Project Eliseg is a collaborative archaeological research project between Bangor University and the University of Chester. The project investigates the unique multi-period monument known as "Eliseg's Pillar", located near Valle Crucis Abbey, Llandysilio-yn-Iâl, Denbighshire, Wales
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Following on from my last post on assembly places and practices, how do we theorise the roles of material culture associated with assembly places, when material traces are often so ephemeral and ambiguous pertaining to the multiple dimensions of temporary and seasonal activities?
One of the main reasons that assembly places and practices (often called ‘things’ when pertaining to Scandinavia and spheres of ‘Viking’ influence and settlement) have been a challenge for investigators is the limited material traces they often leave behind. This is compounded by the fact that early medieval assembly places and practices seem to be increasingly recognised as varied and fluid. Certainly there are locational, topographical and material attributes being recognised, yet assembly places were associated with changing and different places and practices in the Early Middle Ages, operating in very different worked and monumentalised landscapes as well as contrasting topographies and geologies. Hence, there was no single ‘institution’ of public assembly with a check-list of necessary features and material traces.
This variability in locality, monumentality, architecture, and material discard/deposition, also extends to their endurance. Many hint at being surprisingly long-lasting, utilising demarcated and elaborated places within worked and inhabited, monumentalised and ceremonial, landscapes. Yet they can also reveal stark and rapid shifts in practice and place linked to religious, socio-economic, political and ideological change, whether it is kingdom formation, religious conversion, or other rapid developments such as extreme cases of political experimentation with new socio-political formations.
In short: early medieval ‘things’ varied, and ‘things’ never stayed the same. ‘Things’ operate in history, on different scales – from local to regional to ‘national’ – with contrasting functions and dimensions, not as static and fixed institutions.
As I understand it, this is where so much of the recent work on assembly places and practices, including their archaeological investigation, has been most important. Rather than the nationalist rhetoric of identifying the origins of modern institutions, recent research on assembly places and practcies foregrounds the complexity and fluidity of early medieval societies’ socio-political, judicial and territorial moorings.
This is relevant to my research on Project Eliseg. For ‘Wales’ in the Early Middle Ages does not have surviving evidence for an enduring set of assembly places. Fascinating new work by Rhiannon Comeau, investigating the cantref of Cemais, north Pembrokeshire, prompts us to look from interdisciplinary and long-term perspectives, and consider zones and locales rather than sites operating for assembly places. It also encourages us to think of the afterlife of prehistoric sites as potential components of assembly sites within territorial contexts.
And it is here that Nancy Edwards’ suggestion that the text and reuse of a prehistoric mound by an early 9th-century stone cross – the Pillar of Eliseg – might fit. Yet the caution is against using the Pillar of Eliseg as a ‘model’ for assembly places in Wales and beyond, or to think of the Pillar’s significance only through the dimensions to its location, monumentality and biography it shares with other hypothesised assembly places. Instead, our task as scholars of the Early Middle Ages is to try to work with both patterns and specifics: between the uniqueness of each place and the expectations and assocations of its physical form and landscape situation. In other words, we must try to describe and explore what the Pillar of Eliseg might have done, rather than seeing its possible function as an ‘assembly place’ as the endpoint of enquiry. In relation to this discussion, we might ask: what did the Pillar of Eliseg do, and how did it operate, as a place of aggregation?
Follwing this preamble, let’s return to the point of this post. Most assembly places yield limited or no material traces, becuase they were sites that, for most of the year, might have received limited activity and occupation.
Assembly was more than about people gathering together for specific events and durations. Assemblies involved bringing together people and things: and the acts and tempo of assembling these constituent parts is what would have made connections between assemblies and other gatherings, festivals and ceremonies (including death rituals), and marked them out from others. Assemblies were thus distinctive spatial-temporal assemblages of diverse materials, resources, architectures and agents. To early medieval people, these might have been about bringing together the living and the dead, ancestors and supernatural forces, as well as material and human agents. The funerary dimensions needn’t be about depositing the dead at the places of assembly, but the staged execution of felons and the display of their bodies, or the evocation of ancestors and deities in the activities conducted and the material ‘props’ mobilised, including images, artefacts and monuments.
Whilst together, people might do many different activities and performances that involve material culture. Certainly there might be political activities, military musters, fairs, games, judicial proceedings and feasting. There might be funerary, religious and sacrificial practices, fights and disputes too.
