ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 40, December 1998


Remembering the dead on stone markers

Churchyards have changed much over the centuries, explains Harold Mytum

Graveyards can be attractive yet unsettling places. They are often quiet enclaves in a town, havens for wildlife in the countryside, and romantic monuments in decay; but also places which evoke fears of our inevitable fate, and which remind us of sad losses from our past.

Yet burial grounds have long been public places as well, where an individual's identity and place in the world is proclaimed. As such they can offer fascinating insights into changing attitudes to death, burial and remembrance over recent centuries.

There is no typical graveyard. They differ according to denomination, region, and date of origin: a mid-19th century commercial cemetery with its regimented rows of tombs will be very different from an Anglican rural churchyard. Different again will be a Quaker burial ground with its regular rows of small similar headstones.

Before the Reformation, most churchyards contained few gravestones - some temporary markers perhaps, and a handful of chest tombs for notables unable to secure a tomb inside the church. Some discoid medieval headstones are known in Kent; but at this period most people were buried in unmarked graves which overlapped with earlier burials. In the 17th and 18th centuries marker stones became more common, although still only for the relatively well-to-do. By the mid-19th century most classes of people, however, were commemorated by stones.

The new desire for memorials in the centuries after the Reformation perhaps reflects the growing importance of individual identity (as well as wealth). The earliest are normally found on the south side of the church, on either side of the path and near the nave and chancel walls. Many cluster in little groups with the same family names. As this area filled with memorials, burial spread further away from the church, around the east and then the west end. Finally, the north side was used, necessity overcoming a belief that the north side was unlucky and associated with the Devil.

Pressure on space in a churchyard was driven by the spread of monuments, not of burials. Most seemingly blank areas were, by the 19th century, already crammed with the disarticulated remains of centuries of earlier burials; but as the `empty' parts of the churchyard filled with monuments from the latter part of the 19th century, additional burial areas began to be required. In rural parishes burials often spread to an adjacent piece of ground, which was either fully incorporated into the churchyard or separated by a hedge or wall. Even where no boundary survives, it is often possible to see the slight traces of an old bank or hedge line; and the layout of the memorials, and their dates, give away the pattern of growth.

Often extensions have much more regimented rows - a recognition of the need to manage space - and a chronological arrangement of burials. In 19th century cemeteries, burials might also be zoned by denomination, or by economic status, although these distinctions generally broke down over time because of the need to use all available space.

Gravestones can provide information about family relationships, occupation, cause of death and place of residence. The type of information can differ regionally. In West Wales, for example, mariners were often identified by their ship, other people by their place of residence. In parts of Scotland, trades were recorded by symbols such as ploughs or types of tool.

The text of early tombs usually emphasised mortality - beginning with the phrase `Here lies the body' - and often warned readers of their own impending fate. During the 18th and 19th centuries the emphasis shifted to remembrance. Epitaphs dwelled not on the fate of the soul but on the achievements of the deceased, or their eventual salvation. This century, `In memory' has been overtaken by `In loving memory', while the theme of peace and sleeping has become increasingly common.

Up to this century, the shapes and designs of monuments often varied from region to region. In the Cotswolds, for example, a distinctive style of baroque or rococo tomb evolved in the 18th century, as well as chest tombs with decorated half-columns (called `bales') lying flat along the top. A traditional tomb form in Sussex, dating from the 17th century but perhaps with earlier origins, consists of two posts and a connecting rail, the posts originally of timber, then stone, then cast iron, with the inscription along the rail. Stones with images of Adam and Eve have been popular in parts of East Scotland, while a pedimented stone made of several slates was once prevalent in parts of South-West Wales. Such regional styles may reflect the influence of one dominant master mason.

Early stones were usually made of local materials, and the earliest memorials tend to be ledgers - flat slabs laid flush with the ground or originally on low bases. Table tombs (a flat slab with the inscription raised up on legs) and chest tombs (panelled sides and ends) soon developed. Many examples of both types have now suffered subsidence, erosion or vandalism, and in many graveyards only the top slabs have been retained, set flat in the ground.

