On Saturday 15th July, I presented the second of the evening’s talks at the Heysham Viking Festival entitled ‘What we don’t know about the Heysham hogback’. It was a packed church and an exciting event.
In a previous post I’ve discussed the Heysham hogback: a unique stone monument now to be seen in St Peter’s church. My aim was to explain the ongoing debates surrounding this particular monument in the context of broader themes in the study of early medieval stone sculpture.
After Dr Fiona Edmonds gave a lecture on the history and archaeology of the North West in the Viking period, Roger Lang and I provided a double-act. First up, Roger used his videos about Halton and Gosforth to simultaneously illustrate key themes in the interpretation of the Norse mythological dimensions of the figural scenes on 10th-/11th-century stone sculpture from the North West, and to show off how photogrammetry can provide the basis for new educational resources and research about these stones.
I then took on how we interpret the Heysham hogback in the context of these other stones. I outlined what we think we know about ‘hogbacks’ as recumbent grave covers with skeuomorphic canopies and protected (often) by end-beasts. I then outlined what recent scholars have proposed regarding the Heysham monument before suggesting some further issues and problems. By reframing the questions we ask, we can fixate less on the meaning of the figural scenes, and instead consider this a unique and memorial monument that commemorated an elite person or persons in the complex and shifting Irish Sea zone of the 10th/11th centuries AD.
To this end, I reviewed what we can say, and what we might never know, about the figural scenes. I also looked at the end-beasts and how they might not be as ‘puny’ as they have been characterised. I also explored the significance of the ridge (although time didn’t permit me going into the asymmetries of the stone and the beasts). I emphasised how we need to look at the hogback from above as much as from the side, to understand its significance in protecting and mediating a ‘solid space’, and adopting a form and materiality that spoke to a network of ‘hogback’ formed material cultures and architectures deployed throughout the Viking world.
These ideas I’ve extended in three recent publications about hogbacks. Yet applied to the Heysham monument, we still know very little. We don’t know who commissioned it, who carved it, where it was originally positioned, how it related to a grave or graves, what its illustrative panels were intended to depict, and why it was asymmetrical and had such distinctive beasts framing its curving roof. So there is certainly more to be written about this fascinating monument.
Here are the key slides from my talk, incorporating still images from Roger Lang’s 3D model of the hogback which help considerably in interpreting the stone.
I’m very grateful to a patient and enquiring audience for their enthusiasm and questions, as well as to Adam Parsons for organising the talks. Special thanks to Roger Lang for agreeing to co-present with me.
It was extra special to speak in a church as a venue, but also to speak within ‘hogshot’ of the monument itself. Having explored the stone earlier in the day, I got to get a ‘hog-selfie’ with Adam. I got to talk about the stone afterwards to those wishing to view it for almost a further hour. Overall a great evening.