Dying Matters: Marking Burials

 

Curator of Archaeology Kat Baxter dishes the dirt on fascinating stone grave markers in the collection from burials in Leeds, going back thousands of years. 

The “Dying Matters” community exhibition at Leeds City Museum aims to encourage conversation about death and dying – a topic that people often shy away from. One of the themes of the exhibition is planning your funeral, and thinking about such practical questions as: would you like to be buried or cremated?  How would you like your grave to be marked?

Throughout time, burials have been marked in a variety of different ways, going back thousands of years.  There are several stone grave markers in the Leeds Museums and Galleries archaeology collection.  One reason they survive so well is because they are made to last, to commemorate the dead long into the future.

The oldest carved stones in the collection which may have marked burials are cup-and-ring marked stones from the Neolithic and early Bronze Age (2,300-1,500 BC).  Although their meaning has been disputed, what is known is that they can be associated with burial cairns and are most commonly found in Scotland and the north of England.

These stones may have had a meaning in the landscape, and a ritual significance which we no longer understand.

A large pointed stone, with a swirled indent in the top.
A stone with a single cup mark (circular indentation) surrounded by a ring, found somewhere in West Yorkshire. On display in Leeds City Museum © Leeds Museum and Galleries

A completely different type of monument is the Leeds Parish Church cross, or fragments of several crosses which would have marked the burial places of important people in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The fragments, dating to the 800’s, were found when Leeds Parish Church tower was demolished in 1838.

 

A small fragment square rock, the front has a pattern faintly etched on and you can just make out a pair of legs.
Fragment of a carved Anglo-Saxon cross showing the legs of a character called Weland, or Völund the smith. He is not a biblical figure, but a folk-hero who was popular in Viking culture. Several of these cross fragments are on display in Leeds City Museum © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Four carved grave markers, also dating to the Anglo-Saxon period, were discovered at Adel Church in Leeds during restoration work in 1866.  They had been broken up and used in the foundations of the church before the early 1100’s.  The stones are carved with geometric motifs on both sides, and it is unclear whether they are Christian or pagan in origin.

A long rectangular stone with a curved top. The top is indented with a circular pattern.
The only complete Anglo-Saxon grave marker (in two parts) out of the four discovered at Adel Church. Three are on display in Leeds City Museum © Leeds Museums and Galleries

The final example is a fragment from a Medieval headstone from Kirkstall Abbey with the inscription in Latin Hic iacet Rich (Richard’s burial place).  Although we do not know who Richard was, it is assumed he was a benefactor or patron.

The monks of Kirkstall Abbey did not have gravestones, or even coffins, when they were buried: they were interred in unmarked graves, in accordance with their beliefs that worldly possessions were not important.

Rectangular headstone with very faint etchings. The top right has faint red indents.
Medieval headstone fragment from Kirkstall Abbey. The red lettering of the inscription is still visible © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Throughout time graves have been marked in different ways.  We have no idea whether these grave markers in the museum were chosen by the deceased themselves, but today you have the opportunity to make decisions about your own funeral, and communicate them to loved ones.


By Katherine Baxter, Curator of Archaeology

For more information on the Dying Matters initiative and how we approach funerals today, click here

The ‘Dying Matters’ exhibition runs until 30th July in The Leeds Story gallery in Leeds City Museum. To find out more, click here

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