Many 17th or 18th century headstones had simple architectural mouldings or were of a `bedstead' form imitating vernacular furniture. Lettering was sometimes crude, but even where beautifully carved was not symmetrically arranged, and may have had words running from one line to the next. Decoration in this period consisted mainly of symbols of mortality and salvation, often together on the same stone or at opposite ends of the grave. Mortality symbols include skulls, bones, coffins, sexton's tools, the Grim Reaper with his scythe, the hourglass, or even Death himself as a skeleton holding a dart. Salvation is usually represented by cherubs, perhaps holding books or scrolls with inscribed Biblical verses, trumpets indicating the Last Judgement, or a crown of glory amidst the clouds.

The material used for the memorial can affect its style of carving. Limestone may be deeply carved and have almost three-dimensional qualities, whereas slate will usually be incised, though often with elegant lettering and designs. Sandstones are amongst the worst for weathering. During the 18th and 19th centuries new fashions became popular for headstones, largely inspired by architectural revivalism. Thus the pedimented, triangular-topped headstones were derived from the neo-classical, the round-topped from the Romanesque, and the archetypical pointed headstone from the Gothic revival. Egyptian influences led to the popularity of the obelisk, and the Celtic revival gave rise to the ringed cross. The choice could have theological implications, with High Anglicans often - but not exclusively - favouring the neo-Gothic, the Low Church the neo-classical. Celtic revival stones are common in Ireland. The battle of styles may have been more obviously fought out in municipal cemeteries where different denominations jostled for space.

The headstone became the dominant form of memorial, but in many cases it was only part of a suite of elements, most of which have not survived. Many headstones were complemented by a footstone, perhaps bearing just the deceased's initials. On more elaborate memorials, these would be joined together by a flat slab, which could take many forms from straight rectangular shapes to coffins or shrouds. Many 19th century burials were also marked off by kerbstones and iron railings - a dramatic statement of fenced-off private space.

Most of these secondary features have now been removed as cemeteries have been tidied up. Occasionally piles of discarded footstones can be found at churchyard boundaries. Some flat slabs have sunk into the ground or become grassed over. Many Victorian iron railings were removed during the Second World War, and the kerbs were lost when they seemed no longer necessary.

In the 20th century styles continued to alter, with memorials becoming smaller after the First World War, and often now made of marble or granite. Crosses, often on stepped bases, became popular, frequently with inscriptions formed out of inlaid lead lettering. The rise during the 1950s and 1960s of kerbed areas filled with gravel or stone or coloured glass gave a new appearance to the graveyard, and one often at odds with earlier fashions. Nowadays, each diocese regulates the size, materials and types of decoration normally allowed - gone, for example, are crosses and kerbs, to be replaced by small headstones and even smaller flat cremation markers. Mass production has led to a decrease in variety of form. Our inscriptions nowadays are brief, and plots rarely contain more than two people, reflecting the change from extended to nuclear families.

Dr Harold Mytum is Reader in Archaeology at the University of York. His book Recording Graveyards will be published in the New Year by the CBA.

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An ideology that faded in a New Age

Prehistoric rock art retains many mysteries, but much can now be explained, writes Stan Beckensall

A block of sandstone the size of a mini car loomed out of the mist. The top, sloping surface spread out its message as the mist lifted and the rock was warmed by the sun. Deep shadows threw into relief a series of concentric rings around cups from which grooves ran down the rock. This rock on Old Bewick Moor, Northumberland, commanded vistas of many miles, and smaller marked rocks shared its position.

I came here in the late 1960s, and since then I have spent much of my spare time trying to understand when and why people carved these and other symbols onto rocks and on some monuments in northern Britain and Ireland. Like others before me, I had some vague hypotheses in mind, but I have many times changed my mind.

