The Pillar of Eliseg from Llandysilio Mountain

First published on Archaeodeath

The Pillar of Eliseg from the bottom of Velvet Mountain, immediately to its west
The abbey and Pillar, from the path above Britannia Inn

In previous and recent posts, I talked about the viewshed of the Pillar of Eliseg; part of a forthcoming piece I’m working on with Patricia Murrieta-Flores for the Past in its Place project. This builds on my work on Project Eliseg investigating the biography of this unique monument, located near the later Cistercian monastic house of Valle Crucis, near Llangollen, Denbighshire. Our article is due out in the journal Medieval Archaeology next year.

A view from Llandysilio Mountain

I’m interested in the interaction between the Pillar and its surrounding landscape, and describing its placement, upon an earlier mound, in the valley of the Nant Eglwyseg, required me to explore how the monument appears from afar. In a previous post, I went up the Nant Eglwyseg to see how it interacts with the Horseshoe Pass and far-end of the valley. Recently, with my new PhD student Abigail, I decided to visit Llandysilio Mountain to the north-west of the Pillar. As well as exploring the 19th-century tramway as discussed here, I took long-distance photographs of the Pillar of Eliseg using a digital bridge camera and tripod.

Valle Crucis Abbey and the Pillar of Eliseg

I hope you like the results, which at one level are self-explanatory. You can see from this perspective the nature of the mound, its position on the top of a slope, dominating lower ground to the south and east, but also the plateau to its west and north. I think it is also clear that any large crowd gathered and any ceremonies and rituals conducted here would have a large audience. This is a secluded and yet simultaneously. prominent location.

In terms of appreciating the Pillar’s situation in relation to routes of movement, it is evident that the cross was situated to punctuate the journeys of those leaving or entering the Vale of Llangollen via the Horseshoe Pass.

View south down the Nant Eglwyseg with Velvet Mountain in the centre, with Abbey Grange Farm at its base, beside which is the Pillar of Eliseg

Aethelflaed meets Eliseg

Originally posted on Archaeodeath

‘Aethelflaed’ meets Cyngen’s early 9th-century monument to his great-grandfather Eliseg. The text on this side is, however, 18th-century and commemorates the monument’s restoration by squire Trevor Lloyd

Yesterday I visited the Pillar of Eliseg, near Valle Crucis Abbey, Llandysilio-yn-Iâl, Denbighshire. This fragment of cross-shaft in its original base, is part of a monument raised by Cyngen, ruler of Powys, to honour his legendary ancestors and great-grandfather Eliseg. It has been the focus of my research with colleagues from Bangor – Project Eliseg.

Abigail at the Pillar of Eliseg

I visit Valle Crucis and the Pillar quite regularly and each time I see different dimensions to the monument and its setting. This time, however, was an extra-special visit. I took my new PhD student Abigail who happens to come from Canada. Abigail has just arrived in the UK and is beginning her research with me and Dr Amy Gray Jones, investigating the deployment of amulets in early medieval mortuary practices. Welcome Abigail!

Abigail brought with her a Canadian (maple-leaves on scarf) mascot, whom we suggested might be named ‘Aethelflaed’. This was history in the making. I’m quite certain this might be the first-time that a Canadian cuddly monkey called Aethelflaed has ever visited the Pillar of Eliseg.

Drone of Eliseg


DSC02459Back at the Pillar of Eliseg again, this time accompanying University of Chester Computer Science student Matt Williams together with colleagues Paty and Ruth and visiting Portuguese scholar Bruno.

Our task was to fly a drone around the monument (I assure you we didn’t get as close as the zoom lens photograph suggests), to take a detailed all-round photographic record of the monument for comparison with the replica in the Llangollen Museum. The aim is for Matt to work on exploring the original and replica in comparison with each other in terms of surface erosion, as well as to see if detailed photogrammetric analysis of the monument can discern more details of its form and text.

In short, the title of this post is not a reference to my constant droning on about the monument, but our first attempt to drone at the monument.

The Pillar of Eliseg is a unique near-in situ ninth-century cross-shaft fragment re-set in its original base placed on a multi-phased Bronze Age kerbed-cairn near Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire. The early 9th-century ruler of Powys, inscribed on a monumental stone cross a lengthy Latin inscription commemorating his immediate forebears and legendary ancestors and set it up as a prominent landmark within a side-valley of the Vale of Llangollen. The cross became a famed ancient holy place throughout the Middle Ages, fell (or was pulled) down in the early 17th century, was restored in the late 18th century (minus the cross-head) and has been a focus of visits and speculation ever since.

DSC02489DSC02511DSC02463Project Eliseg, involving Bangor and Chester universities, is investigating the mound beneath the early medieval monument for the first time using modern archaeological methods. Between 2009 and 2012 the project surveyed and excavated on the site and following a post-excavation stage of analysis we are currently writing our results up for publication.
Ongoing work by the Past in its Place project – undertaken by Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and myself – is investigating the landscape context of the Pillar.

