Wayland’s Smithy – Stones and Hidden Bones


Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

Wayland's Smithy II: the blocked passage

Wayland’s Smithy II: the blocked passage



Re-posted from Archaeodeath.

Recently I presented a keynote at a conference on the Subterranean in the Medieval World conference at the University of York, outlining my preliminary thoughts on the Past in its Place Strand B case study: Wayland’s Smithy.

Only subsequent to this conference did I get the opportunity to revisit this Neolithic monument of the 36th and 35th centuries BC. I went there to take photographs of the monument and also to think through some of my ideas about the site’s form and its location.


Uffington Castle from the Ridgeway, looking back whilst en route to Wayland’s Smithy

Getting to Wayland’s Smithy involved a 1.4 mile walk from the car park along the historic Ridgeway path. This is a completely different and benign experience to my memories: closed to motor vehicles and carefully managed, this stretch of the Ridgeway is now a pleasant walking and cycling path. My kids took inexplicable pleasure in attacking the heritage sign boards en route, exploring puddles and meeting a snail, as well as the occasional walkers and cyclists to passed by.


Graffiti at Wayland’s Smithy

The aura of visiting Wayland’s Smithy is difficult to dispel, even if it a create of a recent plantation of beech trees. The trees themselves are the focus of a long-standing graffiti tradition, creating a strange memorial field around the Neolithic tomb. Also, neo-Pagans visit the site and leave deposits within the chambers.


Me at Wayland’s Smithy

As with so many ancient monuments, it is not only the sacred grove-like stand of trees that is a creation of recent aesthetics rather than a preservation from the ancient past. Wayland’s Smithy is a multi-phase prehistoric monument; what is seen today is the remains of Wayland’s Smithy II. Still, much of how the tomb looks now is a post-excavation interpretation and recreation of the 1960s excavations. Consequently, it is more difficult to think back to how it may have appeared in the Anglo-Saxon period when its association with Weland was first coined.

Having said that, it must be said that parts of the stone chamber was a feature extant and intact prior to excavation, as revealed in antiquarian images from the 17th and 19th centuries. It may have been this stone box with partly intact lintel which inspired the sense that this was a dwelling or workshop as much as a tomb.

The ‘hidden bones’ component of my title related to the point that, whilst we ‘know’ as archaeologists that this was a site with a funerary component in the Neolithic, I am still unsure if Anglo-Saxon people necessarily knew and engaged with this site for this reason and with knowledge that this was a funerary site first and foremost (if indeed it ever was funerary first and foremost). Might ancient bones have been found at the site by digging, or was it the stones that inspired the legendary association with Weland….?

I couldn’t resist going in my newly purchased Weyland Yutani t-shirt and taking a selfie… Self-indulgent and nerdy I know but we have to amuse ourselves occasionally don’t we?

Bateman’s Tomb


Roadside sign pointing uphill along a track beside the chapel to Bateman’s tomb


Bateman’s Tomb

Re-posted from Archaeodeath.

As part of the Past in its Place project, I am exploring the relationship between early archaeological writing and the excavation of ancient tombs. I am also interested in how antiquaries and early archaeologists are themselves commemorated.

Like many archaeologists, I am fascinated by the early barrow-diggers. Reading their reports is a sick fascination: a voyeuristic car-crash archaeology. I say this because of the mixture at excitement at the discoveries and horror at their methods, the seductive beauty of their illustrations and (sometimes) their prose, yet the gut-wrenching feeling that you are looking at a horrible ruination of fabulous archaeological remains whose context is absent or poorly recorded. Regarding images, there is a parallel with the feeling I get looking at the PAS website…. a mixture of guilt and wonder at what I am seeing.


Bateman’s tomb, now rather run down

For barrow-digging, even those rare individuals who pioneered field recording and attention to detail simply exacerbate the horror. Still, studying the earliest barrow-diggers is not simply about chastising them for their failings any more than it is about honouring ‘founding fathers’ (and yes, it is mainly men who at least get the attention), placing them on pedestals as if they were ‘visionaries’ simply for idling around burial mounds ripping out skeletons. Their reports can be read as primary sources onto the interaction between perceptions of the past and contemporary obsessions with race, class, gender and all manner of other social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of early Victorian society in Britain.


Railings around Bateman’s tomb

In these regards, I have a soft spot for Thomas Bateman (1821-65) , the Derbyshire ‘barrow-knight’ whose passion for barrow digging turned up some fabulous artefacts and burials relating to the prehistory and early history of the Peak District, but whose approach and interests neatly spanned the transition from antiquarianism to archaeology and perceptions of the ‘British’ but also engagements with the material remains of the earliest English. I can recommend Julien Parsons’ work on Bateman and other barrow-diggers, published in the Archaeological Journal vol. 163 for 2006. Also, a valuable resource has been constructed at the University of Sheffield from the Bateman archives.

My association with Bateman’s works goes back to my student days. As an undergraduate student, I helped John Barnett re-dig one of the prehistoric monuments subject to Bateman’s barrow digging. We found one of his tokens, left at the base of his dig. Subsequently in my own research, I was interested in the phenomenon of ‘monument reuse’, how Bateman uncovered many examples where ‘British’ barrows had early medieval graves deliberately inserted into them. I have also been interested in primary barrow burial in the seventh century and Bateman’s work at Benty Grange in particular, as part of my project, published in a paper from 1999 called ‘Placing the Dead’, looking at why specific locations were selected for reuse or for new barrow-building projects during the era of Christian conversion and kingdom formation. Later still in my research, I have discussed Bateman in the context of the origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Currently, I am interested in Bateman’s work because some of the sites he dug are key to my thinking about landscape and memory in the Peak District, but also how he writes about these finds and sites.


four-stepped base of Bateman’s tomb – perhaps one of its most ungainly features

On a recent visit, I explored some of the key monuments I will be focusing on in my work for the Past in its Place project, including the prehistoric henge of Arbor Low, around which Bateman investigated a number of barrows yielding primary and secondary interments of early medieval date. I also decided to make a pilgrimage to visit Bateman’s tomb.


