The Compleat Eliseg’s Pillar!

The unique ninth-century monument known as ‘Eliseg’s Pillar’ or ‘The Pillar of Eliseg’ has a regular and justified place in my blog posts. I’ve recently discussed receiving the Martyn Jope Award for 2017 from the Society for Medieval Archaeology for a peer-reviewed research article – Placing the Pillar of Eliseg – in the journal Medieval Archaeology about the monument’s landscape context, researched and written in collaboration with Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores.

Also, following Project Eliseg’s investigations, the Pillar of Eliseg has (since April) been furnished with new heritage boards: both at the entrance to the field in which it is situated, and also by the entrance to Valle Crucis Abbey.  The portrayal of the Pillar at Valle Crucis Abbey has also been considered. I’ve been presenting my preliminary ideas about the public archaeology of Project Eliseg here.

I’m writing up the Project Eliseg monograph with my colleagues from Bangor and I’ve been discussing the monument’s landscape context, as with here and here.

I take my level 5 (second-year) ‘Medieval Britain’ students to both Valle Crucis Abbey and the Pillar of Eliseg every year, and this was the first time I had to do so with the new heritage boards in place. Therefore, recently was the first time I took the students there and was able to articulate the many stories and ongoing challenges with the interpretation of the Pillar of Eliseg.

In terms of the story of the monument, I relayed its origins as a Bronze Age kerbed cairn, through its early medieval phase with the original positioning of the monument and its potential function as an assembly place. I then addressed the monument’s persistence through the Middle Ages and its post-medieval neglect, fragmentation and multi-staged restoration.

This leads to issues of access, conservation, management and interpretation today, from the challenges of getting to the monument, its various manifestations and visual intervisibilities with its surroundings, to the challenges of navigating the monument itself.

We then look out and consider the landscape dynamics of the monument through its many phases of use and reuse, and consider its relationship to other prehistoric burial mounds, the abbey and its farms, and to post-medieval routeways and pubs.

In short, my field trip encapsulates the ‘compleat Pillar of Eliseg’ from past to present, and then back to the past again. We walk to it, look at it, move around it, look out from it, and move back. In short, the Pillar of Eliseg is the perfect site for so many archaeological and heritage conundrums!



“Placing the Pillar of Eliseg” article gets a Prize from the Society for Medieval Archaeology

Earlier this year, Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and I had an article published in the pages of the peer-reviewed academic journal Medieval Archaeology. Funded by the ERC Past in its Place project and building off fieldwork by Project Eliseg our article was called ‘Placing the Pillar of Eliseg’.

The article is available here. It investigates the landscape context of the unique 9th-century monument, arguing that its location was significant in relation to movement and memory.

The Society for Medieval Archaeology awarded us with their 2017 Martyn Jope Award for the “best novel interpretation, application of analytical method or presentation of new findings published in its journal.”

Professor Carenza Lewis, President of the Society for Medieval Archaeology, with Howard at the SMA AGM where the award was presented.

Paty and I were very pleased to receive the award. While Paty was unable to travel down to London to receive the award in person, yesterday I was congratulated by the SMA President: Professor Carenza Lewis at the Society’s AGM.

As well as receiving the award, the AGM invovled 3 superb short talks by James Graham-Campbell, David Petts and Hugh Willmott and I got to catch up with, and meet for the first time, some fabulous medieval archaeologists. I also had the pleasure of exploring the BM, acquiring some fabulous books and, most significant of all, acquiring a Viking duck!

Of course the real winner isn’t Paty or me, but the Pillar of Eliseg itself. This is a distinctive monument, a rare example of a surviving 9th-century stone monument in its original context, and one that has suffered from neglect as well as now misleading new heritage signs. The more that people can read and learn about this fabulous monument, the better.






Remembering Dai Morgan Evans

On 11th September 2017, I was honoured to contribute to a memorial event at the Society of Antiquaries of London in memory of Professor Dai Morgan Evans in the presence of Dai’s family as well as his many friends and former colleagues. All told, there were about 70 people in attendance for an hour and a half of talks, followed by a drink reception.

I have previously posted an entry about Dai’s passing here. Subsequently I was privileged to pay my respects by attending Dai’s funeral in Surbiton. Yet I’m still coming to terms with what Dai meant to me personally and professionally. The memorial event gave me a chance to express my thoughts and feelings about Dai and celebrate his achievements.

Gill Campbell introduced the event before Chris Musson outlined the earlier parts of Dai’s career as a student at Cardiff and subsquently with the Welsh inspectorate. Moving to England, Christopher Young then reviewed Dai’s contributions to the English inspectorate in its many dimensions. He was followed by Rosemary Cramp giving her reflections on Dai’s significant contribution as General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

I then picked up the story to reflect on Dai’s varied post-retirement activities. First, I mentioned that Dai’s fascination in archaeology began in Chester at an early age, and this partly inspired his return to Chester as a Visiting Professor. I emphasised the scale of his role; he wasn’t a passive honorary affiliate. I spoke about Dai’s contribution to teaching students at Chester, and his enthusiasm and vision for field-based research that instigated Project Eliseg. I then moved on to some of Dai’s other near- and post-retirement activities: namely his role on television. I discussed Dai’s contributions to two television programmes involving the construction of Roman buildings using traditional methods: Rebuilding the Past and Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day. I showed clips of Dai from the programmes and recognised their distinctiveness as experimental archaeology projects. I then summed up my gratitude, and those of my colleagues and students, to Dai for his support and friendship.