Drones are increasingly being used to recording standing buildings and ancient monuments. Our work today will help us to understand both the past biography of the monument but also to consider the medium-long term future of the monument as it is exposed to the Welsh open-air environment.

Check out some of my previous posts on the monument:

Note: this post was originally published in March 2016 on Archaeodeath

Blade Runner and the Pillar of Eliseg

DSC02583Do casts of early medieval stones dream of fibre glass sheep?

Today I revisited the Pillar of ElisegDSC02606 with colleagues and a University of Chester Computer Science student to photograph it with a drone. The Pillar is a unique early medieval stone cross fragment and base located on a prehistoric mound near the ruins of the later Cistercian foundation of Valle Crucis Abbey.

Matt Williams is doing a project not only to record in detail the Pillar itself with a drone-mounted camera, but also to record the cast of the monument made in the 1980s and on display in Llangollen Museum. Therefore, after recording the ‘real’ monument, we then went back to Llangollen Museum where the results of Project Eliseg‘s 2010-12 excavations are the centre-piece of displays as discussed here.

DSC02574The cast of the Pillar of Eliseg is a Tyrell Corporation Nexus-6 to be sure. It is even on rollers, so might one day break free and make off at low speed around Llangollen, pursued by Blade Runners. For the moment though it is safely within Llangollen Museum whose staff generously allowed us to photograph it.

DSC02552Why are we interested in ‘just a  replica? Casts of stone monuments are a fascinating case study of the complex afterlives of early medieval stone monuments, as ongoing research by Sally Foster has explored. Researching the making and display of these monuments has importance for historians of archaeology, museologists and archaeologists.

The cast of the Pillar of Eliseg has a distinctive relationship to the original monument; it brings a monument in the landscape into the heart of Llangollen and is the axis mundi for its museum. The cast is therefore a key dimension to the ‘cultural biography’ of the Pillar of Eliseg, augmented by our own discoveries at the monument including Bronze Age cremation burials that are now displayed at the base of the cast. The cremations create their one sense of absent presence within the museum as discussed here.

DSC02586The original and the copy are not identical even upon inception. Lighting and setting also make them different experiences from each other.

Yet the relationship between original and cast is growing over the years. The ‘real’ monument is slowly eroding due to exposure to the elements, while the cast in the museum is near static. The replica is slowly becoming less like the monument one can see outside and the cast is becoming something other than a copy. They look superficially identical, but as museum staff who see the monument regularly now admit, it is now possible to see more details on the cast then one can see on the real monument.

I like to look at this in another way: the Eliseg replicant is taking on a new life of its own. Hence, like Blade Runners, we were today tracking down the replicant. Yet rather than seeking it out for termination, we are carefully recording it as a monument in its own right.


Note: originally posted in March 2016 on Archaeodeath.

Talking in the Shadow of the Pillar of Eliseg

An audience of c. 25  people and two hounds in total assembled to hear my talk at the Llangollen Museum this evening
The forthcoming book by Williams and Giles

2 years ago, I attended the opening by Ken Skates of the ‘Sharing the Treasures‘ at Llangollen Museum, which included the finds from my co-directed excavations at the Pillar of Eliseg. More recently, I’ve been back to Llangollen Museum with students and with colleagues doing research on the Pillar of Eliseg as well as researching a newly discovered 14th-century grave slab fragment temporarily on display.

In May of this year, I got to talk in the shadow of the replica Pillar of Eliseg and close to the Bronze Age cremated remains we found in the mound beneath the Pillar of Eliseg and now displayed in a mock-up of a cist-grave in the museum.

Me, meeting the whippet, Toby, in the audience! Photo by Gillian Smith

With my new book Archaeologists and the Dead nearly out and published in June with OUP, this evening I gave a public lecture exploring case studies in the relationship between mortuary archaeology and contemporary society.I focused on asking how we explore the diversity and complexity of past mortuary practices in museum and heritage spaces, and why should we display the human dead in these environments. I started by discussing the book co-edited by Dr Mel Giles and myself, and containing 19 chapters exploring current debates worldwide, in Europe and in the UK, regarding the archaeological investigation, display and interpretation (including envisioning of) the remains and contexts of the dead.

I then explored two very different case studies in how the dead are presented at heritage sites: Stonehenge and Sutton Hoo. My point about each was the importance of absence, or staged absence, in the narration of each site’s archaeological history. In particular, I talked about the centrality of cremation practices to each site, and how these presented a challenge as well as opportunities for engaging visitors with the stories of each site. I also talked about the power of the Sutton Hoo helmet in framing imaginations of the absent dead (see also my blog on Anglo-Saxon death at the BM).

me and the Sutton Hoo helmet in the BM

I summed up by bringing the discussion back to the situation in Llangollen Museum: a small museum like this is replete in different material traces of the dead, memorials to the dead, as well as remains of the dead, including the Pillar and the cremated remains we excavated.

