Death-Defying Cistercians?


Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog. In the Past in its Place project we are exploring how memories are located in cathedrals, ancient habitations and the wider landscape. Here, I muse over how the dispersal of tombs and memorials, and the heritage management of the ruins of Cistercian monasteries, is more than a casual ‘forgetting’ of the dead, but an overt dimension of heritage interpretation with its focusing on the religious and economic life of medieval monks that downplays the dynamic relationships between patrons and abbeys in which memory was key.

I recently visited Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire, a site managed by English Heritage and staffed that day by one of its most friendly of employees.  Beside the River Severn, this is a perfect ruin of a 12th-century Cistercian house, suppressed in 1536 and adapted into a secular mansion.

It is truly a ‘perfect ruin’, together with woodland walks down to the river. It was a great stop-off en route back from Oxfordshire to North Wales. For me this was a real nostalgia visit, since I last went there as a kid myself. Here are some general pictures of this superb ruin with the neatly trimmed grass that typifies EH sites.

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Cremation Switchback and the Churchyard


Pennant Melangell church

This is re-posted from Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath blog.

Recently I posted about a visit to Pennant Melangell and the shrine of St Melangell. Well, it must be said that this is a fascinating site for its church and internal memorials, but even more so for its churchyard.


18th-century graves: Pennant Melangell

Many urban,suburban and large rural churchyards (whether in use or abandoned) have very complex patterns of memorialisation with multiple foci to them. In such environments, the bodies of the dead compete with each other, jostling down the generations within the restrictions of limited space. From the 19th century in particular, some churchyards bear signs of a new trend of expansion rather than reuse.

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The Maelmin Heritage Trail

Ok, I thought of the strained pun on the ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and now I have absolutely no idea how this relates to this blog posting. This is the beauty of having no editor and no anonymous referees: I need not explain myself to anyone! If you can overcome this disappointment, please read on…


Boards by the entrance outline the history of the RAF site

IMG_4110The landscape around Millfield, Northumberland is a rich archaeological landscape spanning from the Mesolithic to modern era. Having visited Yeavering/Ad Gefrin, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne the previous day, I went back to the Millfield basin to ascend Yeavering Bell. En route, I stopped off very early morning to walk around the Maelmin Heritage Trail on the edge of Millfield. Here I encountered something very different from the other sites.


Millfield henge monument

The Anglo-Saxon palace site of Maelmin was the successor to Ad Gefrin. Never excavated, aerial photographs revealed a elaborate complex of timber halls, enclosures and burial sites comparable to Yeavering and Thirlings. Excavations of two Neolithic henges at Millfield also found secondary early Anglo-Saxon inhumation graves reusing these ancient monuments. Again it is unclear the full duration of the site without extensive excavations but close by lower-status Anglo-Saxon settlements at Cheviot Quarry (published in the Archaeological Journal) and other sites reveal the broader pattern of early medieval settlement around the Millfield basin.


The woods

As with Ad Gefrin, the Maelmin Heritage Trail faces the stark challenge of communicating a rich archaeological landscape in which there is almost nothing to see above ground for the visitor. The heritage trail originally had three reconstructions (two extant) and a massive dose of heritage boards set within a plot of land managed as a mix grassland and woodland.


Early morning views over the Millfield basin from the Maelmin Heritage Trail

The visitor to the site begins with a car parking area and three heritage boards giving details of the wartime history of the site as an RAF airfield for training pilots. There is a memorial stone upon which are the names of those – mostly of the RAF and RCAF – who lost their lives between 1942 and 1946 at the facility.


The ‘Dark Age house’

An introductory heritage board gives details of the archaeological landscape. One then embarks on a time trail moving through a broadly anti-clockwise route through thick grass and then through the wood and back to the car park through the grass again. Board after board gives informative details of the local landscape, the chronological narrative: Mesolithic, early Neolithic, late Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, end of Roman Britain, the ‘revival of the Britons’, the early Anglo-Saxons, the conversion of the Northumbrian kingdom to Christianity.


Sneaking a peak inside the Dark Age house

There are additional boards explaining details within the periods, about the three reconstructions: the Mesolithic hut (no longer extant), the Neolithic henge and the ‘Dark Age house’ and the excavations at Cheviot Quarry and the sites of Maelmin and Thirlings.

The henge is interesting, with ditches, banks and upright timber posts, it does indeed give a sense of how these monuments might have looked.


Henge posts in early morning light

The ‘Dark Age’ house was locked, but sneaking a peak through the door, one got a sense of a relatively small and stark interior, but inevitably it sits without a context unlike the ‘settlement’ arrangements elsewhere like West Stow and Bede’s World.

A further set of heritage boards explores the preferable climate of the Millfield basin, the formation of the landscape, the hydrology of the basin, woodlands, animals and birdlife.


