One of my favourite monuments from early medieval Wales is the Carew Cross (P9), outside Carew Castle, Pembrokshire. Nancy Edwards provides an invaluable review of it in the Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture of Wales Volume 1 (p. 303-10).
In the context of this blog I am going to focus on this monument to coincide with the recent publication of my new edited book: Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape co-edited with Meggen Gondek and Joanne Kirton. This book is an original collection of studies exploring a triad of approaches to Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia’s stone monuments of the mid/late first millennium AD.
The Carew cross is relevant to this new book’s theme, although space restrictions meant that a discussion of it in the book could not take place. What is particularly relevant for me is that the monuments location might be original (or very close to its original one), and we can talk with some confidence about its original and enduring significance: its landscape context and its biography. Only a handful of early medieval stone monuments from Wales can be similarly considered as in situ, other examples I have discussed include the 9th-century Pillar of Eliseg, the 10th/11th-century Maen Achwyfan and the 10th/11th-century cross at Nevern.
I would argue that the cross at Carew only becomes comprehensible when we consider not only its ornamentation’s symbolism, but its materiality too. As a technology of enchantment that drew its significance from a range of other media, including metalwork, manuscripts, and perhaps also wooden monuments. This is a topic I am working up for publication and so I won’t go into detail here. However, I would like to briefly describe the monument following Edwards’s corpus volume and make some brief observations about it.
Standing at 4.2m in height, this is a very narrow composite cross made up of a cross-head and neck and a shaft and butt. The ring-headed cross sits on an expanding neck, which in term sits on two butts, the lower one only just visible about the modern ground surface.
The eastern broad face (A) [note, Edwards 2007 mistakenly calls this the west face] is decorated with a series of panels of fret and interlace, while the western broad face (C) [note, Edwards 2007 mistakenly calls this the east face] has ornamentation comprising interlace, plait and fret. Towards the base is a narrow rectangular panel divided in two vertically with a three-line roman-letter inscription in the left panel reading
transliterated as: Margit/ eut Re /ctt [fx]
Interestingly, the very narrow faces (B) and (D) are decorated with similar plaitwork.
Edwards dates the Carew cross to the late 10th or early 11th centuries AD and she discusses parallels with crosses at Penally, Coychurch and Nevern, as well as further afield parallels in Cornwall, England and elsewhere around the Irish Sea. For me, it is fascinating for being a busy complex monument comprised of abstract ornamentation, but also because it has some intriguing blank spaces.
The cross was moved only slightly in the 1920s during its conservation and therefore its location might be near its original one. Carew Castle is immediately to its west; the site of an early medieval promontory fort of the 5th-7th centuries. The location is also comprehensible not only in regards the approach to a possible early medieval elite centre on the promontory, but also in terms of maritime traffic and land traffic crossing the Carew river at this point. The relationship with the modern road is enshrined in the lorry behind the cross in my photographs; although this was frustrating given my desire to acquire on my visit of last year some nice clean shots of the monument!
The book-script text has received multiple readings, but Edwards thinks Nash-Williams’s efforts are most convincing, suggesting it reads: ‘Mariteut Recett f(in)x(it)’ meaning ‘Maredudd the Generous made this cross’.
I will only make some brief comments about its biography. It must be noted that this cross is almost wholly abstract in its design, meaning that while it has a dedication, perhaps to the king who commissioned it, it readily becomes anonymous as a ‘cross’ and thus a malleable monument presence. For this reason, it is explicable as an enduring locus, respected down the generations as a wayside cross and perhaps also one marking approaches to one or more elite centre, or a royal estate. A second point about biography would be that a case could be made from the empty panel that it was an incomplete monument; never augmented as perhaps it was intended by an additional text. As such, it oddly introduces a sidedness and absence to the text that requires further consideration.
In terms of materiality, I would focus on a couple of observations. Firstly, while many early medieval stone crosses have broad and narrow faces, like Maen Achwyfan, this monument is so narrow that it prompts a particular orientation and approach on an east-west axis. Therefore, the materiality prompts a particular form of embodied engagement linked to its location. If its location and orientation are original and has significance in relation to occupation beneath what was to become Carew Castle, then the text was to be read when leaving the castle, and facing the castle location.
Second, as with Nevern, the form and ornament strongly allude to broadly contemporary metalwork and manuscript art. This ‘skeuomorphism’ can be read as passive, and simply evidence of a shared world of designs transposed from one media to another. Yet, as others have argued before me, it can be conceptualised as a more active and key dimension to stone monuments, whose original painting might have rendered them a closer parallel to sacred and secular metalwork and books; they can perhaps be perceived as a form of gigantism: installing over-sized versions of the portable elite and holy items circulating in contemporary society, but here installed in the landscape.
Its location has been reworked slightly to render it safe, but the monument still rests dangerously close to the modern road. This makes apprehending east-facing side C difficult unless one walks out and across the road. Therefore, retaining its original location makes it a challenge for the modern visitor to engage safely and securely with all sides of the monument.
The two signs are interesting too, since the text’s interpretation sketched here, suggested by Radford in the 1940s, is doubted by Edwards and so perhaps requires updating.