The position of rock art in the landscape on outcrop and earthfast rock, mainly horizontal, opens it up to the sky. It is not found in the most fertile areas of land, attractive for arable farming, but in the upland, marginal areas of thinner, poorer soils that supported wild and domesticated animals - a food source that continued to be of prime importance even when arable farming intensified. Much of it signs the land at the best viewpoints, often on ridges overlooking fertile valleys and plains. One imagines the pastoral nomads moving through well-known and well-marked territory, being able to see the migration of game from an advantageous height.

Some panels of rock art were not exposed for long. Some cannot be seen until you are almost on top of them, and people must have known where to look. We can sometimes predict where we might look for `new' ones. Their locations may coincide with strikingly visible natural features, such as cliffs, but they don't give themselves away easily. And who knows what message they conveyed to which group of prehistoric people?

Some of the rock surfaces are large, like those at Achnabreck in Argyll, and some are small pieces of earthfast rock carried by ice, such as those on Barningham Moor, Co Durham. From such simple beginnings as a cup and groove, people who chipped their patterns were familiar with many common motifs, but others expressed some individuality. These people shared the same language but some were (if you like) more articulate than others. Rosettes, radiates, multiple concentric rings, crowded motifs and well-spaced motifs are just a few variations on the theme.

Almost all British rock art is abstract; we don't have animals, maps, humans. This opens it up to people reading into it what they will, and leads to some unsubstantiated conjectures. Many years ago Ronald Morris, a solicitor and amateur recorder of rock art, listed 104 meanings that had been given to rock art - from musical notation and star charts to `sacred cowpats' and all kinds of nonsense - and gave them marks out of ten! Open-air motifs blend sympathetically with the landscape, and use surface irregularities in their design.

If all rock art were in the open air like this, we would find it very difficult, or impossible to date. It can be linked to a mobile way of life, that's all. The motifs also appear on a small number of monuments, but even then they often cannot be dated. Long Meg, for example, a tall pillar of red sandstone outside a massive circle of volcanic stones in Cumbria, is covered in motifs. But at what stage they became part of the monument is not known. They may have been carved when the monument was erected, or much later; or Long Meg may have been brought to the site already covered in decoration centuries old. All that can be said is that the motifs were brought into association with the stone circle and were clearly regarded as important to whatever rituals were enacted there.

Rock art was once thought of as a purely Bronze Age phenomenon, but is now generally regarded as late Neolithic, with a use over at least 1,000 years into the early Bronze Age. What has always grabbed people's attention is the presence of motifs on stones in a few early Bronze Age cairns. On close examination, however, it has been found that many of the decorated cist slabs were eroded before being inserted, and some were broken off larger surfaces. An example is an early Bronze Age cist at Balbirnie in Fife. In the datable Neolithic chambered tombs of Ireland's Boyne Valley, however, the cup-and-ring marked slabs were purpose-made.

Whatever the meaning of these abstract designs, they eventually went out of use; and it may be that their Neolithic symbolism was irrelevant to, and perhaps hopelessly incompatible with, the basic cosmology of the Bronze Age which gave rise to the interment of important individuals in single graves. The fact that some early Bronze Age cists contain re-used panels of formerly open-air rock art, however, may represent the last vestiges of a belief system, at a time of change and probably of crisis in many ways, which still recognised the power of the old symbolism. It can, perhaps, be likened to the way in which some Anglo-Saxon burials are clearly Christian but still hang on to some old pagan traditions.

It is in fact beginning to be recognised that some decorated cist slabs were produced specially for the monuments in which they were discovered. In these cases, however, the decoration has been used in a way that suggests its meaning had changed - or was in the process of change. It was buried, often face down, no longer to be seen. An example is the recently excavated cist at Witton Gilbert, near Durham, where the cover was purpose-built and decorated on two sides, the more elaborate cups and rings on the underside of the cover. Not only that, but two freshly-decorated stones were placed inside the cist.

Similarly, in the material used to build stone cairns, some stones are now being found with freshly-decorated cups and rings - for example in a mound at Fowberry, Northumberland - and these are also placed mostly face-downwards, like wreaths brought to a funeral. The Fowberry mound, in fact, was built on top of a profusely-decorated outcrop rock, which further suggests the continuing significance of these features.

