Attending the RMMC workshop recently, I’ve encountered the stones at Govan for the first time, including Constantine’s shrine, the sun stone and the many other fabulous grave-covers now well-list and displayed around the walls of the church. 31 in total are on view in Govan Old Church.
This was also my first encounter with Govan’s five hogbacks of which I have heard and read so much. These monuments, and this monument type, figured prominently at the RMMC workshop, including new work on their context, date and significance by Stephen Driscoll, Jamie Barnes, Elizabeth Pierce and Victoria Whitworth.
As you will be aware dear blog-reader, I have presented on hogbacks a series of times over the last few years, and I have 4 articles on aspects of them in different stages of completion. The first of these is due out as a chapter in the book ‘Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography and Landscape’, published later this year with Boydell and Brewer. I have briefly summarise some aspects of that paper here.
I have a second paper coming out on hogbacks, most likely in an archaeological journal, looking at the material world in which hogbacks were situated. I presented on this at (among other venues) the Pilsen EAA are discussed here.
Also, for you who really like hogbacks, I have blogged about my recent visit to see the Brompton hogbacks here.
Given my interest, it was therefore incredibly useful to hear other scholars’ views on them. I’m glad I decided this time to present on a different topic which I will discuss elsewhere.
Among the many hogback dimensions to the RMMC papers, we were given at least two alternative terms to describe these hogbacks. The term ‘hogbacks’ is proving somewhat problematic on theoretical and methodological grounds given the variability and complexity of these recumbent carved stones.
First, Elizabeth Pierce, in a paper discussing the archaeological and topographical contexts of hogbacks, suggested we talk about ‘hogbacks and coped monuments’ – HCM for short – in order to provide a more all-embracing term for these monuments. I confess I do love a good acronym.
Immediately after Elizabeth’s talk, Victoria Whitworth presented a paper offering a new chronology and interpretation for hogbacks, focusing on the Govan monuments. She suggested another term for them: ‘body stones’. She argued this term avoids the limitations with the term ‘hogbacks’ and instead emphasises their function to cover human cadavers (i.e. they were grave-covers). Moreover, she suggests this term is appropriate because hogbacks’ many radial asymmetries imply the supine extended human form. So this term has its advantages too, I do admit they may have covered human bodies, and they never covered or represented hogs!
This is not the first time the ‘hogback’ term has come under criticism. For example, for the Winchester monument, Martin Biddle almost three decades ago expressed displeasure with the term and its connotations.
However, for me, they are still hogbacks and I think they will remain so for the public and for most academics. I don’t dispute that the term has numerous inherent problems with it. Still, what attracts me to ‘hogbacks’ is the antiquarian character of the morphological term and its popular familiarity. I also value the focus on the curved back (like a hog’s) and sometimes also the curved sides which a large fraction of these recumbent monuments do display, because this provokes allusions to a range of other broadly contemporary material cultures and architectures which share this comparable feature: I don’t think this is coincidental. Yet perhaps most importantly, albeit the wrong species because hogbacks have really sweet f.a. to do with hogs, the allusion to animals is powerfully animating. I think this resonates with dimensions of their early medieval significance. Beasts prove to be such an important part of many of the hogbacks with illustrative panels as well as those with ‘guarding’ end-beasts and monsters trailing along the ridges of these stones. Decoration aside, they size of hogbacks makes them animal-like; they are the size of big-boned beasts. Therefore, I would argue that hogbacks were and are ‘beasts’.
There is a final argument I would make for retaining the term ‘hogbacks’: their bestial qualities are endearing. The Govan stones illustrate my point; they are like large, ugly, chunky huggable pets. Ok, perhaps they are cold, monotone, unaffectionate and sullen pets that only an RMMC nerd could love. Still, at least after a few whiskies, they do provoke the near-irresistable desire to give each of them a big cuddle and ear-ruffle. I did resist I should add…
In many ways, they are the kind of pets everyone should have about the home and, thinking about it (which I am now only just starting to do), there are many advantages to keeping hogbacks over other common household pets. At least with hogbacks you don’t have to change their water, buy them canned food and take them for walks. They don’t yap, foul footpaths or scuttle off to breed with neighbouring hogbacks if not spayed (at least I hope not).
Having said all that, I suggest they could be quite dangerous and trip you up unexpectedly if you forget where you left your pet hogback around the house. Yes, this worries me now, especially after Dr Forsyth’s keynote lecture at the RMMC workshop, delivered within a short distance of the hogbacks in Govan Old Church. She discussed the many Irish heroes and heroines who seemed to have ended their days tied to, or cracking their head against, a big stone. Therefore, on reflection, I would caution any potential hogback owner to consult in detail the specialist publication ‘The Hogback Owners’ Guidebook’ by the late James Lang. At the very least pop into W. H. Smith and pick up a copy of ‘Hogbacks for Homes’ monthly magazine before embarking on the dedicated task of keeping a hogback as a pet.
Remember, hogbacks are for life, not just for Christmas…
So personally I think hogbacks are just too lovable for a name-change, even if their interpretation is now shifting from multiple perspectives. What they do really need though is love and attention. I think each of them should be given a nice warm blanket and a saucer of milk before their bedtime.