Archaeological Context

The Archaeological Background of the Pillar of Eliseg

Edward Lhuyd noted that the monument was ‘erected on a small mount’(Gunther 1945: 307) and Pennant records that the base was still lying on the top of this (Pennant 1778-83). It is therefore likely that this was its original location. The height of the mound, a barrow, would have given additional prominence to the monument in the landscape. This may be compared with the cross Llanfynydd 1 (Carmarthenshire), which originally stood on a cairn of stones (Edwards 2007, no CM24). Fifth- to early-seventh-century inscribed stones in Wales were also sometimes erected on top of, or beside, prehistoric barrows or cairns (Edwards 2007, no. CD28; Redknap and Lewis 2007, nos B46–47, G7, G27, G77; Knight 2001, 14). The monument is not associated with any known early medieval ecclesiastical site, though the alternative Welsh name associated with the abbey, Llanegwestl, hints at the existence of an earlier foundation (Evans 2008, 3). It should be noted, however, that at least some Cistercian houses in Wales, notably Margam (Bridgend) and its granges, were on the sites of early medieval ecclesiastical foundations indicated by the presence of early medieval sculpture (Redknap and Lewis 2007, 576–7; see also Strata Florida and Llanllŷr, Ceredigion, Edwards 2007a, nos CD1, CD20). Even if there was no earlier ecclesiastical site, the presence of the monument may well have been influential in the choice of location for the later Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis.

Apart from Pennant’s brief mention, noted above, the only account of the investigation of the barrow shortly before 1773 was written much later by W T Simpson and published in 1827; it is based on the oral evidence of two old men:

who assisted in opening the tumulus before the pillar was re-erected … On digging below the flat pedestal in which the base of the Pillar had been inserted, they came to a layer of pebble stones; and after having removed them, to a large flat slab, on which it seems the body had been laid, as they now found the remains of it, guarded round with large flat blue stones, and covered at top with the same; the whole forming a sort of stone box or coffin. … My informants said they believed the skull was sent to Trevor Hall, but it was returned, and again deposited with the rest of the bones, in its former sepulchre … One of the persons who assisted at the exhumation is now a very old man, and was huntsman to Mr. Lloyd when the tumulus was opened. He says there was a large piece of silver coin found in the coffin, which was kept; but that the skull was gilded to preserve it, and was then again deposited with its kindred bones. (Simpson 1827, 134–5)

The nature of the account means that it is unlikely to be totally reliable, making it difficult to analyse. Several interpretations are possible. Firstly, the mound may simply be a Bronze Age barrow, the height of which was utilized to make the monument stand out in the landscape and possibly to link the royal house of Powys symbolically with the mythical heroes associated with prehistoric burial mounds in the early middle ages as, for example, in the ninth- or tenth-century Englynion y Beddau (‘Stanzas of the Graves’: Jones 1967, esp. 112–16; Sims-Williams 2001, 111–12, 116–22; Edwards 2001, 22–3, 36–7). In the mid-nineteenth century Williams (Ab Ithel) was of the view that the barrow covered the grave of Eliseg (Jones 1967, esp. 112–16; Sims-Williams 2001, 111–12, 116–22; Edwards 2001, 22–3, 36–7). Later Canon Ellis Davies suggested that the monument might have been erected on top of a Bronze Age barrow reused in the later eighth century for the burial of Eliseg (Davies 1929, 366). However, unless the existence of the ‘large piece of silver coin’ (if that is what it was) can be substantiated, it seems unlikely that the barrow was used for the burial of Eliseg since by the later eighth century inhumations without grave-goods were the norm and burial in churchyards was becoming more common (Effros 2002; Petts 2002, 43–4). Nor is the inscription on the pillar an epitaph and there is no implication that it marked a grave. The reuse of a Bronze Age barrow in the Roman period or a primary Roman period barrow with an inhumation with a silver coin are also possibilities, though barrows with Roman cremations appear to have been more common (Pollock 2006, 84–7).

Davies, E 1929. The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Denbighshire, Cardiff: William Lewis

Edwards, N 2001. ‘Early medieval inscribed stones and stone sculpture in Wales: context and function’, Medieval Archaeol, 45, 15–39

Edwards, N 2007. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Vol II, South-West Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Effros, B 2002. Caring for Body and Soul. Burial and the afterlife in the Merovingian world, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press

Gunther, R T 1945. Early Science in Oxford, Vol XIV, Life and Letters of Edward Lhwyd, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jones, T 1967. ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen “Stanzas of the Graves”’, Proc Brit Acad, 53, 97–107

Knight, J K 2001. ‘Basilicas and barrows: the Latin memorial stones of Wales and their archaeological context’, in Roman, Runes and Ogham. Medieval Inscriptions in the Insular World and on the Continent (eds J Higgitt, K Forsyth and D N Parsons), 8–15, Donnington: Shaun Tyas

Pennant, T 1778–83. A Tour in Wales, 3 pts, London, facsimile edn (with intro by R P Evans), 1991, 2 vols, Wrexham: Bridge Books.

Petts, D 2002. ‘Cemeteries and boundaries in western Britain’, in Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales (eds S Lucy and A Reynolds), Soc Medieval Archaeol Monogr Ser 17, 24–46, London

Pollock, K J 2006. The Evolution and Role of Burial Practice in Roman Wales, BAR Brit Ser, 426, Oxford

Redknap, M and Lewis, J M 2007. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Vol I, South-East Wales and the English Border, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Simpson, W 1827. Some Account of Llangollen and its Vicinity, London: G B Whittaker.

Sims-Williams, P 2001. ‘Clas Beuno and the four branches of the Mabinogi’, in 150 Jahre ‘Mabinogion’ – deutsch-walisische Kulturbeziehungen (eds B Maier and S Zimmer), 111–27, Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Note: This text is adapted from Nancy Edwards’ 2009 article in the Antiquaries Journal.

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