Anal graffiti

Three things struck me about this heritage site

  1. The volume of boards, and the two reconstructions, do create a palpable sense of archaeology and landscape in a relatively small space. Given the lack of public accessible land in the immediate environs, this was a great foci for anyone interested in the heritage of the area, and works in this regard far better than Bamburgh, Lindisfarne or Ad Gefrin
  2. The information is accurate in general terms, but incredibly conventional and stylised, particularly notable (to me) in the proto-historic and early historic boards which advocate a simple migrationist framework for the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. To be fair though, this is what happens everywhere in this region it seems: Lindisfarne even had the Dad’s Army style map with arrows showing the migration routes of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. For crying out loud!
  3. It is not unusual for the same artist to be responsible for the images, creating a coherence to the displays, creating a shared theme. Despite the perpetuation of stereotypes of dress and body proportions (all men had massive muscles, all women had massive breasts: at least in prehistory, then women and men both get far more boring and better clothed), at least it was a rare attempt to introduce a Carry On style humour into British heritage sites. At least that was my view. At most other sites you are really not expected to laugh at other heritage sites, and where humour is used, it is in infantile attempts to engage kids. For me, this worked well and created memorable images and information.

Empty – no leaflets 🙁

So despite the absence of any ‘real’ archaeology, the Maelmin Heritage Trail tries its best. There were no leaflets to take away and one typo on the main introduction board has been angrily daubed with rectifying graffiti. Still, on the whole, this gets my tentative thumbs up.

As for the pun? Answers on a postcard to: Maelmin Heritage Trail Pun Competition, Millfield, Northumberland. Although perhaps, at a site where two henges were excavated, this is a site with two rings…


I’m really not sure what the archaeological basis for any of this is, but still, a nice idea.


I like this so much. Lovely chamber grave with wand-wielding priestess (I think) and the march of the Angles out of Bamburgh heading for glory…


How Maelmin may have looked. Still, ‘royal town’ really does give the wrong impression to the visitor.


Edwin getting hitched and Paulinus batpising people in the River Glen. ‘Flowering of Anglo-British Culture’: nice phrase but I think Northumbria was not more or less ‘Anglo-British’ than anywhere else in lowland Britain.


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




Bamburgh Castle from the beach

I recently visited Bamburgh where I received a warm welcome from Bamburgh Research Project director Graeme Young and his team. I was last at Bamburgh as a child. From photographs and from memory, I recall the castle as dramatic indeed. I half-expected to be underwhelmed by the reality. However, the site, its archaeology and its landscape failed to disappoint. A spectacular location and a fantastic archaeological site. What is ‘Bamburgh’ in archaeological terms? Well, I regard it as a famous multi-period fortress: the focus of the long-running but perhaps still under-valued archaeological research project: the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP).


BRP excavations in Bamburgh Castle, chasing Hope-Taylor…. in the rooms behind, sealed like a mummy’s tomb, BRP uncovered Hope-Taylor’s work room!


Excavations by BRP have revealed trench-slots possibly related to a guard-room and gate for the Anglo-Saxon fortress.

Their ongoing mission is to boldly go where others have gone before. Incorporating many training and community dimensions, their recent work has involved the re-evaluation early antiquarian discoveries and re-exploring the archives and trenches opened by Brian Hope-Taylor (of Yeavering fame) who dug at the castle but failed to complete or publish his work. Their other ongoing mission – that rubs shoulders (and trenches) with the first – is to boldly go where no-one has been before, since BRP has produced many exciting new discoveries both outside the castle and inside the castle grounds (in the trenches formerly opened by Hope-Taylor and beyond in new areas).

BRP’s excavations of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery have provided exciting new evidence of the complex social groups contributing to an Anglo-Saxon royal fortress’s population.

Meanwhile their work within the castle is providing evidence both in the area of castle’s church where they may have found an early medieval crypt, and in two zones in the northern half of the castle near what may have been the early medieval entrance and industrial areas serving the Anglo-Saxon fortress.


The likely original approach to the fortress from the west-north-west.

In very broad and simple terms, BRP are revealing new information about the socio-political and industrial dimensions of the fortress, as well as its mortuary and religious significance. Despite the inevitable restrictions on working at an open heritage attraction overlain by centuries of monumental late- and post-medieval castle architecture, BRP have soundly dismissed any cynic who might think that digging in a castle will only reveal slight traces of early medieval activity. If this wasn’t enough, reinterpreting other archaeologist’s old trenches is challenge enough but in the context of complex layers and a shallow bedrock, it is even more challenging. Unsurprisingly, for almost a decade, I have supported students from Exeter and Chester wishing to go on their fieldwork at Bamburgh but it was great to see the site finally in person.

I defer to their own website and blog for details regarding the archaeology and you can read about some of their recent discoveries in the castle’s museum, a book composed for visitors about the site’s archaeology, and also in academic publications in journals like Medieval Archaeology and Archaeologia Aeliana.


A classic and effective presentation strategy, an early medieval comb displayed next to a replica


Display of a hoard of copper coins of Middle Anglo-Saxon (mid-ninth century) date, found in the excavations by BRP.

Early Medieval Bamburgh

‘The city of Bebba’. As an early medievalist, the task is to see past all of the later medieval rubbish, and post-medieval fantasies regarding the Middle Ages, to try to discern what physical evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon phase. For this was an Anglo-Saxon fortress. As such, it is best seen as one example of the many early medieval uses for hill-top fortifications. Hence it is best described as a ‘hill-fort’ in my view, prior to its recreation as a medieval castle.


