Grace Darling

Grace Horsley Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy. Reproduced from

Grace Horsley Darling (1815-42) is one of the Victorian era’s premier heroines and her story is well told by the website dedicated to her memory. Grace was born in a cottage next to St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, Northumberland.

She grew up a lighthouse keeper’s daughter upon Brownsman Island, one of the Farne Islands. Adept at sea and familiar with seabirds and island life, she then moved aged 10 into the newly built Longstone Lighthouse in 1825.

On 7th September 1838, she observed the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire and subsequently rowed with her father in a storm to their rescue. Grace was a young woman who lived a relatively isolated life who through her heroism became a worldwide early Victorian celebrity.

The Victorian obsession with this female celebrity (including fascination from clergy as well as laypeople) was replete with Christian spiritual allusions connecting her residence and acts and the deeds and habitations of the early saints Aidan and Cutbhert who inhabited the Farne Islands. Grace also embodied the adventurous romance of the sublime isolation and dangers of this maritime environment.

Yet the affinity for Grace manifest itself in the deeply, material and corporeal one desire to possess her body. People wrote fan mail to Grace, wished to kiss the paper and post it back, send locks of her hair, asking her to appear at public events as a ‘token’ and almost as an living saintly icon. People travelled to see her and there was a desire to have her act of bravery depicted by artists. Also, portraits of this lady were taken and widely distributed. Grace embodied the virtues of English Christian virginal womanhood. Whether it was the pressure of her fame alone, Grace died only four years later, aged only 26, on 20th October 1842. Perhaps she was hounded to an early grave by her public exposure; near her end she was fearful of imagined eyes watching her. Still, she was ultimately diagnosed with tuberculosis and died from that condition.

Continue reading

Lindisfarne Stones

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

This is my fourth and final comment about a short visit to Lindisfarne. The principal reason for my visit was to view the early medieval stone sculpture in the visitor centre and priory. Strip away the archaeological excavations elsewhere on Holy Island, strip away the historical record, the vast majority of the material evidence that this had been an important monastic foundation of the seventh to ninth centuries AD comes from the collection of Anglo-Saxon sculpted stones discovered in and around the priory. It is a fabulous and varied collection as one might expect. I have already mentioned the Petting Stone. In the priory itself is a cross-base with serpentine crosses on its front.

Continue reading

Commemoration at Lindisfarne Priory

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

As a place of worship and pilgrimage, with St Mary’s church and churchyard right next to the priory ruins, and given the long-standing associated with the absent saintly dead in the form of Aidan and Cuthbert, it is hardly surprising that death and memory are interwoven with the site of Lindisfarne Priory’s ruins. I have mused over the landscape and seascape context and the heritage interpretation of the famous Viking raid, but what of death and commemoration in the English Heritage site of Lindisfarne Priory and its environs? Even a brief consideration of this topic reveals the complexity of what is memorialised and what is not; where memorialisation has historically been allowed, and where it is not.

The ruins are a marvel in themselves, already one of my favourite sets of Romanesque and Gothic monastic ruins before I even got there. I loved the patina of the windblown sandstone and the fabulous columns of the nave, so reminiscent of Durham Cathedral. Here are some standard  photos for your viewing pleasure.

Continue reading

Yeavering Bell


Yeavering Bell from the south

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

At the research workshop on new research at Ad Gefrin/Yeavering, many of the experts present proclaimed, from different perspectives, that you cannot understand Ad Gefrin without understanding the hill-fort of Yeavering Bell. Ad Gefrin, it was said, is ‘in the shadow’ of Yeavering Bell. This was no empty metaphor: during a large portion of the year, the Ad Gefrin site is in the shadow of the hill over which the low winter sun cannot project. Frosts stay longest at the Ad Gefrin site than in surrounding fields I was told.

And indeed, to observe Ad Gefrin and understand its situation I was told that one cannot do better than to ascend Yeavering Bell. Many of those there told me they had made out possible crop-marks from the perspective offered by the hill upon which the fort is situated.


Stream on the ascent


View over the Ad Gefrin site during the ascent of Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is the only ‘true’ hill-fort in the Cheviots although it must be said that almost every hill along the northern edge of the Cheviots has a smaller fortification of presumed (if not proven) late prehistoric date upon it. Aerial photograph has shown how this is simply a surviving dimension of a wider settlement pattern; in lower areas similar fortified sites have been obliterated by medieval and post-medieval agriculture. Despite this advance in knowledge, Yeavering Bell still stands out in terms of the prominence of the hill itself and the size of the defences and the number of house-platforms identified within it.