Western side of the monument, commemorating Bateman’s 11-year-old daughter Sarah, who joined him in his tomb.

Bateman is a rare instance of a barrow-digger who took his occupation to configure his own mortuary commemoration. Bateman’s Gothic tomb sites, commemorating himself and his child Sarah who died the year after him, within iron railings in a private burial plot uphill and behind the chapel at Middleton-by-Youlgreave, Derbyshire.


Within railings, the tomb is an isolated phenomenon in terms of location and form

The site is in a sorry state of disrepair and a notice asks visitors not to venture inside. However, I felt that, as I fan of Bateman, and to honour his memory, some photographs of his fabulously grim memorial would be a fitting tribute to his early archaeological endeavours.


The north-end of Bateman’s tomb

It is a rather ugly monument that only an archaeologist could love. Central to his memorial is of course the replica of a Bronze Age collared urn, upright in a fashion that is counter to the Bronze Age mortuary tradition in which many are placed upside down over cremated human remains. Bateman’s funerary urn sits on the northern (uphill) end of the tomb, balanced awkwardly and yet a striking short-hand for Bateman’s archaeological endeavours.


Bateman’s tomb

Perhaps a replica of the Benty Grange helmet, among his most famous discoveries, would have been too unwieldy to sculpt and balance on his tomb? I think this is not the point. There was the long mortuary tradition in aristocratic and gentry tomb culture of urns as symbols of mourning and loss, and the use of classical urns can only rare occasions be readily adapted. Here, the urn commemorates a connection between an individual’s ‘profession’ and the primordial ‘British’ past of the Peak District. Indeed, the isolated location of the tomb might have been intended to provoke a similar association.

Certainly this is no ‘pagan’ memorial, the faith of Bateman is left undisputed in the stepped base implying a Gothic cross. Instead the crosses are situated at head-end and foot-ends of the tomb. In summary, the tomb is a messy, ungainly but remarkable biographical skeuomorphic statement in stone, honouring a very peculiar, morbid and early Victorian passion for barrow-digging and one of its chief proponents in the English Midlands and his young daughter.

RIP TB and SB!

The Rollright Stones


The King’s Stone


Looking a King’s Man in the eye

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

Today was the first day of a long expedition with two of my offspring to explore places of antiquity and folklore connected to the Past in its Place project. First stop on a horribly wet and windy Friday: the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.

There are three principal things to see here, the King’s Stone, the King’s Men and the Whisper Knights. However, what is important to remember is that these are fragmentary timemarks, surviving monumental traces of a far more complex, multi-period ceremonial landscape revealed, in part and in a sketchy way, by both antiquarian and archaeological research.


The Whispering Knights


The distinctive natural mound upon which the King’s Stone is situated, may have attracted a sprawling early Anglo-Saxon cemetery to its east, as well as inspiring the folklore of the stone

The Whispering Knights are by far the oldest, the remaining five stones of an early Neolithic dolmen, constructed as a funerary and ceremonial monument in the fourth millennium BC.

The King’s Men are 77 remaining stones of a Late Neolithic/Chalcolithic stone circle.

The King’s Stone is a monolith supposedly of comparable date, and related to, the King’s Men stone circle.

The Anglo-Saxon Reuse of Rollright


Heritage signboard

The later use of the site is more interesting to me than its origins. In the early Anglo-Saxon period, the site attracted a cemetery to the east along the ridge from the King’s Stone and perhaps attracted to the natural ridge upon which it is situated. Early Anglo-Saxon period communities may have regarded this natural mound to have been an ancient burial monument for two – to paraphrase another scholar’s hyperbole – two ‘bleeding obvious’ reasons.

First, monument reuse is a widely attested practice in this period and their engagement with zillions of other monuments which would have allowed them, as with all early medieval people to identify distinctive round and oblong eminences as potentially funerary in nature.

Second, far before the proliferation of barrow-burial in the seventh century, early medieval populations regularly interred their dead beneath burial mounds of various sizes and structures.


The King’s Men

Third, as excavations around the King’s Stone attest, prehistoric burials were very superficially located into this natural mound, meaning that in the Anglo-Saxon period such remains might readily be uncovered during any acts of construction or new grave-digging, thus prompting further burials and provoking funerary narratives of ancestral or legendary groups having previously utilised the place. Unfortunately, very little is known about the extent and character of early medieval activity around this site and more information would be most welcome.


A King’s Man


Frustratingly for those obsessed with monument reuse being a practice of seventh-centuryelites, this is one of many sites seemingly (based admittedly on fragmentary evidence) of sixth-century monument reuse for burial known from Oxfordshire and other counties. Still, the site’s significance may have persisted into the later Anglo-Saxon period and beyond. The monuments are situated upon a county boundary; indeed today the King’s Men are in Oxfordshire and across the road to the north, the King’s Stone is in Warwickshire. In 2004, Sarah Semple (Durham University) incorporated the folklore of Rollright in her thinking regarding the persistent significance of prehistoric ceremonial landscapes as locales for assembly and burial in the early medieval world. Might more than burial have taken place at this prehistoric ceremonial landscape during the early medieval period?


