1.3 Why focus on carved stones?

Our appreciation of the past relies heavily on the survival of stone monuments, buildings and landscape features. They shape our sense of place and identity. If carved, this adds further dimensions and depth to that appreciation and can tell us much more about past peoples, their identities, beliefs, tastes, technologies and lives (Figure 2). And we are fortunate—carved stones of some description or other are all around us. It is telling of their overall significance that Scotland is the only country to have produced its own national policy for carved stones (Historic Scotland 1994; Scottish Executive 2005; Figure 3).

An unhewn, unmarked stone has no secrets to disclose, but an inscribed stone is a speaking memorial … and at least until its message comes to be understood, has a claim upon our curiosity and interest over and beyond the claims of all ancient monuments on our reverence and care (Kains-Jackson 1880, 67).


Figure 2: Carved stones formed a significant component of the first monuments to be protected under British ancient monuments legislation in the late 19th century, such as the so-called Drosten Stone from St Vigeans. © Society of Antiquaries of Scotland


Figure 3: Scotland published the first national government policy and associated guidance for carved stones in 2005. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

So what does a research focus on carved stones in particular offer? Why not aim for closer integration and expansion within the context of existing period-based and other ScARF themes, not least given the risk that carved stones are considered out of context? Naturally we hope that the ideas expressed here will work their way back into these other ScARF reports, and be developed further. However, the near invisibility in the existing ScARF reports of carved stones and the lack of application of carved stone data within wider analysis suggests that there is a lack of awareness of the questions that can be asked of this material. Is this because of the lack of data sets, or access to them, or because of a failure to recognize research potential?

Regardless, there are considerable advantages to working across periods, across the traditional disciplinary, institutional, and other barriers to open and joined-up thinking that result in narrowly defined mentalities and practices. Indeed, carved stones are the means par excellence of doing so. In many ways they are a touchstone for wider attitudes to the historic environment and to heritage practices because they cross so many boundaries and therefore expose so many issues. They invite, indeed demand, interdisciplinary and cross-cutting approaches. There is a merit to looking outside of what we are familiar with to identify new methods and questions. Those working on gravestones can learn from those working on prehistoric rock carvings, and vice versa. The opportunities for cross-fertilization are not just theoretical but also technical and practical. Issues such as erosion and how to best conserve and present carved stones, or how to record them, are hardly period-specific. That is not to say that different types of carvings do not have some particular problems (see Section 5.3).

Some of our subjects have the capacity to become portable, hence move from being monuments, or parts of monuments, to artefacts. This means that carved stones often transgress traditional curatorial lines. They are also prone to 'fall through the gaps' between institutional responsibilities (Foster 2010a). This is one of the reasons that the NCCSS was founded in 1993 as an independent forum for exchange of information. This was the idea of David Breeze, Richard Fawcett arranged for John Higgitt to be the first Chair, and between them they set up the Committee. It aims to enable a better understanding of the issues affecting carved stones and to facilitate collective efforts by Scottish national bodies to address them.

Carved stones and their preservation fascinated early Scottish antiquarians (Figure 4; Henderson 1993a) and the concept of carved stones has a heritage pedigree. There is not the sort of public recognition that other categories of monuments attain, but there is public interest in its constituent elements, notably prehistoric art, early medieval sculpture and gravestones.


Figure 4: Antiquarians examine the inscription on the Catstane in 1849. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

In comparison to existing ScARF, an overarching approach to carved stones offers the scope for a new way of thinking because there is no established frame of reference.