My friend Howard Williams (prof of archaeology at Chester University, tweets as @howardmrw, blogs as Archaeodeath: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/) has been tweeting some rather alarming photos of the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis near Llangollen (see https://twitter.com/howardmrw/status/1034021772197289986).
Valle Crucis, now in the care of Wales’s heritage organisation Cadw, is not our most spectacular Cistercian ruin but it is probably the best-preserved. Tucked away in a remote valley, and in an area with plenty of good building stone, it escaped the depredations both of border fighting and of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It also has one of the best collections of medieval tomb carvings in Wales. Most of these are in the monks’ dormitory, which has been restored but is pretty much intact. On his last visit, Howard found the whole area filthy with bird droppings and a dead bird in the corner (photos on his Twitter feed). He was subsequently told by Cadw that the area was supposed to be closed for ‘deep cleaning’. This made us sadly uneasy: we should be confident that Cadw would not be muscling around with scrubbing brushes and scouring powder, but sometimes we worry.
Now, Howard and I both have this strange fascination with tomb carvings. Not so much the hulking great effigy tombs of the medieval elite, but the humbler cross slabs and incised stones of people who were important in their own district. Priests, traders, minor gentry. And yes, a lot of these stones commemorate women. Welsh stones are more likely to have inscriptions than the English ones, so it is a little easier to track down who they commemorate and start to build a picture of the local community.
We don’t expect everyone to share this bizarre passion: but we do expect Cadw to look after the sites and artefacts in its care. The problem is that it doesn’t always seem to be happening. Tomb carvings at Tintern are also being damaged: both Howard and I have blogged about this (https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/a-tintern-abbot/, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/24/archaeodeath-at-tintern-abbey/, https://churchmonumentssociety.org/2018/07/15/tintern-and-the-heritage-of-death). At Margam, not a Cadw site but under its supervision, some particularly interesting tomb carvings have been earthed over to protect them. This isn’t ideal either, as if their locations are not properly recorded there is a danger that they could be damaged by heavy machinery going over them.
So what is to be done? Cadw is short of funds these days, as are all heritage organisations. But it seems there is still money for things like animated carvings of dragons and that disastrous Iron Ring sculpture. Another recent Twitter debate looked at yet another scheme to construct a replica Roman fort. Should we be celebrating our defeats, or should we be concentrating on the things we achieved?
Part at least of the problem is the current funding framework. Money goes not for long-term maintenance, still less for research, but for superficially exciting projects. There’s a lot of talk about engagement and ownership, and a suspicion that the money goes to those who can write good funding bids. Don’t think of a worthwhile project then cast around for funding; look at the funding streams and see what will push their buttons. Give start-up funding to worthwhile projects then pull the funding when they get going. Spend money and effort ‘engaging’ with those who really don’t want to be engaged, because working with those who are already interested is elitist.
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