King’s Men Stone Circle heritage signboard

Folklore is for Kids

I’m an archaeologist, yet what on earth is the point in me explaining the real date, functions, significance and parallels of the monuments to a three-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl? I did, but they weren’t interested. Instead, they liked the folklore of the sites, as mediated by the heritage signboards. It was all a witch (or witches) fault (or old mother Shipton, whoever she was), turning men into stone for reasons that are barely apparent (other than that they probably deserved it for their aspirations to control all of England…). Still, a good old dose of magic and early modern moralising and misogyny is far more interesting than the archaeology, and far more geared to imposing prejudices and fable when engaging with these monuments in the modern landscape.


The view the aspirant ruler failed to see….

IMG_0831Of course I am not belittling the folklore, I am emphasising how it is fit for telling and fit for moralising, responding to the forms and materiailities of the stones as experienced. Furthermore, the stories are carefully wrapped around the specificities of this particular set of monuments, not a generic set of archaeological typologies. So the King was turned to stone by the witch because he couldn’t see Long Compton having taken seven steps towards it: the myth engages with the stone but also the natural ridge, the same one that the early medieval population may have taken to be a long barrow.

These are stones that were once people, and might become people again, enjoy dancing hand-in-hand, need to talk to each other, to drink from the river, etc etc. The proximities, forms, shapes and textures of stones render them ‘alive’ and buzzing with narratives.


Modern Engagement

Of course the Rollright Stones are a focus of heritage conservation, modern religious practices as well as those interested in prehistory and history. I am a great fan of the Ministry of Works-style iron fencing that delineate the King’s Stone and the Whispering Knights.


Coins on the Whispering Knights

We also participated in a commonplace votive practice facilitated by the railings around the Whispering Knights – we threw coins onto the recumbent stone. We saw other votives – flowers and such like – left on the King’s Men. Of course adding things to a site is one memorial and votive practice, chipping away the stone is a destructive antithetical practice; the odd shape of the King’s Stone is attributed to the 19th-century practice of chipping away stone from the monolith because of its apotropaic qualities.


Bench and the King’s Men

IMG_0728As I have noticed elsewhere (as would anyone visiting these sites), memorial benches are drawn to prehistoric monuments. In this case via two matching benches, one by the King’s Men and one by the Whispering Knights, link sitting with views of the monuments and commemoration of the dead.

At Wyatt’s Farm, you can even buy ‘The Rollright Burgers’. We didn’t, we had other sites to head off in search of…

IMG_0669Heritage and Help

The Rollright Stones are fabulous and the ridge-top location is spectacular. It is a place attracting neo-Pagan worship and archaeological enthusiasts, a place attracting modern art installations and activities for people from the region. The site is freely open with only an honest box to receive the modest entrance fee. It has straightforward heritage display boards that balance the archaeology (visible and invisible to visitors) with the folklore. It has audio-guides available online. This is a fun, simply displayed and managed, yet essential attraction as one of the most easterly of Britain’s megalithic monumental complexes. Still, the Rollright Trust that owns and runs the site needs your support and your praise as a superb example of a site supported and run independently and on a charity basis.



Material and Monument Reuse at the NMA


Signpost at the NMA

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

Archaeologists have long debated the significance of monument reuse – the monumental ‘past in the past’ – as a way by which prehistoric and early historic people created their mythologies and histories. Despite some cynics and some misinterpretations, it is widely recognised that old things can provoke myth, legends and other forms of social memory through the materially engaged practices and somatic experiences of visiting, burying the dead, discovering old things, and reworking ancient monuments. Ruins and earthworks are not stores of indisputable tradition, instead they act as media by which connotations and narratives are wrapped around and become entangled through social practices and ritual performances.


Relocated from Basra, this memorial commemorates British military personnel killed in the war in Iraq, but also collectively cites a link between Britain’s and Iraq through its relocation from the war zone

In many cases this use of old monuments in memory work involves many strands of continuity linking monuments and memory over decades, centuries and sometimes millennia. This is a staged remembering and forgetting, both retrospective and prospective, through the persistent or created reuse of old monuments. In other instances, the tradition can be invented, absorbing, appropriating and replacing existing associations with a monument, representing a break with the past and the invention of tradition.


The Armed Forces Memorial

This discussion of the past in the past informs how we consider the past in the present too. At the National Memorial Arboretum, we find a brand new memorial landscape, developed around the Millennium as the UK’s national focus of memorialisation. Yet here, we find many attempts to integrate the past into contemporary and newly created commemorative environments. I have discussed the site and its many allusions to antiquity in previous blog posts here and here, relating to a publication in the International Journal of Heritage Studiespublished online in Jan 2013 and in print form this month. The Armed Forces Memorial is a case in point.


A reused memorial outside the Millennium Chapel at the NMA

In a brand new publication in the journal Archaeological Dialogues on the related but somewhat contrasting commemorative theme of ‘Monument and Material Reuse at the National Memorial Arboretum’. Here I explore the contrasting ways in which specific materials and monuments created for other locations have been translated and ‘saved’ for display within these new memorial gardens and woods.

I argue that this is not a universal trend and in some regards is in tension with allusions to deep antiquity within the NMA. Instead, I argue that the emotive tempo and specific mnemonic connections created by this reuse is particularly favoured for select categories of memorial: those linked to the suffering of civilian victims of war, memorials to peace, and memorials to military disasters and to the sufferings of prisoners of war. The NMA also operates as a museum for memorials that have lost their home elsewhere; they have become memorials to themselves: their display is commemorative of their subjects and also to the culture of commemoration itself.


The stark wooden posts of the Shot at Dawn memorial

As seen in the newly opened 9/11 Memorial Museum building on a longer tradition of using specific artefacts associated with atrocities found in Holocaust museums like Auchwitz-Birkenau, relics that trigger specific and direct tangible links from the present to specific localities and events, can provoke strong emotions and verifiable witnesses to specific narratives being constructed through memorialisation.