In all these regards, assembly is about assembling things as well as people – bringing stuff to places. This was about living people, but also living animals to exchange, ride or display, sacrifice or consume. It could involve ancient monuments but also temporary dwellings: tents or booths to raise and inhabit.
What other kinds of material culture were assembled during assemblies? Assembling things can be about drawing together the ancient, the recent and the new, monumental and ephemeral, structural and portable. The gathering of things in one place for set, fixed and seasonal activities, including the hunting, preparing and consumption of food and drink, exchange of materials and social bonds, made these places significance and powerful.
There might have been special things at assemblies unlike those elsewhere – ancient graves, mounds, rings and other features that mark the place as distinct. The topography itself might be the distinctive features – certain trees, promontaries, springs, wells or rocks.
Some of these things might be offered as votive deposits, others discarded whilst used there, but most might be taken away again.
So here lies the frustrating thing about ‘things’: they often leave only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record, and yet the relationship between people and things is what made ‘things’ things: the drawing of things together for specific moments, for gatherings and performances, create temporary assemblages or associations.
Now theories of assemblage in archaeology are all the rage, and as usual they involve a debate played out by prehistorians with scant attention to early historical archaeologists. There are many reasons for this, and I won’t go into this here. Still, thinking about assemblies as assemblages of people and things has many advantages: not only prevent the privileging of people over other actors and agents, but also not privileging monuments and landscape features over the more ephemeral dimensions of temporary assembled, crafted, displayed, exchanged, consumed and deposited stuff. This is a constant danger of studying assembly places and practices since, for much of the year, for much of the activities, there is no trace of the sites and their significance for archaeologists to see. I saw a great paper address similar points in the context of Scandinavian assembly places by Alex Sanmark at the Viking conference in Nottingham this summer, but I won’t attempt to summarise her forthcoming research on this fascinating topic.
My simply point is that the ‘thing-ness’ of assembly is an overt double entendre – things were about things, as much as they were about people…
How does this relate to the Pillar of Eliseg? Well in our investigations, we yielded no demonstrably early medieval traces that might be associated with the stone sculpture. No traces of feasting, burials, discard or rubbish, structures or monuments. So how can we think of the Pillar of Eliseg as an assemblage in the terms suggested above?
Well, it was certainly an assemblage of things. At least two stones were involved; the cross base and cross shaft/head. It also involved a mound, inherited and perhaps adapted as a stage/platform. Its early medieval use might have also involved stones and bones associated with ‘ancestral’ or ‘heroic’ pasts – disturbed traces of prehistoric graves.
The inscribed Roman letters was also a striking act of Latin textual assembling – drawing together different personages from different times, into a narrative honouring Elise and Cyngen and their deeds and legacy – apparent and aspired. The text was part of his multimedia assemblage, whose presence, identities and memories might have informed and directed the activities conducted at the site, including perhaps royal inauguration. Certainly they were integral dimensions of any performances conducted at this location.
The rest is speculation at present. We can only speculate about the weapons, armour, clothing, animals, vehicles, tents, and other components that would have been brought together for activities at a Welsh assembly site. In an aceramic society, in a largely coin-free zone (with some exceptions), we lack the discard of common enduring objects to event hint at tthem. What materials and substances, people and animals, foods and drink, weapons and armour, were gathered at the spot for memorable ceremonies and distinctive performances? Hence assembly places are rarely rich in finds, even if they have monumental foci or striking topographical locations.
So what I’m suggesting is that it is only by foregrounding the ‘thingness’ of assembly places, that we can begin to appreciate and theorise both the monumental and fragmentary traces that survive, and the frequently seemingly empty spaces that we also identify and seem integral to the ephemerality of assembly places and practices.
But this is what all archaeology comes down to: infering from traces, and working with absences of evidence in a nuanced and theorised fashion…
It is why we need to design and implement carefully refined research methodologies for investigating assembly places, as well as bespoke strategies for the conservation, management and interpretation of assembly places where even the most modest traces of material culture might speak volumes…
The last 15 years has seen the renaissance of the study of early medieval assembly places and practices. What’s going on?
Assembly places can be seen as communal activities that underpinned early medieval societies and their politics. They involved the administration of justice, debating and promulating laws, and legitimising and reproducing allegiances and. They might even have roles in the inauguration of kings. Other activities can take place at assemblies too, including markets and games, religious ceremonies and military musters.
