Posts Tagged ‘Govan Sarcophagus’

“When you stand next to one of Govan’s enormous ‘hogback’ stones and run your hand over its scale-like surface, a horde of unanswered questions assail your mind like an invading army. What on earth do they represent? Who were they made for? What was their purpose?” – Jo Woolf, April 2015.


One of my favourite websites is an online magazine called ‘The Hazel Tree’. Its creator, Jo Woolf, is a talented writer and photographer based in Scotland. Jo gives her readers regular reports on her visits to places of interest – such as castles, stone circles and old churches – while also highlighting the natural world of trees, flowers and wildlife. Her photography alone is worth a look, but she also has a great way with words. I definitely recommend a look around The Hazel Tree, which is one of those websites with something for everyone.

Yesterday, Jo posted an article on the early medieval sculpture at Govan Old Parish Church, which she recently visited with her husband (the renowned wildlife artist Colin Woolf). The article is very eloquent and evocative – in pictures as well as text – so I’m giving it a special mention here at Heart of the Kingdom. One highlight for me was Jo’s account of the hogbacks, which clearly made quite an impression (as they tend to do on a first encounter). The above quote is an extract from her description of these enigmatic monuments.

Here’s a link to the article: The Govan Stones by Jo Woolf.

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Jo also runs a blog called Jo’s Journal. She can be found on Twitter at @TheHazelTreeUK.

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Govan hogback

Govan hogback (Govan 12)

The hogback tombstones inside Govan Old Parish Church are the most distinctive monuments at the site. For many visitors they are what makes the Govan sculpture unique and different. Surprisingly, given the usual interpretation of the hogbacks as representions of Viking houses, this type of monument is not found in Scandinavia. A few examples are found in other parts of Scotland but the five at Govan form the country’s largest single group. The type is found also in northern England, in what was once the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with a small number in the English midlands (the old kingdom of Mercia). Some of the Northumbrian examples are older than those at Govan and seem to represent the beginnings of the hogback style, with Yorkshire being the most likely place of origin.

The first Northumbrian hogbacks were carved in the late 9th century, at a time when Viking warlords had seized power at York after ousting the last Anglo-Saxon kings. English authority was restored by the powerful kings of Wessex in the middle of the following century but the period of Scandinavian rule had left its mark. Thus, by c.950, people of Norwegian and Danish origin were settled across many parts of Northumbria. The wealthiest settlers were probably the first folk to request tombstones in the hogback style. They would have commissioned these distinctive memorials from skilled English stonecarvers in Yorkshire and elsewhere.

Govan hogback

Govan hogback (Govan 11)

How and why the hogback style came to be adopted by the stonecarvers at Govan is unknown. People of Scandinavian origin almost certainly lived in Strathclyde alongside the native Britons, either through inter-marriage or because of some special skill (soldier, sailor, merchant, craftsman). Some may have come from Northumbria in the time of the Viking kings of York, bringing with them a preference for tombstones in the hogback style. Alternatively, the incomers may have been Northumbrians of English ancestry who happened to admire the hogback and who were rich enough to commission them for dead relatives. A third option is that the hogbacks were carved for indigenous Clyde Britons, perhaps for those who had visited Northumbria and seen similar tombstones there. The five Govan hogbacks are the biggest and heaviest examples of the type and must have been very expensive. Too expensive, perhaps, for all but the topmost tier of society. Indeed, it is possible that one or more of them marked the graves of the royal family of Strathclyde.
Penrith hogback

Penrith hogback

Penrith hogback

Penrith hogback

In a future blogpost I’ll look more closely at the sculptural details on the Govan hogbacks. Here, I simply want to compare them with a group of four Northumbrian examples at Penrith in Cumbria. The greater size and bulk of those at Govan is the most striking difference, but it is also interesting to note the similarities. At both Govan and Penrith, for instance, we see the characteristic ‘roof tile’ pattern reminiscent of long wooden houses in the Viking homelands of Scandinavia. If such structures were built in 9th-century Northumbria they may have provided English craftsmen with models for the tombstones of a new Scandinavian elite.
Govan hogback

The oldest Govan hogback (Govan 2)

All the Govan hogbacks were carved in the 10th century, the earliest (known as ‘Govan 2’) being similar in shape to the four at Penrith: it is fairly slim, with steep sides. Govan 2 was probably carved c.950, whereas its bulkier neighbours belong to the latter part of the century. At both Govan and Penrith no hogback is in its original position: the Govan group was moved inside for protection and is now displayed in the old parish church; the Penrith stones sit in the churchyard as integral parts of the mysterious ‘Giant’s Grave’.
Giant's Grave Penrith

The Giant's Grave at Penrith

For a brief summary of the Govan hogbacks I recommend Anna Ritchie’s booklet, published in 1999, which is a useful introduction to the Govan sculpture as a whole (and excellent value too).

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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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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