At the NMA we see a memorial context in which human loss and suffering is framed by sublimation into antiquity, yet for specific modes of memorialisation, the ‘real thing’ is deemed necessary.

The Archaeology of Weland the Smith

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

A Tasty Sub

In a previous post, I reported on my attendance and the rich range of papers presented at the Subterranean in the Medieval World conference this weekend. From hell-mouths to cross-shafts, from dragons to canals, bed-burials to catacombs, all manner of related and evolving underworlds known from medieval texts, maps, manuscripts, material cultures and landscapes were explored in a session superbly organised by art historians Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner. A successful conference and there was a super interdisciplinary dialogue between delegates and speakers. I forgot that I was one of only a handful of archaeologists there and felt very at home with the debates and evidence; everyone was so welcoming and the themes fascinating and engaging. I was lucky enough to be the keynote talk.

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

The Keynote

In the previous post, I outlined the introduction to my keynote, and some of the approaches I think we need to develop in thinking about the medieval subterranean. Here I want to sketch some of the preliminary ideas I used to apply this approach to a case study: the Archaeology of Weland the Smith, focusing on one of the case studies in my ongoing ‘Past in its Place’ project: Wayland’s Smithy (Oxfordshire, formerly Berkshire).

Weland the Smith on the Franks Casket (Wikimedia Commons)

Weland in the Later Anglo-Saxon Imagination

There is evidence that the story of Weland the Smith – best known from the Lay of Volundr – a 13th-century Icelandic poem – was known in pre-Viking England. The irrefutable evidence for this is a whalebone casket dated to the early eighth century: the Franks’ Casket. On the casket, the captive and hamstrung artisan is depicted in his smithy killing the king’s sons (one headless corpse apepars beneath his feet) and presenting a vessel, presumably made from the skull of one of the sons to the king’s daughter. Wayland is an infamous murderer and rapist. He exacts revenge using these modes of violence on the king who had imprisoned him. He then escapes in a flying machine made of swan’s wings. In this image, the king’s daughter is accompanied by another woman while there is a ?boy (or Egil, Wayland’s brother) to the right capturing swans.

Weland also appears in late Anglo-Saxon literature. Beowulf has a mailshirt made by Weland. When Alfred the Great translated Fabricius as Weland from Boethius’s Consolidation of Philosophy. Alfred showed a knowledge of the famed elven smith but also a strong sense that, for a Christian king, it is apposite that he is not located:

“Where are now the bones of that wise and famous goldsmith Weland? … Where are the bones of Weland now, and who knows now where they may be?”

Wayland’s Smithy

Amidst the many supernatural toponyms known from later Anglo-Saxon sources and recently exhaustively appraised by Sarah Semple in her superb book Perceptions of the Prehistoric Past in Anglo-Saxon England, there is one that has fascinated Anglo-Saxonists since the nineteenth century; the attribution to a Neolithic tomb as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’.

In the charter bounds for Compton Beauchamp in AD 955 it says: “‘along the furrow until it comes to the wide gate east of Wayland’s Smithy (Yelandes Smiððan”). This name is preserved in later sources as referring to a Neolithic chambered tomb of the Cotswold-Severn tradition, a monument that saw excavation in 1921 and then in the early 1960s and dates to the 36th and 35th centuries BC.

By focusing on thinking further about why this specific monument, in that specific location, received the place-name association with Wayland, and why more specifically still, it was referred to as his ‘smithy’ (not his tomb or anything else), I hoped to discuss how we can be more specific in thinking about the particular choices made in allocating myths and legends to ancient monuments in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape.


The reconstructed facade at Wayland’s Smithy – the monument would not have looked like this in the Early Middle Ages when some of these stones may have already toppled.

The Materiality of Wayland’s Smithy

I proposed that Wayland’s Smithy can be better understood by scrutinising its distinctive form and materiality. It was not simply a stone monument, but one that may have been overtly megalithic, strikingly unique for the vicinity. I reviewed the archaeology and noted a range of other potential discoveries – stone, bone and metal that, if similar had been found in the Early Middle Ages, might have prompted an association with Wayland’s Smithy. I suggested that, in the Anglo-Saxon mind, stone and bone were as associated with Weland as metalworking.

IMG_20140516_0006 (2)

Dragon Hill, Uffington (after Miles 2003).

The Landscape Context of Wayland’s Smithy

I then looked at the landscape of Wayland’s Smithy, suggesting that its significance as a landmark may have derived from its association outside a ‘gate’ on the Ridgeway that allowed access to an ancient historic route and one used by Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. I suggested that Wayland’s Smithy became peripheral to a complex monumental landscape focusing on the striking topogrpahy of Dragon Hill and the Manger to the east. Including multiple Iron Age hillforts and the famous White Horse, this was a landscape of myth and memory and Wayland’s Smithy was at its edge. The prominence yet peripheral character of this monument may have made it a locale of local, regional and supraregional importance and fame in the later Anglo-Saxon period.

Uffington White Horse

Uffington White Horse

Weland’s Bones and the Bones of Weland

I have not published on these issues, so I haven’t given all the details of my arguments here. Still, I hope this is enough to whet your appetite for more forthcoming research from the Past in its Place project. My argument is that Wayland’s Smithy was another ambivalent ancient monument in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape, one that became associated with the elven smith because it was on the edge of a monumental complex, and perhaps also because it was a place where the Anglo-Saxons had discovered, not the discrete burials they would have expected from a funerary monument, and not the tomb of Weland, but the results of his craft.