A focus of antiquarian interest and 19th-century scholarship, for much of the 20th century the study of assembly saw little work fieldwork or syntheses, certainly among archaeologists. However, since the early 2000s, there was a resurgence, spearheaded in England by then-doctoral students of John Blair at Oxford – Aliki Pantos and Sarah Semple, and connecting with work taking places on early medieval assembly places and central places in Scotland, Ireland, Man and Scandinavia. I was honoured to take part on the 2000 Oxford conference, and the publication that followed, called Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe, edited by Aliki Pantos and Sarah Semple (Four Courts Press, 2004), which has proved to be a seminal work in this field.
This initial work has led to a resurgence of place-name, historical and archaeological research, drawing on new methods and techniques as well as new theoretical frameworks, and there has been growing interdisciplinary synergies and comparative perspectives. In short, this new research has come out of a mixture of new approaches to the early medieval landscape and society, and new perspectives on interdisciplinary research. It has also developed from newly formed connectivities between early medieval research themes, including archaeologies of judicial practice and governance, pioneered by Andrew Reynolds, the investigation of the ‘past in the past’ and investigations of the long-term biographies of prehistoric ceremonial centres and ancient monuments reused and reworked as early medieval gathering places and temporary settlements, as well as parts of long-running ‘central places’ of which assembly functions were an integral part (including work by Stephen Driscoll, Liz Fitzpatrick, Sarah Semple and others). Most recently, I attended the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s conference in temporary camps and seasonal sites and settlements, showing that studying the historical geography of early medieval societies through assembly places and practices is a vibrant interdisciplinary theme.
13 years since the publication of that book, the origins and significance of assembly places is now an integral part of teaching and researching early medieval Europe. Involving UK scholars, there are currently two big projects investigating assembly places. There is the UCL Landscapes of Governance project and The Assembly Places project involving Durham and UHI. Together they are producing a range of investigations, comparative and interdisciplinary, into assembly places and practices and a series of publications looking at case studies and comparative themes, new methodologies and perspectives have been recently published and are forthcoming. There is also an incipient Assembly Sites of Wales project.
Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries and Assembly
My own work has repeated tackled dimensions of this research, although ‘assembly’ has been only an element of my research endeavours over this time. For instance, I publish a paper in the aforementioned Assembly Places and Practices… book that made an argument (taking forward earlier suggestions by Catherine Hills, Kevin Leahy and Jackie McKinley) that large early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries in mid-/late 5th and early/mid- 6th-century eastern Britain, such as Spong Hill, Newark, Cleatham, Elsham and Sancton, might only look like ‘burial sites’ because the large numbers of cremation graves – hundreds, sometimes thousands – are the most discernible archaeological features. In addition to serving large territories as hitherto proposed, the cemeteries might actually be only the most visible dimensions of multi-zonal assembly places. At these places, the multi-staged ceremonies of burning the dead might be simply one of several activities going on at any time or place. I used Loveden Hill as a case study. Read it here. Another version of this idea was published in the proceedings of the Lund Sachsensympsion: you can download it here. In this second paper, although published first, I compared four cremation cemeteries in Lincolnshire in terms of what could be discerned at the time from HER data and their topographical situation.
Developed alongside these aforementioned bigger international projects, the study of assembly places is one of the dimensions to my work with Bangor University’s Professor Nancy Edwards and Dr Gary Robinson on the Pillar of Eliseg. Our Project Eliseg, is exploring the biography and landscape context of the early 9th-century sculpted stone cross (only a fragment of the shaft and the base of which remain), known as the Pillar of Eliseg and located on a mound now demonstrably regarded as a multi-phased Early Bronze Age kerbed cairn, near Valle Crucis, Llangollen. In doing so, we are tackling one of Wales’s few postulated assembly sites, most clearly articulated in the 2009 paper by Nancy Edwards, and engaging with its materialities, spatialities and temporalities. Our forthcoming monograph and a paper forthcoming in Medieval Archaeology (developed with Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores as part of the ERC-funded Past in its Place project) seek to explore this site in new ways. As well as developing new theories and methods that are pertinent to the study of assembly places elsewhere, we are refining and extending the interpretation of this still-enigmatic and distinctive multi-phase prehistoric and early medieval monument.
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.
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.
Back 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.
Project 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:
Do casts of early medieval stones dream of fibre glass sheep?
Today I revisited the Pillar of Eliseg 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.
The 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.
Why 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 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.