes of the cremated dead have, during the 20th century, increasingly reached into cathedral commemorative environments long denied to unburned cadavers following Victorian legislation against intramural and inner-city burial.

While lengthy, eloquent epitaphs are all but absent, this memorial tradition remains textual, in an abrupt, formulaic and thus powerful and conservative fashion. Furthermore, these memorials gain their significance both individually and collectively, through their integration into the pre-existing fabric of medieval buildings and their surroundings. Memorials to the cremated dead also gain significance through their close association and reuse of far older aisles, chapels, monuments and memorials: often place side-by-side with the tombs of medieval bishops and Jacobean aristocrats.

How are the cremated dead memorialised through materials, texts and spaces in and around the modern cathedral?

  1. Churches and cathedrals have a long tradition of cenotaphic memorialisation since the Middle Ages, with memorials situated on/in walls, windows, floors and fittings (such as pews and lecterns) displaced from the bodies subject to commemoration. In many ways, memorials to the cremated dead are incorporated into this long tradition of memorialisation without the body that persists to the present dayFig 1a - Canterbury
  2. Long before cremation came back into fashion, cremation was implied in cathedral architecture from the late sixteenth century through to the nineteenth century. Mural monuments to aristocrats, and later regimental and war memorials, depict the hero’s tomb, flaming urns articulating the ascension of the soul to Heaven, lidded urns implying the idea of ashes therein, and torches used in antiquity to ignite funerary pyres.

    Fig 2a - Lichfield

    One of many neo-classical allusions to cremation in cathedral contexts

  3. Since the late 19th century, memorials to burials in cathedrals become exceptional, yet memorials to bodies and ashes interred elsewhere persist. Many of the memorials in cathedrals allude indirectly to individuals who were cremated upon death. Only upon rare occasions is there an explicit reference to the memorialisation of ashes interred elsewhere.

    Fig 3a - Chester

    Memorial citing ashes interred in the Chester Cathedral garden of remembrance

  4. As cremation rose in popularity during the 20th century, interments of ashes for those closely connected to the cathedral were permitted beneath floor surfaces. In rare cases, this is made explicit in the text of the memorial, but far more often it is implied by the small size of the memorial and its location.

    Fig 4a - Norwich

    A rare explicit instance of a memorial covering cremated human remains in the modern cathedral

  5. During the twentieth centuries, burial grounds within cloister gardens either persisted, or were reused, to receive the interment and/or scattering of ashes. The walls and windows of cloisters continued to receive memorials to those whose ashes were scattered or interred therein, adapting a long existing cenotaphic memorial tradition.

    Fig 5a - St Davids

    Ashes in the cloister

  6. Both the long-defunct and still-operational burial grounds around cathedrals have been revitalised as spaces for ash dispersal, interment through burial plots and gardens of remembrance.

    Fig 6a - Llandaff

    Llandaff Cathedral’s garden of remembrance

  7. Cathedrals are almost always situated in close proximity to one or more suburban cemeteries and crematoria built during the late 19th, early 20th or (most often) late 20th centuries. The funerals and memorial notable individuals and military groups have linked these spaces together.

In summary, despite the traditional ambivalence of many sections of Anglicanism to the rise of cremation, the disposal of the dead by fire has had a long-term impact, as idea and reality, on the commemoration of the cathedral dead since the early modern period and in particular during the 20th and early 21st centuries.