One Ring To Rule Them All: A Monumental Controversy In Wales

In the world of galactically stupid public art projects, we may have found a new frontrunner.

The government of Wales recently held a competition to design a monument and visitor enhancements on the site of the ruined castle of Flint, in the northern part of the country. The winning entry, called “Iron Ring”, features a giant, cantilevered metal bridge in the shape of a partially-buried circle. The design was submitted by an English architectural firm based in London, which in and of itself seems rather bizarre – there are no competent architects or gifted artists in Wales? – and which may, in part, explain why many people find this proposed structure deeply offensive: not so much on a design level, but on a cultural one.

I must admit, as much as I instinctively dislike “Iron Ring” to some degree, there is something rather cool about its design, or at least in how it will appear at night (see accompanying illustration below.) Given all of the inscriptions running around it, I can’t help but think of The One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novels. With its dramatic, ruined castle backdrop, I could see future LOTR-themed cosplay weddings taking place on or beneath it.

There’s a slight problem here, however, which brings us out of the world of nerd fiction into that of serious history. For you see, the “Iron Ring” is a term used to describe the group of castles built in Wales by an invading England, as part of the latter’s efforts to conquer and subjugate their neighbors during the Middle Ages. If you are a Welsh nationalist, or even just a proud Welshman, you can well understand why the reference to Sauron is perhaps an all-too-apt one in this set of circumstances.

England’s King Edward I subdued the pesky Welsh by systematically building a series of massive fortifications which allowed his armies to quash any resistance. At the same time this allowed English settlers to move in and take land for themselves, at the expense of the local population, who were forbidden to live in the towns that sprang up around these military installations. Flint Castle was among the first of the structures in the “Iron Ring” to go up as part of that process of colonization.

What’s even weirder than a modern-day Englishman building a monument to the crushing of the Welsh people, is paying for it using Welsh taxpayer money. As one Welsh professor commented, hundreds of thousands of pounds in public funds are “being spent on a sculpture that is essentially a monument to Wales’ conquest.” Interestingly as well, despite the somewhat clumsily organized phenomenon of Welsh devolution over the last 20 years, the Welsh government has failed to commission any substantial monuments to commemorate Welsh history…up until now.

Here in the U.S., we are ourselves are going through a period of reconsideration with respect to monuments that were constructed in the South long after the end of the Civil War, specifically those that honor rebel leaders. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, there are fine distinctions to be drawn in the discussion about what to do with monuments to individuals or causes that are now considered to be controversial or deeply offensive. Yet the difference between the U.S. and Welsh situations is sharply delineated by the fact that in this country we are talking about already-existing structures; in Wales the issue is about something which has not yet been built. It would be unfathomable, I suspect, to a majority of Americans living in the present-day to use taxpayer money to construct a brand-new memorial to Robert E. Lee, for example.

So far over 10,000 people have signed an online petition against the construction of what we might call “Iron Ring 2.0”, and there have been a raft of complaints about the proposed monument popping up in the international press from more outspoken Welsh historians, politicians, and opinion makers. It remains to be seen whether the National Assembly will pay more than lip service to any of these complaints. But whether from a lack of sensitivity, or out of utter stupidity, they have certainly put themselves into quite a pickle.

I’ve Got Opinions (Here Are A Few)

It’s a curious sensation when you realize that you have become permanently linked with certain topics in the minds of other people.

Not infrequently, I get pinged regarding stories making their way around the interwebz, by readers who automatically associate me with the subject matter of the reporting – Renaissance altarpieces, Catalan cuisine, the planet Krypton, etc. There’s an expectation that I’ll have an opinion worth sharing on the story, whatever it may be. It’s incredibly humbling that you want to know what that opinion is, gentle reader, when far better writers than I do not get nearly as much support: so thank you for your continued patronage.

Here comes a brief potpourri of links and opinions for you to have a think about today. As it happens, all of the following stories are courtesy of readers who asked me about these subjects, or tagged me in posts about them. So as you can see, I really am paying attention, most of the time.

– There’s no news yet on any results from the exhumation and paternity test conducted on the remains of the late Salvador Dalí, which took place last week. News reports indicate that when his coffin was opened, the artist’s legendary mustache was found to still be intact and in place, nearly two decades after his death. Tests are currently being carried out by forensic pathologists in Madrid. I’m withholding judgment until the scientists and courts reach a conclusion, but you can guess my opinion about this whole thing given what I wrote previously.

– A fire in Normandy destroyed 182 objects and an entire wing of the Tatihou Island Maritime Museum (“Musée maritime de l’île Tatihou”, pictured below) – including three paintings on loan from The Louvre. The blaze was most likely sparked by two lighting strikes during intense summer storms. Estimates put the value of the lost works at somewhere north of $1.3 million. However institutions like that of the Maritime Museum on Tatihou and their holdings carry far greater worth than their intrinsic value would suggest, since these objects tell the preserved history of their communities. If you have such collections in your area, please go support them – they need your assistance to survive and thrive for future generations.

– Meanwhile in the Las Vegas ‘burbs, a hideous structure called Holy Spirit Catholic Church will soon be open so that everyone can come in and play “Tabernacle Hide-and-Seek”, that favorite Spirit of Vatican II game. About the only thing that’s marginally interesting about this church are its tapestries, from the same artist who designed the tapestries for the Taj Mahoney, a.k.a. the monstrosity known as the Cathedral of Los Angeles. (I’ve not made up my mind about his work yet: are they good, or are they just kitsch?) On the whole, the interior looks like a day spa in space as imagined by Roger Vadim, where one could have a seaweed wrap while listening to some Zen Buddhist chant piped through the sound system. But who am I to judge.

[N.B. Interestingly, another new parish named for St. Anthony of Padua opened in suburban Las Vegas last year, and while I can’t say that I love it, exactly, at least it looks like a Catholic church, and one that takes reverence for both the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass seriously.]

Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.