This was a direct development of themes discussed in the Dead Relevant conference in Chester on the 19th April and you can view this conference online here and my blog post on Leeds Museum here.

As well as presenting my paper, there was a very constructive and lengthy Q&A session to follow. One highlight was that I got to meet a whippet called ‘Toby’ and there was also a poodle in the crowd.

I’d like to thank the audience and the organiser – Gillian Smith – for a fabulous evening.

Preaching! Photo by Gillian Smith

Note: previously posted on the Archaeodeath website.

Castell Dinas Brân from the North-North-West

DSC07616The evocative ruin of the late 13th-century castle of Castell Dinas Brân has been the subject of posts before on Archaeodeath here and hereThe site is key to my ongoing collaborative work with Patricia Murrieta-Flores regarding the landscape context of the Pillar of Eliseg, and my work on Project Eliseg. Hence, the hill is worthy of another post.

The hillfort and later castle is positioned to dominate the Vale of Llangollen’s easterly end and exit into the Cheshire plain, as well as the ford at Llangollen itself and westwards along the Vale towards Corwen. It is unproven but possible that the hilltop was occupied/utilised intermittently throughout the first millennium and early second millennium AD before it enters the historical record before its destruction and abandonment during Edward I’s conquest of Wales.

From the castle, the dramatic limestone outcrops of Creigiau Eglwyseg and Trevor Rocks block views to the north and north-east. This is not, however, in any regard a ‘blindspot’ for the castle’s which dominates the landscape in this direction too, including parts of the Eglwyseg valley to the north-west.

Previously, however, I have not seen the castle specifically from the north-north-west: from high up in the Eglwyseg valley, although I have previous viewed it from Fron Fawr to the east of the Pillar of Eliseg.

Here is a view I recently took from higher up the side-valley to the north: close to the Clwydian Way to the east of Pentre-dwfr. I hope you like it.

From this perspective, the castle is viewed from the north with the Vale of Llangollen behind it. The valley you are looking down likes between the Trevor Rocks and Fron Fawr, i.e. the valley heading north from the Vale of Llangollen parallel to the Nant Eglwyseg along which Valle Crucis and the Pillar of Eliseg are situated.

More than like it, I think it is key to an important argument I would make about the significance of the hilltop in the first millennium AD and the approaches to the Pillar of Eliseg that Paty and I will be outlining in a research paper forthcoming in the journal Medieval Archaeology. Namely, we suggest that the site of the later castle might be part of a visual control network guarding approaches to the area of the Pillar of Eliseg and the later monastic house of Valle Crucis. In the forthcoming paper, we hope to demonstrate this in greater detail.

Note: previously published on the Archaeodeath blog

The Pillar of Eliseg from afar

blog-pillarIn a forthcoming article to be published in the journal Medieval Archaeology, I explore the landscape context of the Pillar of Eliseg with colleague Patricia Murrieta-Flores as part of the Past in its Place project. We are arguing that the Pillar of Eliseg is in a secluded but key strategic location in a contested frontier landscape.

Yet despite our sophisticated GIS analysis, sometimes it is good to support the computer work and get out there and explore the landscape itself. Recently, I realised (on the ground, as opposed to from viewshed maps) that the Pillar is visible from the very far distance from a limited but significant stretch of the Horseshoe Pass to the monument’s north: the historic route linking the Vale of Llangollen with the Vale of Clwyd and Chester. The photo included here has been rendered as an ‘oil painting’ within PhotoShop and is a digital SLR zoom shot.

This observation is hardly surprising since it was already evident on Paty’s viewshed analysis to be published with our article, but is very revealing once it is considered on the ground. The Pillar is not visible from large stretches of the uplands around the modern Horseshoe Pass and it is not visible from the modern road over the pass. Still, identifying a tract of the ridge that is intervisible with the Pillar is important. It opens up some important questions regarding the potential use of this specific sightline. This is because it means that the Pillar and its immediate environs (notably Abbey Farm) – but not Valle Crucis and other parts of the Nant Eglwyseg valley – are directly intervisible with an area of the ridge above the Horseshoe Pass that is itself intervisible from the entire line of the Clwydian Mountains and, indeed, the Roman road from Chester to Caer Gai, the upper Alyn valley and down into the Vale of Clwyd.

In short, we propose that a single beacon somewhere within a zone of ridge-top on the Pass could alert those gathered at the Pillar of any travellers approaching from the north. It is also important to note that mature trees block much of this route, meaning that unless the field immediately north of the Pillar was forested in the Early Middle Ages, this sightline has demonstrable historical significance. What isn’t clear is whether there are any archaeological traces of early medieval occupation or activity in the area that might have served as a lookout point or beacon site controlling access to the Nant Eglwyseg and the Vale of Llangollen from the north…

Note: previously published on the Archaeodeath blog.