Llangollen’s broken and weather-beaten Pillar of Eliseg may not look like much on a grey and rainy day, but to those who know a thing or two about archaeology, this is a monument of myth and mystery.
Perched awkwardly, sunken into a mound on the lower slopes of the Horseshoe Pass, this centuries-old broken cross is often ignored by tourists in favour of the neighbouring Vale Crucis Abbey, and stands as a puzzling example of neglected ‘side of the road’ history.
It is believed to have been erected by Cyngen, the last native ruler of Powys, to commemorate the victory of his ancestor Eliseg over the English, and trace his ancestry back to the days of the Roman empire.
These scant facts are the sum total of what is known about Eliseg, an elusive Welsh ruler of the 8th century, who in fact may not have even gone by that name: a spelling mistake by the stonemason shows us just how little we know about ‘Eliseg’, ‘Elise’ or perhaps ‘Elisedd’.
On a drizzly day like this it is easy to see how the worn Latin inscriptions and cracked masonry turn the pillar, and the mound on which it stands, into a crumbling legacy of dark times.
A 2009 survey conducted by Susan Evans, a member of a collaboration of Chester and Bangor archaeology students called Project Eliseg, showed
just how little people knew about it.
She said: “I talked to some locals who drove to work past it every day, and didn’t even know it was there. That fact makes it less approachable than, say Valle Crucis or Dinas Brân. People seemed to regard it as something enigmatic and mysterious, frightening almost.”
However, ‘Project Eliseg’ aims to shed some light on this little understood monument by excavating the burial mound on which it stands. The two-week dig, which is halfway through, has made some interesting initial finds.
Nancy Edwards, professor of medieval archaeology, said: “So far we’ve found half-made spindle-whirls and some early flint pieces, but the real aim is to get some solid facts about this mound so we can put it into its archaeological context. We know next to nothing about it – it could be anything from a prehistoric barrow to a medieval mound.”
The real mystery about the Pillar of Eliseg is the relationship between the pillar and the mound. The pillar, originally a 9th century cross said to have been cast down by roundheads during the civil war, is believed to have been placed on the mound to add importance and prestige.
Howard Williams, of Chester University, said: “The whole thing is all about conflict and dominance. This is Cyngen trying to stake a claim to his right to rule by pointing out his fantastic ancestor – he’s shutting down alternative history by planting this great big pillar into the ground. It’s basically propaganda.”
Although it has been suggested this monument is meant to discourage fellow Welsh rivals of Gwynedd or Powys, Nancy Edwards detects an “in your face anti-English undertone”, as it describes Eliseg expelling the Anglo-Saxons of Mercia from his kingdom.
Howard Williams added: “Mercia was the most powerful British kingdom in the 8th century, so making these claims about defeating them seem very grandiose and over the top.”
Project Eliseg aims to pin down some solid facts about the pillar at last. As a part of the British Archaeological Festival, an open day will be hosted on July 31.
Visitors will be able to watch re-enactments at Vale Crucis Abbey, and children will be given the chance to excavate a mock archaeological trench near the pillar. There will also be an opportunity to see the finds that Project Eliseg has uncovered.
Remembering that the body of a bronze age man was unearthed the last time the site was dug up, the coming few days could be very exciting!
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