Following my talk, former librarian at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Adrian James, read out a poem reflecting on Dai as General Secretary. It was great fun. Gill then closed the meeting and invited Dai’s widow, Sheena, to say words of thanks. We then piled out to the foyer where Andrew Selkirk’s photographs of a SAL outing were displayed and Stephen Dunmore gave a toast in honour and memory of Dai. I then got the privilege to natter to the audience and got to meet Dai’s daughters.

All told, it was a fitting and moving occasion, and I feel I’ve started on a new stage of my journey towards a fuller appreciation of the debt of gratitude I owe to Dai Morgan Evans.

IMG_1358Thanks are due to Renee LaDue and her colleagues at the Society of Antiquaries of London for hosting and facilitating the event so efficiently and to all those who attended. For those who were unable to attend, a video of the memorial talks and poem is available here.


Placing the Pillar of Eliseg

I’m very pleased to announce my latest publication: a collaboration between Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and myself stemming from the Past in its Place ERC-funded project.I’ve discussed various elements of this paper before on this blog but here it is in its final published form.

Placing the Pillar of Eliseg explores movement and memory through the landscape around this unique 9th-century monument, helping to explain how the monument was positioned, its possible function and its significance as a feature in a volatile and fluid ‘frontier zone’.

THE LANDSCAPE CONTEXT of the early 9thcentury monument known as the Pillar of Eliseg is interrogated here for the first time with GISbased analysis and innovative spatial methodologies. Our interpretation aims to move beyond regarding the Pillar as a prominent example of early medieval monument reuse and a probable early medieval assembly site. We argue that the location and topographical context of the cross and mound facilitated the monument’s significance as an early medieval locus of power, faith and commemoration in a contested frontier zone. The specific choice of location is shown to relate to patterns of movement and visibility that may have facilitated and enhanced the ceremonial and commemorative roles of the monument. By shedding new light on the interpretation of the Pillar of Eliseg as a node of social and religious aggregation and ideological power, our study has theoretical and methodological implications for studying the landscape contexts of early medieval stone monuments.


Murrieta-Flores, P. and Williams, H. 2017. Placing the Pillar of Eliseg: Movement, Visibility and Memory in the Early Medieval Landscape, Medieval Archaeology 61(1), 69–103. DOI: 10.1080/00766097.2017.1295926

Public Archaeology in Fragments, by Howard Williams (The 2017 Public Archaeology Twitter Conference)

This presentation explores the challenges of Project Eliseg’s (2010–present) public archaeology. Investigating what transpired to be a multi-phased Early Bronze Age kerbed cairn surmounted by a 9th-century round-shafted cross with a long Latin inscription, Project Eliseg explored the complex biography of the Pillar of Eliseg (Denbighshire, Wales) from prehistory to the present. The cairn and cross were incorporated into the Cistercian monastic landscape during the 13th-16th centuries, and the sculpted cross was pulled down/fell down and fragmented in the 17th century. In the late 18th century, the mound was dug into and a skeleton found before the cross fragments were ‘restored’ and re-inscribed by local squire Trevor Lloyd. Subsequently, the Pillar became a romantic ruin and an enduring landmark down to the present day connected to a network of ancient and historic monuments in the Vale of Llangollen, including Valle Crucis Abbey, Castell Dinas Brân, Llangollen and Plas Newydd.

Between 2010 and 2012, three seasons of field investigation by Bangor and Chester universities sought to better understand the mound beneath the Pillar, drawing on university students and local volunteers and incorporating a range of outreach activities. In the context of current debates in public mortuary archaeology, the presentation reviews the public archaeological dimensions of the field seasons and subject research, before identifying specific challenges in communicating and engaging the public locally, nationally and internationally through fieldwork, museum displays, public talks and digital media. The specific hurdles included how to engage the public in prehistoric cremated human remains, the multi-phased nature of the Bronze Age kerbed cairn, as well as the fragmentary and heavily worn fragments of the cross upon it. The presentation critiques our public outreach endeavors and identifies key lessons for future public archaeology focusing on textual, cenotaphic and fragmentary traces of the dead and monumental biographies.

#PATC 1 Archaeologists often debate displays of skellies/ mummies: but what of public archaeology via mortuary & memorial fragments?


