Early medieval art is mad.
Despite all we think we know, and all scholars write about it, we still know less about it than we know about settlements, burial practice or indeed anything else in the early medieval material world.
From an archaeologist’s perspective, I don’t think we can ever access all the stories and situations in which stones were carved, used and reused. Still, I’m still smarting at the near absence of discussion about it in major syntheses and studies of the period like the Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. This is particularly frustrating since archaeological theories, methods and contextual analyses can bring much to the interdisciplinary investigation of early medieval carved stone monuments, whether we are talking about Anglo-Saxon England or elsewhere in north-west Europe. Looking at their contextual and landscape associations, their form and ornament, their materials and their biographies can tell us much.
I get elated when I see great conference papers about early medieval stones, let alone conferences featuring it. Better than both of these are publications on it. For example, I’ve just been re-reading a paper from 2011 on ‘Travel as communication’ in Anglo-Saxon England by Alex Langlands and Andrew Reynolds, where they effectively discuss place-name evidence and the surviving cross-shaft at Copplestone, Devon, to explore crosses as waymarkers on overland routes in the early medieval landscape. I’ve also just read a 2015 chapter by Paul Everson and David Stocker on ‘Eratics and Enterprise’, focusing on the early medieval recumbent stones from Norwich which, in a different way, integrates archaeological context with the interpretation of sculpted stones for constructing identities in the Viking Age.
In a series of previous posts, I’ve outlined my ongoing writing about early medieval stone monuments, including those know as ‘hogbacks‘ and I have suggested we could instead call FKAHs (formerly known as hogbacks) although I also noted other scholars’ more sensible preferred terms.
My first publication about these tenth-/eleventh-century recumbent stones explored previous research and the possibly served as grave-covers/markers, perhaps often in combination with uprights. I then discussion the power of their skeuomorphic allusions in creating citations to other structures and artefacts and how this sets up varied allusions to permeable architectures and surfaces of textile, leather and wood, sometimes guarded by beasts.
In doing so, these solid stone monuments implied spaces within them to early medieval audiences. I refer to these as ‘solid spaces’; the impression afforded of there being inaccessible spaces in which the spirits of the dead might reside.
I suggest these skeuomorphic allusions were connected to concerns over the spiritual and physical protection and corporeality of the dead in early medieval Britain. They therefore provided a powerful Christian elite medium of commemoration. The dead, individually or collectively, are within/below their tombs, inviolate but communicable, implied and present but sealed and secluded.
This chapter is available within my new co-edited book Early Medieval Stone Monuments.
Another piece on FKAHs
Now I’m working on the West Kirby 4 monument, often referred to as a ‘hogback’ as discussed here. Museums Liverpool kindly provided me access to their cloud data from their laser scanning of West Kirby 4. They had scanned the monument to create a digital print of it for display in the Museum of Liverpool. I don’t think anyone else has used it for research as yet but I am very grateful to have their permission to use the cloud data.
With the help of my colleague Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores, this week we have manipulated the cloud data to illustrate new observations of the monument that I intend to take forward into publication. These images are invaluable for analysing how the stone looks from without. The laser scan has certainly helped in that serious and scholarly regard. From first-hand observations and these scans, I have identified new elements and refined interpretations of the sculpture. I’ve just finished writing this up for publication.
By accident while we were considering the laser scanned surfaces of monument in detail from different directions, I realised that if you zoom in close enough, the programme allows you to do the impossible. Thanks to the laser scan, can look within the solid stone into the imaginary space within its plaitwork, beneath its tegulae and the wheel-and-bar ornament just below the ridge.
This struck me as a very useful visualisation in its own right. This is because it conveys in a digital medium the idea of ‘solid space’. The laser scan data has not created a solid form, it has created a digital surface into which one can venture on the computer. Obviously this is something you cannot do with the actual stone!
I’m sure this is no revelation to those used to digital media! Still, for me it was pertinent for this monument. In my view, going inside the stone is very much what I think early medieval audiences were being prompted to consider when presented with a solid recumbent stone carved and painted like so many caskets, coffins, shrines and buildings familiar to a contemporary audience. In other words, the skeuomorphic and painted recumbent stone created the allusion of space within solid stone that could only be accessed via the imagination.
So I share this here as another way by which modern scanning can illustrate what might have been the implication of the original design. While rendered in a fashion early medieval people could never do and as an incidental dimension, rather than a deliberate characteristic, of the laser scanning technology, the image above furnishes us today with an idea of a habitable space within the monument.
Or to put it in another way, this image messes with your mind!