One explanation of this phenomenon of fresh decoration at some early Bronze Age tombs is that the cup-marks were produced by mourners at the funeral ceremony and offered to the deceased, just as today we place flowers on a grave. It may even be the act of producing the cup-mark that was important rather than the resulting cupmarked stone. But whatever the explanation, the fact that the phenomenon occurs at so few sites suggests it may not have lasted long into the Bronze Age.

I doubt whether we will ever know precisely what the symbols mean, whether some of the people who made the motifs were clear about their origins, and why the symbols have so much in common with those, for example, in Galicia or California. We may speculate that the motifs may also have been tattooed on people's skin, painted on wood, or woven into material, but these do not endure like stone. We know in part; we prophesy in part.

We are left, however, with a precious and fragile heritage. What matters now is that what we have learned must be meticulously recorded, and that threats to the rock must be defined and brought under control.

Stan Beckensall is a former headteacher of Rothbury Middle School, Northumberland, and the author of several comprehensive surveys of rock art panels from the Scottish border to Wensleydale in Yorkshire. The latest survey, The Prehistoric Rock Art of Co Durham, Swaledale and Wensleydale, was published last month by Durham County Council.

English Heritage have recently announced a one-year pilot study into ways to define and manage threats to open-air rock art.

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Hunting the survivors of Dad's Army

Remains of Home Guard structures survive all over Britain, reports Bernard Lowry

On the 14 May 1940 Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, announced in a BBC broadcast the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, a body of men aged between 17 and 65 who would assist the Regular Army in meeting a German invasion.

The fall of France a matter of weeks later made invasion an even greater likelihood and on 6th July 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that this hastily formed, non-uniformed and poorly armed force would henceforth be known by the more emotive title of Home Guard. From these desperate beginnings the Home Guard would emerge by the middle of the war relatively well armed and with its numbers exceeding 1.7 million men.

A half century later, this enormous citizen's army has left little in the way of recognisable structures; it possessed no purpose-built barracks or drill halls. Home Guard units used whatever local wartime accommodation was available to provide their headquarters, typical examples being hotels, Territorial Army drill halls, auction markets and vicarages. Accommodation had also to be found for the training of Guardsmen in the arts of fieldcraft, leadership, camouflage and weapons drill.

Tom Wintringham, who wrote on defence matters for the magazine Picture Post and who had gained experience fighting with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, created a short-lived Home Guard school at Osterley Park near London. Frowned upon by the more blimpish elements in the British Army, this nevertheless led to the eventual establishment of three GHQ Home Guard training schools which made use of large country houses and their grounds, such as Denbies near Dorking, and Doddington Hall in Cheshire; together with a specialised street-fighting school and an interrogation centre, both in the centre of Birmingham (in Bristol St and Edmund St respectively).

Training was conducted on whatever local land was available, the Home Guard having a need for open tracts of uncultivated land to practice with the sub-artillery it was issued with from 1941 onwards. This included the Northover Projector, which could fire grenades or Molotov Cocktails by using a black powder charge, the Blacker Bombard (also known as the 29mm Spigot Mortar) and the somewhat less crude Smith Gun.

Of the three artillery pieces, it is the Blacker Bombard that has left tangible signs of its use by the Home Guard (the other two were more mobile). Also used by the army for close defence of static sites, the Blacker Bombard was emplaced on a base of four cruciform legs, or onto a stainless steel pin sunk into a fixed concrete cylindical pedestal giving the piece a 360° traverse. The pedestal could be concealed in a pit or stand at ground level. Because the steel pivot pin formed part of the weapon, it was proof marked with a crown and broad arrow symbol.

Pedestals can still be found guarding river crossings, emplaced on both sides of the crossing - examples are at Pershore (the Avon, Worcs), Bridgnorth (the Severn, Shrops) and Swarkestone (the Trent, Derbys). They also survive at the entry points to towns fortified and turned into anti-tank islands, such as Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth and Chester. Many such sites have been lost by the backfilling of their pits but where their existence is suspected, a metal detector would locate the stainless steel pin on the top of the pedestal.