By this I do not refer to the discovery of Anglo-Saxon burials, and perhaps not only metal deposited there in the Iron Age, but the stones and bones which may have been associated with Weland and the making of his grisly treasures…

Subterranean at York

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

Going Underground

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

I have just returned from a weekend attending the two-day interdisciplinary conference: Subterranean in the Medieval World, hosted by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and organised by Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner.

There were 18 papers on different dimensions of the subterranean – imagined and encountered – in the medieval world from art historians, literary scholars, archaeologists and historians with papers extending from Italy to Iceland and Ireland but with a focus on the island of Britain.

Presentations explored themes from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries but with an early medieval focus, looking at spiritual and tangible relationships with the earth, its stones, surfaces and depths. Plenty of source material was employed, from crypts and catacombs to manuscripts, art and artefacts. Still, I was delighted to see varied uses of stone sculpture and burial evidence utilised extensively in many of the presentations.

On the Saturday evening, there was also a wonderful conference meal allowing plenty of opportunities to chat with the other delegates and speakers. Wine and whiskey was consumed.


West Kennet long barrow

Engaging with Underworlds

I had the privilege of being asked to present the keynote address to the conference and I did so by starting off with some general concerns and issues I have with perceptions of material traces of the past in the Early Middle Ages, and the tenacious desire to tie all aspects of monument reuse into models of mass-migration and the replacement of earlier peoples, the process of Christian conversion, and ‘kingdom formation’ in the seventh century.

Whilst I acknowledged that these are far from irrelevant, we need to explore more contextually the many potential reasons and situations in which ancient monuments and old things were redeployed in ritual, social and economic life. With regards to the underworld, this involves thinking about monument reuse and engagements with below-ground in terms of many agents which facilitated discoveries from the past (from winds blowing over trees, to pigs digging into the ground, to agricultural work and exploring natural fissures and caves).

I then talked about digging graves and tombs as one particular strategy of engaging with the underworld, one that would have involved both digging and depositing, but also closing off and imagining, rediscovering and encountering the dead. I also flagged up the possibility that some architectures were designed to imply the presence of the dead beneath their surfaces. I have been writing about hogback stones in this regard.

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Ancestors and Heroes?

I also abused my privilege to defend myself against the accusation of illogically employing the term ‘ancestors’ in my previous research on monument reuse…  I couldn’t resist showing that in my previous writings, while I conceded that the term is problematic, I hadn’t claimed that barrows and earthworks reused as burial sites were exclusively and widely perceived as ancestral as such, but that their reuse facilitated the construction of ancestral connections; this is not the same thing.

The Pillar of Eliseg and the Creation of Ancestors

This is suggested by my own collaborative research at the Pillar of Eliseg, and already discussed in print by myself and by Professor Nancy Edwards. As part of the opening of my talk, I suggested that, for the Pillar of Eliseg where we excavated secondary Bronze Age cremation burials in cists, the choice to put a prominent ninth-century cross upon this site was a strategy of drawing upon imagined lengthy and distant pasts. This was a past in which imagined ancestors and heroes (whether imagined as ancestors or not) were a key potential component of the commemorative strategy.

The empirical basis for this argument is not only the Latin text that refers to these ancestors and/or heroes, it was the materiality of the mound itself. Here, I argued that monument reuse is material practice, a physical engagement with place, not simply a rewriting or overwriting. The shallow multiple secondary graves of earlier date and contrasting form to those of ninth-century times (when west-east inhumation burial was commonplace) would have been readily encountered in the Early Middle Ages in the mound beneath the site chosen for the Pillar.

Whether this argument works for all times and all places in the early medieval period, and whether all ancient burial monuments were regarded as funerary and ancestral, is of course a problematic issue. And it was to this issue, of how ancient monuments were perceived in the later Anglo-Saxon, Christian world of hierarchical social structures and increasingly powerful kingdoms, that the rest of my paper aimed to address.

In a future post I will review my keynote lecture, focusing on the Archaeology of Weland the Smith.


Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum


Millennium chapel and bell

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

In a previous blog post I discussed an article published online in January 2013 in the International Journal of Heritage Studies in which I explored the varied and complex ways in which ancient pasts – the British Prehistoric, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Medieval – have been materialised in the many 21st-century memorials of the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire.

Housing c. 300 memorial gardens and woods and many thousands of memorial plaques and trees, the NMA is the UK’s national focus of remembrance established around the Millennium. The centre-piece is the massive Armed Forces Memorial, bearing the names of every service man and woman killed on active service with British forces since 1945 and with new names inscribed upon its sad surfaces each year.


The Commandos Memorial – recently redesigned

My consideration of the NMA in this article was intended partly as a case study in the archaeology of contemporary conflict commemoration. Yet the NMA is more than a war memorial. Simultaneously my work was aimed to be a study of a unique cenotaphic (i.e. this is not a cemetery) memorial landscape for the UK with significance extending beyond conflict and the military.

I argue that the NMA is more than a collection of memorials to individual subjects. Conversely, the NMA is not really a fully and coherently designed landscape of mourning, nostaglia and future-orientated remembrance.


The river walk

The key point is that the NMA is an ever-changing memorial space as the trees and plants grow and mature, but also as the landscape acquires ever more memorials that progressively alter and adapt its form. Therefore rather than a ‘designed landscape’, it is instead better seen as a cumulative assemblage of commemorative projects that interact and intersect in pre-designed and ad hoc and unexpected fashions. It is a place for formal ceremony but also personal, family somatic mourning and commemoration through trees, plants, stones but also texts and other material cultures.


The Armed Forces Memorial, NMA

It is against this background that we can understand the uses of antiquity at the NMA; to create an aura of temporal transcendence and hence projection into the future, linked to the site’s key metaphor of the site of ‘growing remembrance’. A key example of the use of antiquity at the NMA include the Armed Forces Memorial that overtly draws on elements of British prehistory, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt in its design to create a temple to honour fallen heroes. Key to this use of antiquity is the fact that the Armed Forces Memorial is not finished – each year new names are added, with the capacity for it to continue to be filled with the names of Britain’s military dead for many decades to come.

