‘Subterranean’ is a two-day interdisciplinary conference, organised for the 17 and 18 of May, 2014 at the University of York. It is not an overstatement to suggest that much of the material culture associated with the medieval world (including artefacts, objects and spaces), are identified with the ground in some way. From the famed grave goods of the high-status burials such as Prittlewell and Sutton Hoo, the ship burials of Sutton Hoo and Oseberg, to Wilfrid’s much-studied subterranean spaces of the crypts built at Hexham and Ripon, to the recent metal-work finds in Staffordshire and Yorkshire, to the dramatic discovery of the Faddan More Psalter, as well as the multiplicity of objects uncovered by antiquarian and archaeological digs which form the mainstay of the corpus, the field of the medieval is suffused with objects which are irrevocably associated with the earth. The idea of such treasures being hidden from the view of the modern world, just beneath its surface is intriguing and these subterranean spaces (and the objects they hide, hold or reveal) exert a fascination for today’s viewer. In addition to these objects, medieval material culture is also rife with sites and spaces which connect the earth, the ground, to the heavens, such as churches which connect subterranean spaces with those of the heavens, or the monumental carved stone crosses of the Insular world, embedded within the earth, but pointing to an eschatology beyond it.
Held at King’s Manor, University of York
Organised by Dr Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner
Day One Saturday 17th May 2014.
Session One Death and Dragons
Melissa Herman, University of York: Performance of Death: The public and spectacular nature of burial in early Anglo-Saxon England
Death, and more specifically burial, has long been established as a point of significant meaning and ritual in both Christian and non-Christian society. Burial represents a transitional point of interaction between the living, the dead, and the afterlife. Early Anglo-Saxon graves, both cremation and inhumation, were usually furnished with grave goods and could be elaborately constructed burial chambers topped with mounds of earth, making the sites clearly visible from a distance. Given the emotive nature of death and the afterlife in Anglo-Saxon England it is unsurprising that the methods of burial could be elaborate and highly ritualistic. A large and ceremonial burial would have been an extremely visible act, acting as almost a performance for public consumption as a pyre, gravesite, or burial chamber was constructed and the body or ashes was interred along with practical and precious goods. In considering burial rituals a public act or spectacle, the choice of the quantity and quality of the grave goods takes on further significance, illustrating a culture that values visible displays of wealth as signs of status in life and, arguably, in death.The quantity of furnished graves for all levels of society, the varied and often significant types of items buried, and the persistence of the practice over centuries into the period of Christian conversion all suggest that, for the Anglo-Saxons, death and what came after was, not surprisingly, of considerable importance, and involved certain recognized rituals, speaking to complex understandings of the afterlife as well as a desire to make a public statement by those responsible for memorializing it.
Eric Lacey (UCL) on behalf of Lacey and Ruth Nugent: Bell, Rook and Candle: an interpretation of Butler’s Field inhumation 91
The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade (in use from the mid-fifth to the late seventh/early eighth century), produced three burials with identifiable bird remains. Two of these (cremation 207 and inhumation 177) contained the more commonly found domestic fowl, but one (inhumation 91) contained the remains of a medium-sized corvid (either a rook, Corvus frugilegus, or a species of crow, C. cornix/corone). The presence of this complete bird in the otherwise sparsely furnished grave would, by itself, make the burial quite remarkable, but inhumation 91 also contained a small hand-bell. Both of these are rare grave-goods in their own right, and only here do they occur together.
Previous interpretations of the grave vary, and have focused mostly on the presence of the unusual bird. Their major shortcoming, however, is that they do not combine analysis of the micro-context of the grave assemblage with the wider Anglo-Saxon context, and, in particular, with the cultural nuances inferable from the plentiful literary sources. This paper sets out to do just that, and moreover, to explore the declarative connection between the bird (by the upper part of the occupant’s left thigh), and the iron bell situated closely to it (by the occupant’s left knee). It is argued that the burial does not reflect a ‘deviant’ or social outlier, but rather the information-disseminating nature of the interred young man, and his syncretic beliefs.
Victoria Flood, University of York: The Burial of the Dragons: Cambro-Norman Engagements in Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys
My proposed paper considers the historical-political meanings of the talismanic burial of two warring dragons by the British king Lludd and his brother Llefelys, the king of France, in the late twelfth/early thirteenth-century Welsh tale Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. We read that the interment of the dragons guarantees freedom from foreign invasion as long as the site remains undisturbed. The tale is an apocryphal pre-history for the omen of the dragons, a theme found in Welsh prophetic texts from at least as early as the ninth century. The omen relates the unfortunate disclosure in the reign of the British King Vortigern of two buried dragons immediately prior to, and functioning in a pre-figurative and causal relationship to, the Adventus Saxonum.
