Archive for the ‘Govan Sarcophagus’ Category

Govan Old Parish Church cross slab
The collection of carved stones at Govan Old Parish Church is one of the great treasures of Dark Age Celtic sculpture in Britain. With an impressive thirty-one monuments, the Govan collection is the third largest in Scotland. Sadly, this figure represents only two-thirds of the total seen by visitors 100 years ago. At that time, the stones were still outside, in the churchyard, mostly dotted around among later memorials. Only the Sarcophagus and three others had any kind of protection, being housed in a small outhouse in the south-east corner of the churchyard. The total number of stones was forty-six, of which sixteen have since been lost. The missing ones were all of the same type: the recumbent cross-slab, designed to be placed lengthways on top of a grave. They all had a large cross carved on the front, surrounded by Celtic interlace in the ‘chunky’ style favoured by the Govan stonecarvers. By the end of the nineteenth century, after a thousand years of exposure to the elements, many of the ancient carvings had worn away.

One of the lost slabs is shown in the illustration above, reproduced from Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan, a photographic record published in 1899. Sir John numbered all the ancient stones in sequence, designating this slab as ‘Number 29’. Although he didn’t provide a written description, he gave us our only pictorial record of this unique monument. His privately published volume is, in fact, a definitive catalogue of all forty-six stones (plus the shaft of the ‘Govan Cross’ which had been moved to the garden of Jordanhill House in Partick). In 1903, a description of Number 29 appeared in Allen and Anderson’s magisterial survey of Dark Age sculpture, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (usually abbreviated as ECMS). Sir John’s numbering system wasn’t followed by Allen and Anderson, who instead catalogued the slab as ‘Number 18’ in their own listing of the Govan collection. Here’s how they described its carvings:

‘The cross, devoid of ornament, and the top arm defaced by the modern initials W.I. On the background (to the left and right of the top arm, and above it) traces of interlaced-work; (to the left and right of the shaft) traces of interlaced-work; and (below the bottom of the shaft) sculpture defaced.’

The initials were probably applied in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and show that this slab was re-used at least once after the medieval period. Many of the ancient stones at Govan were recycled in this way, sometimes with the year of re-use as well as the initials of the deceased. The identity of ‘W.I.’ is unknown but he or she would have belonged to a prominent family in pre-industrial Govan.

Sir John Stirling-Maxwell published a plan of the churchyard (see below) showing the positions of all the stones at a date roughly in the mid-1890s. This enables us to imagine where cross-slab 29 lay in relation to other Dark Age monuments before the beginning of the twentieth century, by which time many of the slabs had been laid in a line along the churchyard’s eastern wall. It is unlikely that Sir John’s plan shows Number 29’s original position in early medieval times: old records of the parish indicate that ancient stones were often moved to suit the pattern of newer burials.

Govan Old Parish Church
Archaeologists date the carvings on the Govan cross-slabs to the period 900 to 1100 AD. The absence of secular motifs such as warriors and animals suggests that these were gravestones for the clergy – members of the local religious community – when Govan was a centre of royal power in the kingdom of Strathclyde, but it is also possible that they commemorated the warrior aristocracy as well. The names of the deceased are unknown, for no early inscriptions are visible on any of the Govan stones.

What happened to Number 29 and why is it missing? The answer to these questions brings us to one of the most tragic chapters in the long history of the Govan Stones.

In 1908, the Sarcophagus was removed from the outhouse in the south-east corner of the churchyard and brought inside the church, where it has remained ever since. The outhouse was becoming damp and dilapidated, and there was much concern about the condition of the other three stones left behind. Someone suggested moving all forty-six ancient stones inside the church for safekeeping but, unfortunately, this did not happen. Many of the cross-slabs and three of the five hogbacks still lay next to the churchyard’s eastern wall, exposed to the elements. Eventually, in 1926, the best-preserved stones – the hogbacks, the Sun Stone and the Cuddy Stane – joined the Sarcophagus inside the church. Two years later, the shaft of the Govan Cross was returned from Jordanhill House and also placed inside the church. Today it is sometimes known as ‘The Jordanhill Cross’ in memory of its period of exile on the other side of the Clyde. More stones were subsequently brought in from the churchyard, taking the total inside the church to twenty-six. The only ones still left outside were a cross-slab near the west door and another twenty slabs along the eastern perimeter wall.