The article has now been published in print and afforded a volume number as follows:

Williams, H. 2014. Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum, International Journal of Heritage Studies 20(4): 393-414.


On the land train

A Recent Visit

Coinciding with this publication, I recently revisited with my three-year old son. He was by far the youngest person there on a Sunday in May when the principal component of visitors were to attend a memorial service at the Fire Fighters memorial grove. I saw no other pre-school children visiting the site.

Because I was with a young boy, I engaged with the site differently than I did on previous trips and this was interesting in itself. I couldn’t systematically explore all the memorials as I would have liked, but had to adapt to my son’s interests and endurance. We also had to content with heavy showers and strong winds.


The Shot at Dawn memorial

The Land Train

On previous visits I walked around the NMA. At my son’s request, this time I went on the land-train. This proved to be a very slow tour of the principal memorials with audio-commentary and we got to avoid some of the showers.


The land train

Still, my son was very frustrated by the slowness of the train, the wind and the rain. Meanwhile, I noticed a number of glaring mistakes in the intonation and the facts communicated in the audio-commentary. We gave up half-way around and went to see the Shot at Dawn memorial.


The Polish Armed Forces Memorial

Touring by Foot

We then went past many other memorials: Toby really liked the Polish Armed Forces memorial because of its fabulous eagle. We caught up with the land train passengers, almost beating them to the base of the Armed Forces Memorial and walked around, looking up at the many hundreds of names of those that ‘gave their lives’.


The rear-side of the SATF Memorial

The South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial

One of the key reasons for going back to the NMA was to look again at this memorial, opened to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Falklands Conflict in 2012. given that I had presented a paper at the Bournemouth TAG conference in the session Archaeologies of Margaret Thatcher about the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict. Hence, I was very interested to look again at the Taskforce Memorial and its many dimensions, augmenting my existing photographic record and considering again, subsequent to my TAG presentation in December of last year, how the memorial operates in terms of its texts, materials and space.


South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial – front.

The land-train commentary claims that it is a replica of the Port Stanley memorial, but of course, this is not fully correct, since the memorial is also reflective of the Blue Beach Military Cemetery at San Carlos Bay, East Falkland. One of the key dimensions of the memorial is its pivotal location in the NMA and its invocations of the South Atlantic in its form in replicating dimensions of multiple memorials in the Falklands and the selection of stones from the islands as well. The exchange between the Falklands and the NMA is two-way, because of course British servicemen were buried at the Blue Beech cemetery, but the memorials there were made of Cotswold stone, as is the NMA’s memorial.

My son standing with the names of those that gave their lives in the Falklands Conflict in 1982 inscribed upon the  Armed Forces Memorial

My son standing with the names of those that gave their lives in the Falklands Conflict in 1982 inscribed upon the Armed Forces Memorial

Of course another dimension of the NMA is the networking of memorialisation between memorials. So one can visit the Falklands memorial but also up on the hill at the Armed Forces Memorial one can read the names of all those that died. This is another theme I discussed in my TAG paper: at the NMA the Falklands Conflict – those that served and those that died – is not commemorated in the South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial alone, but through a meshwork of locales including the Armed Forces Memorial itself.


Building work without a plaque – unfolding commemoration

New Memorials

Another key reason to visit was to gain a sense of how the NMA is cumulative, as stated above.

On this visit, I noticed new plantings and arrangements applied to existing memorials. I saw that memorials I photographed only two years ago have been redesigned, such as the Commandos memorial. 


View of the building work, I think preparing groundwork for the Camp Bastion memorial, repatriated from Afghanistan following the British withdrawal

Close by the Falklands memorial there were plaques denoting the location of future memorials yet to be designed, including the one pictured here which has no plaque denoting what it is. There was also evidence that the Camp Bastion memorial from Afghanistan is being installed near the Armed Forces Memorial following its ‘repatriation’.


The rear of the Battle of the River Plate memorial

The Battle of the River Plate


The front of the Battle of the River Plate memorial

Among the new memorials at the NMA is a new memorial that has been completed and dedicated is the Battle of the River Plate memorial. The NMA regard this as the 300th memorial to be dedicated at the gardens, remembering the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate.

The memorial consists of an above-ground two-sided memorial commemorating those on HMS Ajax, HMS Achilles and HMS Exeter who served and died in the battle and acheived victory against the German pocket battleship Graf Spee.


The Battle of the River Plate Memorial

The front side focuses on the British ships and their relative size to the Graf Spee, whilst on the rear-side is a map locating the conflict and an image of the German ship. Around the memorial are benches dedicated to the commanders of the British ships. Another fascinating element is that a small plaque states that beneath the monument are buried the names of all who died; an interesting piece of burial as a memorial act; the key to the memorial is here the mixture of texts seen and unseen.

It is no coincidence that this memorial has been placed adjacent to the South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial and shares with it dimensions and design elements, including maps of the South Atlantic. Therefore, with the addition of this new memorial, a new dimension to the interplay between memorial gardens has been created – a South Atlantic space interweaving a series of memorials to conflicts separated over time and space.

Death and Memory at Repton


The Repton Stone – not on display but pictured in the church


St Wystan’s church, Repton, with modern focus for commemorating the dead – garden of remembrance – either side of the path to the SW of the church tower

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

All early medieval archaeologists will know about Repton, Derbyshire. The village’s signpost claims its status as the ‘historic capital’ of Mercia.