Leading the way

There remains considerable debate regarding Yeavering Bell’s date of construction and occupation and whether the small hill-top fortification within the hill-fort, around the highest point is a contemporary Anglian fortification linked to the palace site of Ad Gefrin. Surveys and excavations have only partly identified the extent to which this site may offer ‘continuity’ from the first millennium BC through to the mid/later first millennium AD. Was Ad Gefrin a direct successor to a persistent central (and possibly sacred) place? Or was it a reactivation of a locale whose original (or many previous) uses were long forgotten but whose monumental and topographical supremacy could never to be ignored?


Up Yeavering Bell

I won’t use this blog as the place to wade into these debates yet, and you can read the views of the different authors in Paul Frodsham and Colm O’Brien’s fascinating survey Yeavering: People, Power and Place. Richard Bradley’s superb 1987 paper in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, that has done so much to inspire me and others in thinking about ‘the past in the past’, should also never been ‘forgotten’. Before that, Hope-Taylor’s publication on Yeavering has many (if sometimes very frustratingly vague) things to say about the hill-fort. For a list of available publications, see the Gefrin Trust website. Roger Miket has recently published on this topic in Archaeologia Aeliana but I have yet to secure a copy of this publication.


Farm building and field walls: post-medieval

What I will say is that I often rant against archaeologists who define sites by period, when those sites persisted and were open to reinterpretation and reuse long after their initial construction. Equally though, I am cynical of claims at ‘continuity’ without precise clarification regarding what is meant by this.


View south from Yeavering Bell over the ramparts

I intend to synthesise an appraisal of the hill-fort and its relationship with Ad Gefrin with regard to its remembering and its forgetting, responding to the work of Bradley, Frodsham, Oswald and others, as part of the Past in its Place project.


The summit cairn of Yeavering Bell

In doing so, my aspiration is to try and disagree with everyone, not because I think that everyone who has worked on this fascinating site and its context is ‘wrong’, but because I feel their frames of reference and theoretical perspectives (where expressed) are different from mine and my colleagues with our interest in the history of memory from archaeological and literary perspectives.


Me at the summit of Yeavering Bell

So on the day after I visited Ad Gefrin and Bamburgh, followed by a visit to Lindisfarne in heavy rain, I went back to park at the Ad Gefrin lay-by and walked up Yeavering Bell on a windy but beautifully warm and sunny summer’s morning. I was up early, having been awoken by Berwick-upon-Tweed drunks at 4 am (my Travelodge was adjacent to a 24-hour McDonald’s restaurant that clearly attracts the intoxicated and inarticulate of Berwick on the Sunday morning after a Saturday night). I stopped en route at Maelmin (topic of another blog inevitably) before I moved on to ascend Yeavering Bell.


The summit of Yeavering Bell with the line of the fortlet’s defences running around the summit.

From the perspective of the Past in its Place project, visiting the site was a real eye-opener as expected and promised. I saw much that I anticipated but far more than I didn’t. Visiting Ad Gefrin was simply not enough.


View over the Ad Gefrin site from Yeavering Bell

What an experience! Alone on a Sunday morning, and with only semi-inquisitive sheep, a whimbrel (symbol of Northumberland National Park) and a skylark for company, I got to ascend, explore and descend a fabulous hill-fort.

The site affords stupendous views southwards over the Cheviots and north over the valleys of the rivers Glen, Till and Tweed. I saw no goats, I am sad to say but I saw the fortifications, the fortlet at the highest point, and some of the house platforms.

I can also attest that the Ad Gefrin site is intimately bound up visually and physically with the hill-fort, but I am not convinced it was bound up with the hill-fort in any practical or successive sense. It seems to me that the hill and the earthworks would have significance in the early medieval period even if the active use of the hill-fort was restricted to a short duration within the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. There may be traces of Roman activity on the hill-top, but its scale and looming presence would surely be enough to afford the site significance for the emerging kingdom of Northumbria in the late sixth and early seventh century.

With these thoughts in mind, I aim to return in August with the group of Past-in-its-Placers to outline and refine my musings.


The hill-fort defences


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!

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.