Professor Nancy Edwards: Time and Memory in Early Medieval Wales

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Blog Author: Scott McCreadie

On Tuesday 9th March the Centre was delighted to host Professor Nancy Edwards for her online seminar on ‘Time and Memory in Early Medieval Wales’, as part of the ‘The Form and Fabric of Early Medieval Britain: Reflections on the Archaeology of Ewan Campbell’ seminar series. Edwards is the current Professor of Medieval Archaeology at Bangor University, where she has spent her full academic career to date, and she was also appointed as the first female chair to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in 2019. Professor Edward’s specialities lie in the Early Medieval archaeology of Ireland and Wales, particularly the inscribed stones and other sculpture from this period, with Professor Steve Driscoll stating – during his introduction to the seminar – that Edward’s work in this area was “peerless.” Before commencing with her presentation, Professor Edwards highlighted the huge impact that Dr Ewan Campbell has made in the study of Early Medieval Britain, particularly through his unrivalled knowledge on the material culture of this period.

Professor Edwards began her presentation by provoking the audience to consider how we perceive time in the present, before going on to outline the key themes of the seminar: the perception of and engagement with concepts of time and memory in Early Medieval Wales. Nature was highlighted as the primary, universal way that humans engaged with notions of time, particularly before the arrival of the Romans, with a grasp of the seasons and climate being essential for successful agricultural production, amongst other considerations. The idea of interpreting time via moments within “The Life-Course” was discussed, which included marking the occasion of an infant’s first hair cutting or the marking of old age and generations via Latin inscriptions on stone sculpture (following the introduction of Latin into Wales), such as the carved stone from Llanwinio that commemorates a father and son. The engagement with time through the lens of generations was particularly important for Early Medieval Wales as this expressed ideas of kinship and inheritance, which would have been vital for the social legitimacy of ruling dynasties.

Edwards went on to describe the methods of interpreting and engaging with time introduced into Wales, specifically under the auspices of the Roman Empire. Though the important point was made that one’s experience of these new ways of brining sense to time and the natural world depended on their proximity to and level of engagement with the Empire. One of the slides contained an image of an intriguing curved strip of copper or copper-alloy, with a series of drilled holes in a line, found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, and this represents a way of bringing logical order to universal natural time. This was a fragment of a Roman water clock, which indicated that the concept of measurable time, and technology required achieve this, had been introduced to Iron Age Britain.

The coming of Christianity radically altered perceptions of time, with Christian doctrine covering the period from the creation of the world to the very final judgement, which had significant ramifications for the lives of ordinary people in Early Medieval Britain. The most evident manifestations of this new engagement with time can be seen in the actions of baptism (birth) and burial (death), both of which can be traced through the archaeological record. This idea of Christian time also concerned the calculation of Easter, and the celebration of saint’s feast days, as demonstrated by the 11th C. Psalter and Martyrology of Rhygyfarch. In a more strict ecclesiastical context, the engagement with time, both in the practically and spiritually, was at the heart of monastic life, with monks’ days strictly regimented with manual work, scribal duties and the Divine Office. This produced material culture with the specific purpose of indicating time, such as the stone sundial from Clynnog Fawr, and also disseminating these important temporal moments more widely, achieved using the bronze-clad iron hand bells found throughout the Western seaboard of Early Medieval Britain.

The final section of the seminar concerned deep time, memory and the landscape. Multiple archaeological sites were used to highlight the ritual and symbolic reuse of Neolithic and Bronze Age burial cairns and standing stones by Early Medieval Welsh society. These highly visible monuments within the landscape were seen as the graves of the heroic ancestors, the origins of that people and the land they inhabited. Edwards highlighted the deliberate repurposing of these ancient monuments in order to create a strong sense of kin and communal identity, one which was embedded in the landscape. These monuments were used to create a physical and symbolic link between the Early medieval present and the ancestors of that land through collective memory, facilitated by the exploitation of the distant past.

The case study of the Pillar of Eliseg, erected between AD 808-854, was employed to emphasise this active use of deep time and memory through engagement with both ancient and contemporary monuments in the landscape. The pillar tops a Bronze Age burial cairn, which contained three cists, and is in the immediate vicinity of a Bronze Age ring ditch in the same field. This was clearly a strategic placement that increasing the prominence of the monument within the landscape, whilst also maximising its impact and visibility by placing it on an important routeway. Edwards described the pillar, and its extensive Latin inscription, as a propaganda piece for Concenn, the last Early Medieval ruler of Powys. The genealogy within the text engages the notion of deep time by reaching back to an origin in the 4th C. for both the dynasty and the Kingdom of Powys itself. Conceptions of Christian time are also present on the pillar, as it looks forward in time by referencing Judgement Day. This landscape of inauguration created a much deeper sense of the past that was embedded in the physical landscape, and created a strong, shared cultural memory for the people of Early Medieval Powys. The context of the monument’s creation was in a period of unrest for the Kingdom of Powys, as it was under threat from both Anglo-Saxon Mercia and the expanding Gwynedd, thus the pillar confirmed the legitimacy and right of the rulers of Powys to that land. Additionally, archaeology and historical documents were directly linked when Edwards briefly discussed the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, based primarily in Gwynedd, in which a reinvention of the distance past to create mythical and magical narratives incorporates ancient monuments from a variety of period, including hillforts and Roman camps.

In this fascinating seminar, Edwards expertly intertwined the archaeological and historical evidence to paint a vivid picture of the exceedingly complex study of Early Medieval Welsh engagement with various conceptions of time, memory and the landscape.

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