Although engaged with Welsh historical-political culture, the tale is by no means untouched by other cultural influences. The earliest recorded version of the tale survives in the early thirteenth-century Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1140), the Brut y Brenhinedd, and the tale itself presents an important early Welsh reception history for the (significantly pro-Norman) reimagining of the omen in Geoffrey’s original Historia. An important document of Welsh revisionist history in the century following the establishment of Norman settlements in Wales, the Cyfranc is indicative of a split political subjectivity, which regarded the Normans on one hand as potential historical allies against the Saxons, and on the other a profound contemporary threat to Welsh territorial interests.
Session Two From Beneath
‘Streanaeshalch (Whitby), Osingadun and the Royal Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Street House, Loftus, North Yorkshire’
Tom Pickles, University of Chester
Between 2005 and 2007, Stephen Sherlock excavated an extraordinary cemetery at Street House, Loftus, comprising 109 graves and including a focal bed burial, several furnished burials with ‘high status’ grave goods, and further rows of burials respecting the boundaries of an Iron Age enclosure. He has pointed to the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Streanaeshalch (Whitby) as a possible context and has argued persuasively that this represents a late-seventh-century cemetery incorporating the burials of high-status Christians. The purpose of this paper is twofold. Firstly, to make the case for an even closer connection with Streanaeshalch by suggesting that the community’s estate of Osingadun was located at modern Easington, just a mile or so from the cemetery. Secondly, to consider the implications of this context for the cemetery and its unusual features.
Beth Kaneko, University of York: Water Systems and Local English Cartography: Three Plans of Subterranean Waterlines from Late Medieval England
Water is a topographical feature that has figured in medieval cartography in all its forms: world, regional and local maps. The ubiquity of watercourses and oceans on medieval maps demonstrates their ability to define and identify place. Furthermore, the formats of water on medieval maps, bothdiagrammatic and mimetic, rose from establishedeschatological, mythological and topographical views of the earth, often showing the causal relationship between watercourses and settlement. A settlement required water and if it was not immediately available it had to be provided from elsewhere. This paper will focus on a late development in medieval cartography which highlights the connection between water and settlement through the close examination ofthree medieval English plans of underground waterlines. These plans of subterranean pipesbecome conspicuous among the corpus of English medieval local maps by taking the viewer underground, to view the apparatus of the hydrological technology of the late Middle Ages. They depict the systems which served Christchurch, Canterbury (twelfth-century), Waltham Abbey (thirteenth-century), and the Charterhouse Monastery (fifteenth-century). Lacking directaccess to adequate surface or well water it was insteaddelivered to these foundations by pipes below the ground, largely unseen and therefore easily lost to those on the surface who depended on them. These oddities within the English local map collection depict hidden assets that brought both water and pride to their communities from below ground, and by documenting the details of the waterlines they were raised from subterranean obscurity to the light provided by the knowledge of their form, allowing them to be maintained and utilized by future generations.
Aideen Ireland, National Archives of Ireland: Fanciful suggestions more suited to the poem of a Celtic bard than the prose of an English Law report
In January 1896 a hoard of remarkable gold objects was discovered while ploughing at Broighter near Limavady, Co. Derry. The hoard consisted of : a hollow collar in two sections with elaborate repoussé ornament of eccentric curves : a model of a boat with eight thwarts (originally nine) and a number of oars, spars etc. : a hemispherical bowl of thin metal with four rings at the edges for suspension : a solid gold torc of stout wire with a thinner wire twisted round it : one half of a similar torc : a necklace formed of three plaited chains with peculiar fastening : and a thin single chain necklace of the same plaiting.The hoard was acquired soon afterwards by a well known Cork collector of antiquities, was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries of London in the following year and was subsequently purchased by the British Museum.Following the establishment of a Committee of Enquiry (1898), a public hearing (1899) and a law case (1903) the objects were deemed to be Treasure Trove, belonging to His Majesty by virtue of the Prerogative Royal to whom the objects were to be delivered. The objects were returned to Ireland in July 1903.Questions remained. Were the objects truly Treasure Trove, were they a hoard, had they been found at Broighter, what date were they, were they of native or imported manufacture?This presentation will attempt to answer all these questions and place this remarkable find in its true context.