I have long been interested in what Repton can tell us about death and memory in the Anglo-Saxon period, but it comes into its own in relation to my work for the Past in its Place project in which I am especially interested in the role of stone monuments in the commemoration of the early medieval royal and saintly dead and the long-term biographies these relationships institute at particular locales. In this context, I felt compelled to revisit Repton to explore its famous Anglo-Saxon crypt and later memorials. My interest here was in exploring the long-term commemoration of the dead at a famous church, both before and after the Vikings made such a famous impact on the site.



Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft in the church porch

Before the Danish Great Army

Repton had been a prosperous monastery for men and women, with a church, two mausolea, and monastic buildings, enjoying an ancient relationship with the kings of Merica’ (Biddle and Kjolbye-Biddle 2001, 84).


Anglo-Saxon grave-cover replica – on display in the church

While the Viking presence at Repton has captured most popular interest (see below), it was the pre-Viking archaeology that drew me here. St Wystan’s church at Repton, Derbyshire sits on a prominent bluff on the south side of the valley of the River Trent. In the Early Middle Ages, the river was likely to have been much closer than today. This was a typical location for a prominent wealthy Middle Anglo-Saxon monastic centre, situated in relation to principal land and water routes.

The Biddles revealed considerable evidence of pre-Viking activity at Repton, suggesting the site was a royal and monastic focus. They propose that Repton is being referred to in a gift of land by Friduricus princeps to Haeda, abbot of Breedon. They equate the possibility of a seventh-century foundation with three phases timber buildings before the stone church was built.


The Anglo-Saxon crypt (the lower levels of ‘megalithic’ stonework) as viewed from the SE

This was a double house for men and women ruled by an abbess but it was also a royal site of burial and saint’s cult. The Biddles revealed a semi-subterranean two cell structure that may have been a mausoleum before it was adopted by the Danes as a burial monument. Meanwhile, the crypt – investigated in detail by Harold and Joan Taylor – was originally an eighth-century baptistery before being converted, possibly to house King Aethelbald’s remains. It was converted again to serve as the focus of the cult of the murdered royal child saint, Wystan (Wigstan) with pillars and vaulting added and twin entrances, possibly to facilitate the movement of pilgrims through the crypt.

Found in excavations by the Biddles, the ‘Repton Stone’ depicts a crucifixion scene, hell-mouth scene, and mounted warrior-king brandishing a shield and sporting a fine moustache. This is possibly a fragment of a memorial cross to King Aethelbald. Archaeological evidence suggests that burial continued south and east of the chancel around Wystan’s tomb.

Much of my visit involved photographing the marvellous crypt using my digital SLR camera and a superb halogen torch. Here are some of the results.


The steps descending into the crypt


The Anglo-Saxon crypt


Cylindrical pillar in the crypt

Viking Repton

The most famous archaeology relating to Repton relates to the Viking presence but this is surprisingly absent for a visitor and it is also yet to be fully published by its excavators. Still, it seems important to review what is known based on summary accounts published so far.

The reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Danish Great Army wintered at Repton from AD 873 to 874. The excavations by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle identified a massive ditch and bank and postulated that it joined the church on either side to the river, incorporated the church into a semi-circular defense that comprised the winter camp. This always brings to my mind the defense of the church by Michael Caine’s German soldiers in The Eagle has Landed.

Late ninth-century furnished weapon-graves ‘of Scandinavian type’ were uncovered from the churchyard around the crypt, one of which suffered a painful wound to the inner thigh that may have removed his genitalia. These might be Norse burials associated with the army’s presence and campaign and/or those of Norse descent settling in the vicinity subsequently.

Most intriguingly, evidence was found directly west of the church that the two-cell mortuary chapel of Middle Anglo-Saxon date (above) was transformed into a mass-burial of at least 264 disarticulated skeletons (c. 200 men and 50 women) surrounding a single intact burial in a stone coffin beneath a low stone cairn. The Biddles viewed this as a Viking war memorial, possibly focusing on the tomb of Ivar  the Boneless. This view remains particularly controversial and a number of archaeologists, notably Julian D. Richards and Dawn Hadley, have explored alternative scenarios.


Late medieval knightly effigy with serious graffiti issues.

4km away to the SE, Julian D. Richards’ excavations at Ingleby have provided fresh detailed evidence of a long-known ninth-century barrow cemetery. This is interpreted as a relativley short-lived and unique Scandinavian-style locale for the pagan custom of cremation in operation contemporaneous with the furnished Norse-influenced inhumation graves in the Repton churchyard.

Burial subsequently focused on the cairn to the west of the church, some of high-status character. Meanwhile a hogback stone was found west of the church and might indicate an enduring Norse influence in commemorative practice into the early tenth century.


Fabulous 16th-century memorial

While the details of this evidence remain hotly debated and discussed, it is evident that the Viking era brought a radical shift, but also a continued centrality for Repton as a cult centre. What strikes me is that, for the casual, and even for the informed, visitor, the Viking presence is negated, near-invisible, by the weight of memorial culture from before and after their brief interlude.

Later Memorial Culture

Despite the Danish army’s short and dramatic imposition on the cult centre, continuity seems to have prevailed. The church retained its focus as a place of Christian burial and worship from the early tenth century to the present day. The church and churchyard reveal traces of this long history from its many remains including a medieval male effigy tomb and a fair selection of early modern and late-modern floor and mural monuments. The churchyard has an amazing collection of nineteenth-century slate gravestones, many repositioned along the churchyard boundaries. It also possesses a recent garden of remembrance for the interment of cremated human remains. This is a further example of interest to me where the careful selection of location and arrangement makes close connection to the sacred space and the church building in particular. Below are a selection of photographs to afford an impression of the church and churchyard at Repton.