Instructions issued following the setting up of Local Defence Volunteers in the summer of 1940 gave advice on the construction of trenches, the fortification of houses, and the making of loopholes in garden walls in preference to firing over walls. Many members of the Home Guard, who were not just old men or callow youths, had seen service in the 1914-18 war and would have been familiar with the digging of fieldworks and weaponcraft.

Loopholed walls can be found throughout the country - I know of examples in Shrewsbury, Cirencester, Fairfield near Bromsgrove (Worcs) and at St Anne's Head, Dale (Pembrokeshire). The key to whether a hole in a wall is likely to be a wartime feature or not lies in the situation of the wall: if the loophole gives a good view down a road likely to have been defended, then it may be a wartime survival. Post-war road changes should be taken into account - for example, what then was a major route may now be a backwater following road improvements.

The remains of Home Guard fieldworks such as trenches are less easily located, although these may remain in undisturbed ground. Local oral evidence and the records of individual companies and battalions, haphazardly deposited with local county regiments or county record offices following the standing down of the Home Guard in November 1944, could pinpoint the location of defence positions. The discovery in excavations of the ammunition peculiar to the Home Guard may also indicate local use as a training area. There was little commonality between the army and the Home Guard in weapon allocation, the main exception being the use of the standard No 36 Grenade and the Sten sub-machine gun. Otherwise, most of the Home Guard's small arms originated from shipments from the United States to Britain and, as a consequence, US .300 ammunition was used. The presence of rimless cartridges on a site (the British army used the .303 cartridge rimmed at its base) could point to Home Guard use. More exotic pointers might be practice clay grenades and rubber Molotov Cocktails, or the survival of a tin box filled with stones used by some units to simulate automatic gun fire.

The guarding of vulnerable points, for example beaches, rivers and railway tunnels led to the building of shelters of brick and concrete, or of corrugated steel or asbestos in the more remote parts of the country, and examples of these small shelters may survive. They differ from pillboxes in having no loopholes, however, and would probably be hard to distinguish from everyday non-military sheds without the benefit of local oral evidence.

The early wartime fear that Germany would land parachutists in different parts of the country led to the establishment of observation posts in prominent positions, for example the top of a hill, church tower or disused windmill. The top of Birmingham's Victorian town hall clock tower retains the remains of a Home Guard crow's nest - a structure built over the apex of the roof - which is still visible from street level.

The continued emphasis on training led GHQ Home Forces to claim in September 1943 that the Home Guard had been turned into an effective fighting force which, if properly led, could undertake all tasks allotted by operational commanders. With the gradual commitment of the British army to major overseas operations, the Home Guard was to be put in charge of the extensive anti-invasion defences which had been erected around Britain's towns and coasts during and after the invasion fears of 1940. This comprehensive system of obstacles would be defended by Guardsmen now armed with automatic weapons and anti-tank guns.

Following the successful D-Day landings, the risk of an invasion diminished, and in July 1944 Home Guard units were asked to assist in the collection of the steel girders and cables used as roadblocks at defended positions to ease a shortage of steel. Whilst the steel girders have now long since gone, their concrete sockets often remain, sealed by tarmac or, where a road has fortuitously escaped resurfacing, still visible on the surface. Examples survive in the grounds of Apley Park near Bridgnorth, near a crossing point of the Severn, and on a cobbled road in Ellesmere (Shrops).

The phenomenal but short-lived growth of this citizen's army placed great demands on its members, many of whom were already working long hours in reserved occupations or in factories or on farms. Its officers had to deal with the essential but time-consuming jobs of training, organising and motivating men whose little spare time was now to be devoted to Home Guard duties. Whilst the TV comedy series Dad's Army was often very close to reality in portraying the more ridiculous moments of Home Guard life, in reality it was a deadly serious business.

Bernard Lowry is the West Midlands Co-ordinator for the Defence of Britain Project

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