Session Three Going Up
Nick Baker, Independent Scholar: Climbing a Stairway to Heaven: Early Insular Images and the Contemplative’s Journey to the Divine
Representations of the evangelists, together with other participants in the heavenly drama, can be found on objects connected with the departed. They appear on items intimately associated with the dead, such as sarcophagi, and on public monuments, like cross-shafts, which not only reference Christ’s death but also alert the viewer to the resurrected life. This paper aims to show how these images (c.700 – c.900 AD) could have been employed by the literate religious in their contemplative journeys from the earthly to the divine. However, the images also reminded the viewers that spiritual perfection was not possible in this world; it was only possible once they had joined those now encased in stone.
Dale Kedwards, University of York: Terrestrial Representation on Medieval Maps
This paper focuses on two world maps preserved in a learned miscellany written in Iceland c.1250 (Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, GkS. 1812 III, 4to). One is a double-page world map with over 100 geographic inscriptions in Latin and Old Norse (ff. 5v-6r); the other is a smaller schematic map, amid a diagram that shows the cardinal points and their associated features in the natural world (f. 6v).
Editions of these maps’ inscriptions routinely distinguish between the maps’ geographical contents, the place-names and toponyms arranged inside the maps’ outlines, and the more abstract qualities that are disposed around the maps’ perimeters: the cardinal points, the names of the winds, the four ages of man, and the four seasons. Underlying this editorial approach is the assumption that the qualities that comprise the maps’ frames lie outside the maps’ schemes of terrestrial representation. As a consequence, these valuable inscriptions are routinely overlooked in studies of the medieval conception of the physical world.
In this paper, I argue that it is a mistake to separate these maps’ framing inscriptions from their schemes of geographical representation. Although these qualities, sometimes referred to in modern scholarship as the physical and physiological fours, fall outside the maps’ outlines, all of them are features of the sublunary world, whose nature is characterised in medieval cosmographical treatises as impermanent and subject to incessant change. I will demonstrate that the maps’ geographic contents are built irremovably into these frames. The fours disposed around the map’s perimeter do not comprise a structure imposed from above, but one that is fundamental and intrinsic to what these maps show.
Lucy Donkin, University of Bristol: His feet on my head’: spatial relationships between the living and the dead
The surface of the ground mediates between different spheres. Most obviously it both separates and joins the realms of the living and the dead. However, it also can also be seen to connect temporal categories in a more fluid manner. Thus the space above ground represents the past for the dead and the present for the living; that below ground is the present abode of the dead, but speaks to the living of both the past and the future. Drawing on examples from medieval Italy, France and England, this paper explores the relationship between those interred below ground and those standing above them, with particular reference to the role of the floor surface and the vertical layering of bodies within church buildings. The first part discusses the presence of saintly remains beneath the floor, whether in a subterranean crypt or lying immediately below the pavement. It asks how pavement decoration indicated this presence to the viewer and explores the implications of walking over the spot. The second part of the paper examines in more detail the phenomenon of people choosing to be buried beneath the location of a particular activity, whether or not this was marked on the ground. This choice not only had the potential for the dead to be remembered by those who walked over their graves, but could also articulate complex identities. Notably, such a location might both record and perpetuate their own actions
during life, and could express a degree of likeness to those with whom they shared the space through ties of office or kinship, with implications for the living as well.
Sunday 18th May Day Two.
Session Four “For whom the Bell Tolls”
Paddy Gleeson, University College Cork: The Archaeology of an Underground Territory: Power, Place and Otherworld Ideology in early medieval Ireland.
Understandings of landscape in early medieval Ireland were fundamentally structured by a belief in the status of the land itself as the nexus of the worlds of humans and gods, and past and future. Monuments, although man-made, were conceived to be part of the fabric of the land, whose alteration and construction was therefore demiurgic. This paper explores how subterranean spaces, the underground territory of the imagined landscape, were implicated in the exercise of power, and the construction of authority, both in terms of making sacral kingship, fictive or imagined communities, and claiming territories and their associated histories. By looking at the rituals associated with the making, re-making and use of subterranean spaces, as well as the conceptual landscapes and mythical geographies associated with them, it will explore how the Otherworld ideology of early Irish belief, was materialised as the ‘underworld’ of the landscapes through which the discourses of early medieval society played out.
