Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

Continue reading “Cryptic inscriptions”

The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

The past, now

Current-Archaeology-311
Cover of Current Archaeology 311

In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.

It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.

I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.

So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).

Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.

I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.

* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.

** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.

Monoliths: myths and legends

Terry John  Sacred Stones
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach. If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire. Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

Continue reading “Monoliths: myths and legends”

A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344

Boydell Press 2007

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, Continue reading “A fascinating study of a fantastical building”

Capturing the public imagination

South Cadbury OS map 1885
South Cadbury
OS map 1885

Leslie Alcock
‘By South Cadbury is that Camelot …’:
the Excavation of Cadbury Castle 1966-1970

Book Club Associates 1975

While now superseded by the official two-volume academic excavation report, Cadbury-Camelot (as this book became known) was noteworthy in that it gave a relatively immediate presentation, synopsis and discussion of the literally ground-breaking dig at this Somerset hillfort in the swinging sixties to an eager public. I say eager because, while the pages also detail the Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman and medieval period occupations amply found at South Cadbury, most public attention was focused on the Dark Age or early medieval, the so-called Age of Arthur beloved of Dr John Morris and other contemporary writers.

What was Arthurian about what was found? Continue reading “Capturing the public imagination”

The archaeology of personal items

Ivory diptych, Monza Cathedral (Wikipedia Commons)
Ivory diptych, Monza Cathedral (Wikipedia Commons)

Ellen Swift
The End of the Western Roman Empire:
an archaeological investigation

Tempus Publishing 2000

As Dr Swift acknowledges, “the End of the Roman Empire is a misleading term to use for the changes at the end of the fourth century and in the fifth century. The end of official Roman authority would perhaps be more accurate.” The thrust of this book, distilled from her doctoral research, is that the archaeology of personal items may help chart the gradual transition from Western Empire to Medieval Europe, but that it still leaves many questions unanswered. Continue reading “The archaeology of personal items”