Govan Old Parish Church

Hogbacks and cross-slabs against the east wall, c.1900.

In 1973, a huge factory building in the disused Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished. Part of this structure stood near the east wall of the churchyard and, during the demolition process, a large amount of debris tumbled over the wall. The twenty ancient slabs lying on the grass were damaged, many of them severely, and only four survived. ‘Number 29’ was among the casualties. With its fellow-victims it is now little more than a ghostly photographic image in the pages of Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s book.

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Much of the information in this blogpost comes from ‘The Govan collection in the context of local history’, a chapter by Tom Davidson-Kelly in Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture, edited by Anna Ritchie (1994). Reverend Davidson-Kelly was formerly the minister of Govan Old and a key figure in the preservation and conservation of the ancient stones.

The initials W.I. carved on ‘Number 29’ can also be seen on one of the surviving cross-slabs (Stirling-Maxwell’s ‘Number 27’) with the date 1634. Maybe these two stones were re-used by the same family, to commemorate namesakes from different generations?

The photographs in the Stirling-Maxwell book don’t show the actual stones themselves but copies cast in plaster by a certain ‘Mr J.W. Small of Stirling’.

In this blogpost, I have referred to the lost cross-slab using the Stirling-Maxwell designation ’29’ rather than the ’18’ of ECMS. This is mainly to reflect the fact that Sir John has left us the only visual image of this vanished relic from the Dark Age kingdom of Strathclyde.

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The rider on the Sun Stone

In an earlier blogpost I discussed the Govan cross-shaft known as the ‘Sun Stone’ which takes its nickname from a striking design carved on the reverse. The front of the monument shows a decorated cross above a man mounted on a strange-looking beast. In the same post I gave a brief description of this rider:

‘He is carrying a spear and wearing a sword: he is evidently a warrior. A curling adornment on the back of his head is usually interpreted as a pigtail.’

My description paraphrased a more detailed one provided by Ian Fisher in his authoritative paper on the Govan cross-shafts:

Below the cross, in false relief in an almost square panel, there is a rider on a galloping horse. Although the details are worn, his face appears to be turned upwards to the cross, and he has an upturned pigtail, while the horse’s bridle is visible and a spear and sword project behind the rider’s back. (Fisher 1994, 51)

Another expert observer, Alan Macquarrie, also identified the rider’s hairstyle as a pigtail (Macquarrie 2006, 5). It appears to be unique, being found only on the Sun Stone. Pigtails are not evident on any other monument at Govan, nor on sculpture from elsewhere within Strathclyde. Looking further afield, I am not aware of any pigtailed figures on Pictish sculpture. As far as I know, carvings of male Picts simply show them as long-haired, without any discernible hint of the hair being gathered and tied. The rider on the Sun Stone seems to be a one-off.

Examples of Pictish warriors (l-r): Dupplin Cross, Benvie, Aberlemno.

At Govan, there is only one other figure whose hairstyle can be discerned: the horseman on the Sarcophagus. He is more clearly defined than the Sun Stone rider and was probably carved a hundred years earlier (c.850-900) at a time when the stonemasons of Strathclyde were producing finely sculpted work comparable to the output of their Pictish counterparts. Like some Pictish figures, the Sarcophagus horseman is long-haired and bearded, but it is hard to say if his hair is loose or gathered. Although the detail is lacking it is possible that whoever carved him was trying to depict a ponytail. In the following century, the craftsman who sculpted the Sun Stone may have been attempting something similar when he added a curly ‘pigtail’ to the rider. Maybe this was not so much a pigtail as a crude representation of a short ponytail gathered high above the neck? Whatever it was, it was carved so prominently that it must have been a defining characteristic of the man commemorated by the stone. To those whom he left behind – his family and friends – his hairstyle was perhaps such a distinctive aspect of his appearance that they asked for it to be included on his memorial.

