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