Eighteenth-century mural monument


Detail of odd neo-classical mural monument in Repton church



Rearranged grave-stones along the eastern boundary of Repton’s churchyard







The war memorial, at the churchyard gate

Vlogging Eliseg

A re-post from Archaeodeath.

I am currently working on a research article for Project Eliseg together with former-student and archaeologist Joseph Tong. Joe served as media supervisor in the 2011 field season and subsequently came back to record more video-blogs (vlogs) in 2012. Our article, written together with Suzanne Evans and other colleagues on Project Eliseg, aims to explore critically our use of vlogs within the 2011 and 2012 field seasons. Why did we do them? Were they effective? Were they fun? We are soon to submit our article to a peer-review archaeological journal and hopefully you will find about it very soon when it comes into print (he says optimistically).


2011 and 2012 Project Eliseg media guru: Joseph Tong

It makes sense that this is a good time to update the Project Eliseg website and add further information about the third and final field season in 2012. So the Project Eliseg website has now had a facelift for 2014, with new information added in the following areas:

  • Project Eliseg 2012 – an interim summary of the 2012 field season has been added here, this includes a link to a pdf of the 2012 interim report.
  • Further Reading – an updated ‘further reading’ section including three key new books by Nancy Edwards, Thomas Charles-Edwards and Sarah Semple here.
  • Acknowledgements – recognition and thanks has been duly given to those who helped with the 2012 field season here.
  • Details of the 2012 vlogs have been added with links to each one here.

We hope you enjoy these new additions as well as the ongoing posts about the Pillar of Eliseg and its environs.

In other news, here is a picture of me with the Pillar of Eliseg in a dragon-hat. Priceless moments caught on camera for posterity….

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Offa’s Dyke – The Past in its Place?

This is a reblog from Prof. Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath site.

Offa’s Dyke is sixth century, not eighth century?

I rarely post responses to breaking archaeological news, and at first glance this news does not relate to the archaeology of death and memory. However, this morning’s news comes from Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and relates to new discoveries regarding a national monument: new radiocarbon dates from Offa’s Dyke. The dates seemingly come from a reliable context: re-deposited turf from underneath the bank. You can read the first press release here and the BBC story here. It is relevant to the Past in its Place project because Offa’s Dyke delineates the eastern end of the Vale of Llangollen study area for Strand 3 of the project.

I aim to show why this has implications not only for understanding the political and military development of Mercia and its Welsh rivals, but also the literary and memory culture of the Welsh border in the Early Middle Ages. Death and memory comes in because these results, if correct, have knock-on implications for understanding the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context.

These results come from emergency excavations following the shameful destruction of part of the dyke near Chirk last summer.

Of course, the usual provisos apply: this is only one section of the monument, the radiocarbon dates have yet to be published, and there are inevitable problems in dating any earthwork based on the material it covered over. Still, these results are extremely important: the first to be obtained from the monument despite decades of digging.

The key results published in the press release are that the part of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk might date to the late sixth century, not the late eighth century.

The Rise of Mercia and the Construction of Earthworks

CPAT’s press release challenges convention and that is always fun. This is true not only for our understanding linear earthwork building as a military and political practice in the Early Middle Ages but also our understanding of the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and its relationship with both British and Anglo-Saxon rivals. It also runs counter to a trend: the shorter and more modestly built Wat’s Dyke is now thought to date later than Offa’s Dyke to the early ninth century. If correct, the radiocarbon dates might suggest that the entire earthwork is a late sixth-century construction: a time when Mercia was only coming into the light of history as an aggressive, expansionist military force and political entity in the West Midlands (and so was Mercia the group building the sixth-century dyke? Or, perhaps more likely (and hinted at in the press release), the results open up the possibility that while ‘Offa’s Dyke’ was indeed late eighth century, it had a more complex history of evolution over the two centuries prior to Offa’s reign.

Early Medieval Literary Culture and Memory

Furthermore, these results also have the ramifications for our understanding of the literary and memory culture of the Early Middle Ages , because until now the only real dating evidence for the earthwork has been the ninth-century Life of Alfred the Great by the Welsh monk Asser, ascribing the earthwork to King Offa  who reigned from Chester to London between AD 757-796:

There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea (translation by Keynes and Lapidge 1983: 71).

So was Asser wrong? Was he simplifying a complex situation? Or are we simply expecting too much from Asser who was lifting from Gildas anyway? Was Offa really nothing to do with the dyke, or was he simply  the last king of Mercia to extend and effectively use a pre-existing earthwork, making it thus effectively ‘his’? Was Offa simply the best and meanest Mercia king in memory, and perhaps the one with the right ancestral name from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, worthy of association with this earthwork in the context of the later ninth century? Indeed, is Asser recalling a tradition of earthwork-building from the Migration Period Continental Offa – a mythological attribution to a famed earthwork – rather than evidence of the historical deeds of the eighth-century Offa in any case?

The Vale of Llangollen as a Landscape of Contestation

Regardless of whether Asser was wrong or has simply been misunderstood by generations of historians and archaeologists, and regardless of whether the radiocarbon dates apply to the construction of the whole dyke or just the segment near Chirk, there is no question that these results promise to have implications for understanding the Vale of Llangollen in the Early Middle Ages.

For me, this is important because of my on-going collaborative work, as part of Project Eliseg, investigating the early ninth-century monument known as the Pillar of Eliseg, supposedly set up to honour the king of Powys who was a contemporary of Offa: Eliseg.  I have recently discussed the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context as part of my other ongoing project: the Past in its Place. If these results are correct, they remind us that this territory was a landscape of contestation far earlier than was previously realised.

It will be interesting to learn how archaeologists and historians respond to this news…