The horseman on the Govan Sarcophagus

If more sculpture had survived from the kingdom of Strathclyde we might be able to say something meaningful about the hairstyles worn by the wealthy folk who commissioned the stones. With only two carved figures showing sufficient detail, the most we can probably say is that long hair was not uncommon among aristocratic males of the area around Govan in the 9th-11th centuries. Some of these men wore beards; some tied their hair in ponytails or pigtails. Their contemporaries in other parts of North Britain no doubt looked very similar.

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Fisher, Ian (1994) ‘The Govan cross-shafts and early cross-slabs’, pp.47-53 in Anna Ritchie (ed.) Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture (Stroud: Alan Sutton)

Macquarrie, Alan (2006) Crosses and Upright Monuments in Strathclyde: Typology, Dating and Purpose Fourth Annual Govan Lecture (Govan: Society of Friends of Govan Old)

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Govan Sarcophagus
The famous sarcophagus at Govan was discovered on Friday 7 December 1855 by the sexton of the old parish church as he dug a new grave in the kirkyard. It lay a couple of feet below the surface, having been deliberately buried at some unknown date. Modern scholars now believe that it was carved around AD 900, that it orginally contained a human corpse and that it was created as a public monument to be displayed and viewed. Soon after it was unearthed, perhaps within days, it was moved to another part of the kirkyard and enclosed by wooden railings. During this process it sustained significant damage, especially to the two long side-panels containing the richest sculpture. The horizontal crack seen in the drawing above (and still visible today) is the most obvious of these injuries.

The first published report of the monument’s discovery appeared in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The author, James Cruickshank Roger, had been elected to the Fellowship of the Society in 1854. He lived at Cross Bank Cottage in Govan. Although his paper was not published in PSAS until 1857 it had evidently been presented to the Society a year earlier: the date ‘January 12, 1856’, five weeks after the sarcophagus was found, appears at the end. As well as giving a full account of the discovery Rogers included detailed descriptions of other Govan stones – notably the hogbacks – whose existence had been known for some time. The sketches that originally accompanied the paper were not, however, published alongside it, as an editorial note explained:
‘Sketches of these different sculptured stones were exhibited, and presented to
the Society ; but, as drawings of them have since been included in the Spalding
Club volume of Sculptured Stones, collected and edited by John Stuart, Esq.,
it was not thought necessary to have them re-engraved.’

The work referred to here was the first volume of The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, a two-part study edited by John Stuart, at that time the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. It was published in 1856 by the Spalding Club of Aberdeen, another antiquarian body in which Stuart played an active role. Highly regarded by Stuart’s peers, and still consulted by today’s scholars, Sculptured Stones was a showcase for the artistic talents of Scotland’s early peoples. Its numerous illustrations provided 19th-century scholars with an impressive gallery of Pictish symbol stones and other monuments. Among these images was the one shown at the top of this blogpost, the earliest published illustration of the Govan Sarcophagus. It was drawn by the Aberdeen-based artist and lithographer Andrew Gibb who was soon to play a major part in the production of the second volume of Stuart’s Sculptured Stones. The absence of wooden railings in the picture suggests that Gibb sketched the sarcophagus not long after it was brought out of the ground, perhaps within days of the exciting discovery (unless he simply omitted the railings from the final version). Other drawings have been produced in the ensuing years but Gibb’s fine offering, executed in his distinctive style, remains our earliest representation of Glasgow’s oldest piece of sculptural art.

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James C. Roger, ‘Notice of a sculptured sarcophagus, and other sepulchral monuments, recently discovered in the churchyard of Govan’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2 (1854-7), 161-5.

John Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland [Part 1] (Aberdeen: Spalding Club, 1856).

R.M. Spearman, ‘The Govan Sarcophagus: an enigmatic monument’, pp. 33-45 in Anna Ritchie (ed.) Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994).

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