Jayne Brain’s reconstruction of a royal hall of Anglo-Saxon date.

Indeed, it is utterly anachronistic to see its early medieval phases as a ‘castle’, although I concede that the presence of later phases, and the place-name, make such back-projections seductive and confusing for visitors and experts alike. I still find it amazing that early medieval hill-forts are frequently caricatured as settlements of the ‘Britons’ and ‘Picts’ when there is plenty of evidence for their use in lowland Britain – in areas that are generally regarded as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, during the fifth to eleventh centuries AD. Bamburgh is one such example.


Oswald almost certainly didn’t look like this, but that isn’t a problem in itself.

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

BRP believe they have found traces of a box-rampart in the northern area of the citadel. Analogy with Yeavering leads to imaginative but likely reconstructions of the monumental timber hall (or halls) that would have formed the focus of the royal site on the highest part of the hill-top, paired with one or more churches and chapels further to the east underlying the later church of St Peter.


The ruined church, where BRP believe was a crypt containing the relics of St Oswald


Did the Norman keep overlay a pre-existing palace site of the Earls of Northumbria?

A Place of Memory?

As an archaeologist of memory, the complex genealogy of the site, its enduring use and reuse as a place of power, make it of interest in a contrasting sense. From this perspective, my interest is not to strip away later activity, but to consider how the site’s ‘pedigree’ has been augmented and rewritten in multiple ways within the Early Middle Ages and then subsequently from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day through a near-continuous sequence. Approaching Bamburgh’s long history of occupations means more than charting a time-line of events. It is instead about considering how the history of the site has fed into its social memories in contrasting and varied ways over time; how the site has been packaged and repackaged, subsumed and highlighted in contrasting ways. This is an interesting and legitimate focus of archaeological research in itself.

Hope-Taylor found evidence of Iron Age activity. It would be interesting to learn how much prehistory can be discerned and whether there was a demonstrable Iron Age/Roman predecessor to the early medieval fortress. How precisely was the early origin of the castle important in subsequent periods of use and reuse? These questions still seem to have sketchy answers at present, but the ongoing research by BRP is revealing more and more information about the long-term use of the site and its adaptations, but also its continuities over time. In many ways this is the inverse of the situation at Yeavering/Ad Gefin, where the argument for a ‘forgetting’ of the site after the seventh century still remains plausible.


Bamburgh castle, view from the south-west

Landscape Archaeology

As a landscape archaeologist, one would take a further view, noting not only its maritime situation but its maritime context, the near presence of the Farne Islands, the monastery of Lindisfarne, and its situation on the maritime highway that defined the kingdom of Northumbria from the Firth of Forth to the Humber. A landward perspective is also legitimate, including the relationship to the dunes in which an early medieval cemetery has received extensive excavation by the Bamburgh Research Project, to the church of St Peter and the settlement of Bamburgh as well as the wider hinterland of land use. In many ways, Bamburgh is a node in a complex multi-scalar early medieval landscape of power and faith.


The war memorial, set into the rock at the base of Bamburgh Castle


A memorial bench with a view of the castle


Memorial within the ruined church to the first Lord Armstrong

Contemporary Commemoration

I was interested in how recent commemorative memorials to individuals and groups modern and medieval were integrated into the castle and its environs, including the industrialist and inventor, the first Lord Armstrong, who has a museum and plaques dedicated to his memory, while St Oswald is commemorated in the ruins of the chapel when his relics may once have resided. There is even a plaque commemorating the castle as a film-set, as for the 1972 film Macbeth. Equally fascinating was the utilisation of the castle’s immediate context as a memorial environment including Bamburgh’s First and Second World War memorial, and the commemoration of the cult of Victorian heroine Grace Darling, involving memorials in the church, churchyard and her RNLI museum.


The start of the Bamburgh time-line…. I love the depiction of Aethelfrith


The archaeology museum


The Bamburgh chair, based on designs by Joanne Kirton


Tourists posing for pics in the Bamburgh chair

Heritage and Memory

From a heritage perspective, it is of interest in many regards as a privately owned site (i.e. not under the guardianship of English Heritage or the National Trust). What struck me was how archaeologists have been permitted to work in the heritage site conducting long-term excavations but also how much their work has been incorporated into the heritage signboards, reconstructions and even an archaeological museum within the castle. I was particularly proud of my student – Joanne Kirton’s – design utilised in the reconstruction of the ‘Bamburgh throne’, now a popular option for photographs by tourists. There are very few places where you can ‘sit like an Anglo-Saxon’…


Gate forged with the initials ‘B H T’ (Brian Hope-Taylor)

Commemorating Archaeology

Interestingly, there is a striking piece of material culture commemorating the failed excavations of Brian Hope-Taylor – gates to his dig forged with his initials! I want some of these on my  future excavations….



So from my perspective, Bamburgh is important as an early medieval site, as a place of memory and power over the long term, as a node in a complex maritime landscape. Bamburgh is also an active and distinctive heritage site with everything from cheesy torture chambers to ongoing excavations to view.

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.

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