Look behind the dashing main characters in the image above and you will spot somethings that are haunting and disturbing for any early medieval archaeologist or art historian. Let’s enter the horror that is the horde of clone crossless Bewcastle monuments found in Season 3 of The Last Kingdom.
In this season, we continue the show’s problematic choices of deploying early medieval stone sculpture. Previous seasons attempted to represent the ecclesiastical landscape of late 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England through the installation of free-standing stone crosses (at Carlisle, York and elsewhere). While not painted and sometimes on improbable bases and placed in questionable locations, they at least populated the late Anglo-Saxon landscape with Christian monuments, contrasting with the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age megaliths of the pagan Danes! Things go far more awry in Season 3, however. For in Season 3, apparently at the Mercian royal vill and minster of Aylesbury, we are shown ‘reproductions’ robbed of all logic and dignity.
Let me explain why these are problematic:
- they are shown portrayed as a grouping of no less than six, three each side of the stone steps descending from what I suppose is a central west door of a royal hall or church (it’s unclear to me which)! I can’t even begin to get my head around what this is all about and where they got the idea that either halls or churches had central western doorways flanked by ecclesiastical sculpture on the steps!
- they are shown ‘broken’ – i.e. as with other objects shown in the show, including the Alfred Jewel and the Pioneer Helmet, they are portrayed fragmented and without key elements! This constitutes substandard research, especially in these cases because all the ‘crosses’ are not ‘crosses’ because they lack… crosses… Now, I admit there is a healthy debate about whether all early medieval carved stone pillars did in fact originally have crosses upon them, and the sculpted stone that is the inspiration for these reproductions – the Northumbrian Bewcastle cross – lacks a cross and some think it might have never had one. Glastonbury similarly has recorded references to ‘pyramids’ that just mightn’t have originally been crosses. However, the strong likelihood is that we have surviving crosses that have lost their heads. So portraying monuments with strange hammer-headed tops, alluding to the bottom of ring-headed crosses, but as whole monuments, makes zero sense to me!
- The Bewcastle monument is an incongruous choice: it is famous in Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture, but it is from western Northumbria and dates to the early 8th century: far removed in time and space from late 9th-century Mercia;
- The monuments are all the same! They are angled variously to give the impression they are different, but the same panels appear on multiple monuments, so I’m suspecting they are identical reproductions. For the record, there is zero evidence of the exactly replication of motifs upon monuments, even from the same site;
- They each seem to bear the same mixture of motifs, and mainly taken from the south-side – face B- of the Bewcastle monument and one panel from face D (the east facing), meaning that many other motifs, texts and ornament are missing:
- These pillars have misunderstood the form of early medieval free-standing crosses: they seem to have no narrow faces, but instead appear to have four equally broad tapering faces;
- A particular tragedy is that among the motifs selected from the south-face of the Bewcastle monument for replication in these monuments is a sundial! Unthinkingly, this sundial motif, without any gnomon, is displayed on opposing faces, and hence useless and meaningless for its purpose. That is, unless the sun in Bernard Cornwell’s Mercia does some pretty strange things…;
- Oh yes, and if that isn’t enough, they move to, or are cloned at, the far end of Mercia! Yes, the same monuments appear later in the same series at Aethelflaed’s estate at Droitwich! How they got there, we cannot know! Or were they cheap copies? And again, they weirdly frame the approach to a high-status building in pairs!
- Did I mention none of them were painted? Stone sculpture would have been painted in vibrant colours.
- What else can I say? Bewcastle is all!