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PASTPLACE Report Summary

Project ID: 284085
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - PASTPLACE (The Past in its Place: Histories of Memory in England and Wales)

The Past in its Place project focused on how the past has been understood and remembered in a range of English and Welsh locales over the last millennium. The research focused on three types of locale:

1) Tombs and memorials in English and Welsh cathedrals, with case studies including Canterbury, Chester, Exeter, Norwich, St Albans, and St Davids cathedrals;
2) Sites of ancient habitation, with case studies including Roman settlements such as Caerleon and Richborough, Iron Age hill forts such as Yeavering Bell and Castle an Dinas, and prehistoric chamber tombs such as Wayland’s Smithy;
3) Wider landscapes in which multiple sites of memory are interconnected, such as the landscapes around Runnymede and Cooper’s Hill, Mousehold Heath, the Vale of Llangollen, and the Jurassic Coast.

The approach to the history of memory in these locations was intensively interdisciplinary, with key members of the project team representing the disciplines of English Studies, Archaeology, History, Geography, and Celtic Studies. Our aim was to challenge and expand existing scholarship on place-centred cultural memory, which has tended to focus on specific eras if not exclusively on the modern era, and has underestimated the continuity of memory practices across historical periods.

One outcome of the project has been striking evidence of continuity in memory practices in relation to specific locales, alongside radical shifts in the content and meaning of cultural meaning. In other words, while our understanding of the past and its significance has altered radically since the Middle Ages, we continue to locate it in many of the same places and access it in many of the same ways. The shrines and remains of saints in British cathedrals (such as Alban at St Albans and Cuthbert at Durham) provide an illustrative example. The Reformation of the sixteenth century saw a shift from the veneration to denigration of saints, and the destruction of most shrines; yet the location of the shrines within cathedrals continued to serve as the focus of commemorative activity, as they have in more recent eras when the mode of commemoration involved has been primarily antiquarian and archaeological. The remains of Saint Cuthbert have been exhumed and examined at roughly one-hundred year intervals since the eleventh century. The PASTPLACE project has tracked and analysed both the shifting cultural meanings of the act of exhumation, and the fundamental continuity of practice.

The project identified compelling evidence of the long-term prevalence of informal and sometimes counter-cultural modes of commemoration, in forms including graffiti, the leaving of written notes and mementos, and the maintenance of customary practices in the face of legal and social change. Within the space of cathedrals, we have found that graffiti on or next to official memorials often represents an ongoing dialogue across a period of centuries, with later “authors” both responding to and altering marks made centuries before. The alabaster effigy of Bishop Stafford in Exeter Cathedral, for instance, has become a dense mat of interacting graffiti, ranging from the early seventeenth century to the twenty-first. In the wider landscape as well, memorials and their locales emerge as foci of private and unsanctioned memory; an example is the ancient tree known as Ankerwycke Yew, which has become a repository of private and dissident memory in contrast to the public commemoration of Magna Carta associated with nearby Runnymede.

An unanticipated opportunity for research and public engagement arose through the discovery (in 2012) and subsequent reburial (in 2014) in Leicester Cathedral of the remains of King Richard III. This provided an occasion to engage the public in our inquiry into the role of cathedrals as sites of memory, and to highlight both contrasts and similarities between medieval and modern approaches to the interment of the royal dead. PI Philip Schwyzer gave a number of public talks on the reburial of Richard III, including at the British Academy (, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Gloucester Richard III Festival.

The PASTPLACE project is in the course of disseminating its findings to the academic community and the public through a variety of outputs. In terms of public engagement, these have included:

1) A public symposium at Exeter Cathedral in November 2013, on the theme of “Speaking with the Dead”; this received extensive media coverage, including a segment on BBC Spotlight (
2) A series of well-attended public exhibitions at the Cathedrals of Exeter, St Albans and Chester in August-October 2014. The exhibitions mingled informational displays created by the project with objects, books and manuscripts belonging to each cathedral, and were mounted in locations highlighting the theme of localized memory (the north choir aisle of Exeter Cathedral, the St Albans Cathedral Library, and the south transept of Chester Cathedral).
3) An initiative to digitally scan and reproduce through 3D printing a set of unique and fragile late medieval wax votive figurines associated with the tomb of Bishop Lacy at Exeter Cathedral. The figurines, available for educational and potential commercial use, will be introduced to the public in linked exhibitions at Exeter University and Exeter Cathedral in October 2018.
4) The project website, The website has featured a blog written by various members of the project team, as well as announcements, links and information about the project. The extensive project database of cathedral tombs and memorials will be made publicly available on the website in Autumn 2018.

Full research results from the project will appear in a series of three co-authored volumes, focusing respectively on cathedral memorials, ancient habitations, and landscapes of memory. These volumes are expected to appear over the period 2019-21. Initial research results have already appeared in a range of academic journals and essay collections targeted at various disciplinary readerships.
The PASTPLACE project has given rise to a number of funded follow-up projects now in progress, including the HERA-funded “Deploying the Dead” project ( and the AHRC-funded “Inventor of Britain” project, both led by Schwyzer as Principal Investigator and involving multiple members of the PASTPLACE research team.

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