Margret Tedford, Queens University Belfast: Of Barrows, Graves, and Earthcaves: Subterranean Environments in Old English Literature
This paper will explore some of the depictions of subterranean environments in Old English literature as part of the wider context of landscape setting. In particular, I shall reevaluate some well known examples from ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘Guthlac A’, arguing that the importance of these features of landscape have often been overlooked. They are prime examples of the blending of the physical and symbolic that, I would argue, form the basis of the relationship between landscape features and wider literary narratives and themes that may be seen throughout much Old English literature. I shall also consider these examples in the context of visual and material culture, in an attempt to explore how wider cultural conceptions of the space “beneath the earth” are utilised and referenced within the literature.
Heidi Stoner, University of York: Proudly from the Earth the Mighty Arose: the Significance of the ‘Subterranean’ in Early Medieval Kingship
The kings of the early medieval insular world are suffused into the landscape through the burial, the foundations of royal centres and the forming of kingdoms through battlefields. In each of these processes the king, himself, remains invisible and unfigured. Yet, the signifiers of this early medieval kingship can be seen in the incredible wealth and ornament surviving in burials from the period. These signifiers of kingship come to the surface, from these subterranean spaces give light to the so- called ‘dark age’ and to a group of diverse men. This paper will examine how the relationship of the king and the land manifests itself in the early medieval insular world. Textual sources emphasise Christianity as changing and transforming Britain, from war-lords to Christian kings, with it a new associations are formed in burial and subterranean spaces. In looking closely at both texts and images, perhaps it is possible to imagine how the manipulation of imagery may have been used to redefine kingship in Anglo-Saxon England.
Session Five Surfacing
Austin Mason, University of Minnesota: Gone, but not Forgotten: Housing the Anglo-Saxon Dead Above-and Belowground
We usually assume that the dead “rest in peace” after their graves are filled with earth. In the western Christian tradition burial is the culminating act of a funeral rite, after which the mortal remains of the dead are confined to the subterranean realm to await the end of time. But a grave’s story does not always end there. Secondary burial rites — post-mortem engagements with the dead — have been documented in many cultures and many times. Early medieval grave robbers sometimes disturbed the dead hoping to recover hidden treasures buried as grave goods, but there is increasing evidence that Anglo-Saxon engagements with buried bodies went beyond base economic motives. Graves could be visited, bodies could be manipulated, and body parts could be excavated and taken back above ground. This paper will focus on one aspect of Anglo-Saxon secondary burial practices manifest in both pagan and Christian contexts: house-shaped structures. Substantial house-like buildings marked pagan-period cremations and inhumations, house-shaped coffins held the bodies of Christian Saints, and gable-ended reliquaries housed their exhumed and translated relics. All of these practices suggest that the living considered the dead gone, but not forgotten; they could still be visited at their houses, which connected the world belowground with earthly and heavenly realms above.
Neil Christie, University of Leicester: ‘Down in the Catacombs: Questioning the Early Medieval Pilgrim Experience
The catacombs of Rome are a much frequented tourist hit: the fascination lies in stepping down to the deep, narrow corridors carved into the natural volcanic bedrock and trailing through the complex honeycomb of channels, brushing past and peering into emptied burial shelves, seeing the fragmented covers, and admiring the larger chambers for wealthier early Christians and remnant, but much degraded painted artwork. Modern tourists are shepherded and rushed through set routeways, down corridors with electric light, cordons to prevent wandering off course, and cursorily talked to by guides with set scripts leading specific language groups. Some of us academic tourists feel frustrated by this. Surely the many, foreign pilgrims of the 5th-9th centuries AD were better treated? Surely they could ‘take in’ so much more? Surely much more was visible, tangible and accessible in terms of the buried past Christian citizens? How, therefore, can we build up an accurate or clearer image of the pilgrim experience in their visits to Rome’s catacombs? What can archaeology, art and text tell us of this experience and how it might have evolved? Will understanding what pilgrims did and saw perhaps help in imagining better the Christian ‘feel’ of post-classical Rome?
Guy Halsall, University of York: Local Aristocrats, Time and the Landscape: Association or Overwriting?
Over the past two decades, the majority of writing about the use of past monuments in early medieval funerary practice, whether talking about Britain or Gaul but especially the former, has discussed this phenomenon in terms of a desire by post-imperial élites to associate themselves with the past. Robin Fleming’s recent Britain After Rome is just one example. The discussion has frequently included appeal to notions of ‘ancestors’. The picture therefore is one of new élites (the imagery is not unconnected with concepts about ‘Germanic’ immigration) legitimating a local position by claiming a link with ‘ancestors’, especially by being buried in ‘ancient monuments’. The concern is with a subterranean past.
