Last year, on a brief tour courtesy of Dr Catriona Mackie of Isle of Man College, I went to Kirk Maughold to see its early medieval carved stones dated between the 6th and 13th centuries AD. Named after the isle’s patron saint – Saint Machaoi – the church is located on the rocky coast three miles from Ramsey in the north-east of the isle. This post won’t review the stones in detail but instead it will consider the context of display within the churchyard setting.
The church is worth a visit in itself with its late medieval churchyard cross now on display within. The location enjoys extensive sea views and has an uplifting feel to it. The churchyard contains many fascinating historic gravestones, some striking works of art in their own right. Also in the churchyard are the ruins of three chapels (keeills) which mark this as a site of an early medieval monastery of uncertain origins but likely starting before the Viking era.
My focus was in the 45 early medieval stones drawn from different locations in the parish now situated in the ‘cross-house’. This is of interest in itself for those wishing to consider the history and current practices adopted in displaying early medieval stone sculpture.
Early medieval carved stones are displayed in many churches, churchyards and museums and increasingly in adapted historic buildings. Yet a purpose-built open-air canopy is something very special. Its timbers are carved with images of some of the crosses it contains. It has perspex windows on its narrow sides and is open to the north, with two long benches upon which smaller stones are displayed like spectators in a cricket pavilion. In front of them are free-standing cross-slabs, some facing outwards, some situated side on to enjoy the oblique light. It was opened by the island’s great pioneer archaeologist and researcher of its early medieval inscribed and sculpted stones, Philip Kermode.
The stones themselves are varied in size, material and subject matter, ranging from simple inscribed crosses and rune-inscribed stones to large cross-slabs with abstract ornamentation and figural scenes. A guide to the stones can be found online here and a general commentary here. Each has individual stories, and together they are deployed to write the history of early medieval Man in many forms by many scholars.
The stones are protected (in part) from the worst of the elements, and freely accessible to visitors, but this arrangement brings challenges and limitations with it. The experience and character of the stone exhibition is ridiculously dated: tiny text in one corner and numbered stones.
It is near-impossible for even a pair of individuals to navigate the information on the boards and relate them to the stones without spending hours there. In this regard, the display is hopelessly ineffective for exploring the variety and character of the stones, and the superb Manx Museum is far better in this regard with only a handful of stones and replicas on display.
Lighting also provides a challenge. The shelter is north-facing, which avoids some lighting issues but creates others for some faces of the stones. Moreover, discerning details of the carvings on the shale is a challenge when light does not fall obliquely across the stones. This would be fine if these stones were complemented by high-quality images of these monuments online or elsewhere, but this doesn’t seem to be the case (but please correct me if someone knows better). And yet of course, these stones came from very different locations: they have been moved multiple times.
I understand there are on-going debates regarding what should happen to the collection and the building, which together are an iconic dimension of the island’s heritage and almost inseparable in the wider imagination of archaeologists and historians as well as experience of visitors.
The Stones as an Assemblage
However, I wonder how much attention has been paid to the power of the assemblage itself; the arrangement, positioning and collective display? This is a theme I’m interested in for early medieval stones, whose cultural and mnemonic power in the contemporary context is often derived from the agency of collective display. For me, this building’s and the stone’s visual and commemorative power and significance comes from its ‘liminal’ position; they face and relate to the Christian site and interplay with the historic gravestones within it, but also sets itself apart as speaking of the secular world of the past too.
I’ve discussed the use of early medieval stones in millennium monuments and other contemporary commemoration elsewhere. In this last regard, I was struck by their juxtaposition with a millennium monument; taking a low Christian cross as its form and placed on a stepped base, it is situated just uphill and towards the church from the cross-house. Here we find unifying monument created within a churchyard comprised of many hundreds of historic gravestones and also the collection of early medieval stones: a history of church and community distilled into one modest anniversary monument.
To its east are a line of memorial trees commemorating anniversaries of Maughold’s WI.
These anniversary memorials might be seen as complementing and augmenting the presence of the cross-house. I see them instead as somewhat oppositional. The squat millennium monument seems to glower down at the early medieval stones from higher ground, while the family of early Christian and Viking Age stones glower back. The latter are more numerous but fainter and fragmentary, the former bold and defiant in its amorphous memorial subject. They jar with each other in different collective powers. All millennium monuments are something of a contrivance, pretending to be memorials, gravestones and war memorials but unsure what they really are in themselves. They attempt to distil all complexities of history and time into a single monument and moment. As such they are transtemporal. In contrast, the early medieval stones have endured centuries, been moved, rearranged, discovered by scholars, studied and re-investigated. They are fragments of history as well asfragments of commemorative practices.
For me, this juxtaposition at Maughold reveals how such anniversary monuments never quite live up to the cumulative power, and operate in tension with, multi-period lithic assemblages. Millennium monuments seek to present time but deny it; old carved stones are witnesses to time and defy it.