01b#PATC 2 Project Eliseg faces challenge of engaging public with a multi-period, multi-media unique fragmented monument: “Eliseg’s Pillar”


#PATC 3 Dig shows monument’s story from Bronze Age–present. Mound = multi-phased cairn with kerb of stones & cremation burials in cists


#PATC 4 Cross w/ Latin text raised early 9thC AD by King Cyngen of Powys, honoring his great-grandad Eliseg, memories of battle & lineage


#PATC 5 Surviving the demise of Cyngen’s dynasty & Powys, the cross acquired fame & gave its name to nearby Cistercian abbey: Valle Crucis


#PATC 6 The cross fell down in 17th century, but recorded by antiquarians & dug then restored and inscribed by local squire: Trevor Lloyd


#PATC 7 By 19th C: tourist attraction. Later scheduled – fences, sign + guidebook but remains enigma and inaccessible to many


#PATC 8 Images, replicas & art of Pillar instead found thru Vale of Llangollen, experienced more than visits to monument! Pillar DISTRIBUTED


#PATC 9 Pillar has become very prominent via 2 heritage exhibitions outside locality: the Offa’s Dyke Centre, Knighton & Caernarfon Castle


#PATC 10 Project Eliseg’s research linked to multiple outreach strategies + informing Cadw heritage management & interpretation 2010–present


#PATC 11 2017: informed by Project Eliseg, 2 heritage boards installed, one at Valle Crucis, one at Pillar. Problematic/confusing narratives


#PATC 12 Fragmented & distributed nature of Pillar still blessing & curse for public, story & landscape context remains untold


Professor Dai Morgan Evans

Professor Dai Morgan Evans passed away this week: the very best of academic friends to me. Dai will be sadly missed by current and former staff and students of the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester and many more in the world of British archaeology.

Dai lecturing at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, 2011

Born in 1944, Dai had ties with Chester and its archaeology since childhood. His career began studying archaeology at Cardiff and he served as assistant director of the famous South Cadbury excavations under Leslie Alcock. As an Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, he was instrumental in bringing into existence the Welsh Archaeological Trusts. His case work took him across Wales and England during a career based first in Cardiff and then in London. Leaving English Heritage in 1992, he became General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, steering it towards the institution it is now today. Leaving SAL, he became a member of the National Trust Archaeology Panel, the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Advisory Group, and chairman of the Buster Ancient Farm Trust. His extensive and indefatigable research career included published works addressing heritage management and conservation, the Roman and early medieval archaeology of western Britain, industrial archaeology and 18th-century antiquarianism.

Dai with Chester students working on the Wroxeter Roman villa in 2011

In his long-standing capacity as Visiting Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester, Dai enriched the student experience through his teaching. I particularly recall his contributions to the final-year student module HI6001 Archaeology and Contemporary Society, where he was both popular with students and entertaining and visionary in his distinctive perspectives on the future of archaeological research and public archaeology.

Dai with Sue Evans and Professor Nancy Edwards at the Pillar of Eliseg, 2008

Dai deployed his Chester affiliation on his many scholarly publications, and enhanced Chester’s profile through his public talks and television appearances.

Most notably for Chester’s public profile, Dai designed the ‘villa urbana’ erected at Wroxeter Roman city for the Channel 4 series Roman Wasn’t Built in a Day and appeared throughout this entertaining series. Subsequently, through the villa’s opening to the public February 2011m the structure has remained a key element of this English Heritage site’s heritage interpretation.

Dai also initiated Project Eliseg with me, Professor Nancy Edwards and Dr Gary Robinson. He was fully participatory in the first (2010) field season of Project Eliseg.

Sue Evans, Dai, Prof. Nancy Edwards and me at the Pillar of Eliseg, 2011

A proud London Welshman, I will remember him for his humour, goodwill, many insights, his inspiration for my research. I recall his theories and good-natured dialogues with students, including his vision the future of archaeology based on nanorobots! I recollect Dai’s enthusiasm for understanding the long-term biography of the Pillar of Eliseg from prehistory to recent times, and for the origins of Powys in particular. I also remember our many conspiratorial soup-and-sandwich meetings in a cafe near Chester’s Northgate.

Rest in peace Dai.

With Dr Susan Youngs, Dr David Petts, Professor Meggen Gondek, Alex Turner and Dr Sarah Semple, Dai discusses the Pillar of Eliseg in 2008
Part of the Channel 4 TV programme, Dai at Wroxeter, 2011

The 2010 Project Eliseg Video

watson-landscape-elisegFor those who haven’t seen it before, I present to you the 2010 Project Eliseg video by artist and archaeologist Aaron Watson and musician John Was. They created a distinctive, disturbing and memorable video portrait of our work in 2010 at the Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales.

I’ve worked with Aaron before on art work for my books and articles and so I was delighted by both his video and also his artist’s impression of the Pillar of Eliseg. Working closely with Professor Nancy Edwards, he devised an image that embodied possibilities for the original arrangement of the cross. Inevitably we have no independent evidence as to what the cross-head looked like, but Nancy has deliberately tried to imply Irish Sea connections here, rather than a more Northumbrian cross used in previous artist’s reconstructions.