This paper will critique this view. It will draw attention to the lack of any empirical basis for such an obsession with ‘ancestors’. It will point out the surprising empirical (and often logical) weaknesses of numerous hypotheses. By taking a broader look at social change around 600, and at a wider array of evidence from across Late Antiquity, it will be argued that, rather than being about the past, aristocratic concern with marking a place in the landscape was rather with the future. When burying their dead in landscape features (man-made or otherwise), I suggest that – if the early medieval people thought these features were man-made – they were over-writing the past, imposing themselves on the landscape. Obviously an awareness of the past (a backwards look) features here, but I suggest that these early medieval élites were making a statement so that these permanently-visible monuments would henceforth be associated with them. This ‘forward-looking’ reading makes – I contend – far more sense in the context (and evidence, written , architectural and archaeological) of Europe around the 6th and 7th centuries than the alternative, entirely backward-looking interpretation.
Session Six Descent
Jane Hawkes, University of York: Planting the Cross: The Subterranean Roots of the Anglo-Saxon Stone Cross
The carved Anglo-Saxon high stone cross perhaps presents an unexpected topic for consideration at a conference devoted to the theme of sub terra, rising as they did in the form of highly decorated and polychromed sculptures, inset with glittering metal and paste glass, highly visible to all those walking on the earth. Most of these monuments, however, are only known to us through sub-terranean excavation, having been deliberately buried at the point of their destruction (as was the case with the Ruthwell cross; and the shrine from Lichfield, Staffordshire), or subsequently used in the foundations of later churches, acting as the stones on which the churches could be built (like those from Bakewell in Derbyshire). Nevertheless, in order to stand as monuments dominating the landscape in their original form, the high crosses had, of necessity, to be ‘buried’ in the earth. With few exceptions (as at the Ionan foundation of Lindisfarne, for instance) the Anglo-Saxon crosses were not set in elaborate bases that stood above ground as they were in Ireland, but were ‘planted’ straight into rough-cut bases buried in the ground, as at Bewcastle in Cumbria; they thus appeared to emerge from the earth. This was a setting that allowed the plants growing up their sides to appear as if emerging from the ground, providing fruit and sustenance to the creatures feeding in their branches. It would seem, from the way in which this decorative motif is organised on so many of the crosses, that their sub-terranean roots were recognised and exploited.
Mike Bintley, Canterbury Christ Church University: Evil in Old English Poetry – ‘What is its root, and what its seed?’
‘Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed?’ Augustine asks in Confessions (vii). Evil, as well as good, has its seeds, roots, stem, and branches in Old English literature, and interest in its origins and development was regarded with some interest. As I have previously argued, the fruit of the ‘Tree of Death’ in the Old English Genesis lays seeds in Eve’s heart which are subsequently passed on to her children, with their potential for evil being watered by the murder of Cain, from which point the tendrils of evil become inextricably intertwined with those of humankind. As I have also previously argued elsewhere, this may shed some interesting light on the frosty trees overhanging Grendel’s mere in Beowulf, which is unusually described as being firm in its roots. These roots presumably reach down to the mere itself, which runs thick with currents of dead men’s blood, and at whose heart lurk Cain’s own descendants. These trees may function as a poignant reminder, therefore, of the continuing grasp of original sin upon the human family tree.
Meg Boulton, University of York: Constructing the Pit: Hell in the Anglo-Saxon World
When considering the idea of the ‘subterranean’ in the medieval world, perhaps one of the most visceral ‘things’ beneath the earth is Hell, the infernal realm that formed one of the two polar empires which eschatologically flanked the earth in Christian cosmology. This paper explores the conceptualisation of Hell in the Anglo-Saxon Church, considering the influence of this potent site on the human imagination. No place was more terrible in the Christian frame of reference, no space more dreaded. This nightmarish kingdom will be considered through its depiction in literary and visual evidence, exploring how it was encountered and conceptualised, given its ultimate identity as an eschatological site to be avoided at all costs. Hell, as a localised and conceptual space exerts a powerful force on the imagination, albeit one rife with contradictions. A highly specific, intricately detailed, architecturally articulated place/space, often entered by a bestial hell mouth and peopled by various monstrosities, as illustrated in extant visual material from the time (in the face of the barren, bleak depictions of the same space in the texts), it has forcefully held and demanded a complex cognitive response to its space and nature since it emerged as a coherent eschatological site in the Christian imagination. It is these ideas that will be discussed in the course of this paper.
Keynote Address by Professor Howard Williams from the University of Chester, entitled An Archaeology of Weland the Smith.