5.2 Standing Stones

The carvings on early medieval/protohistoric stones are endlessly fascinating and they are, or should be, assured of a bright future in the art historical field. The time is now ripe to make more attempts to relate protohistoric and prehistoric images, rather than assume that every aspect of the iconography has its origins in the Levant, and in the Bible in particular. There should also be an expectation that communities have been able to articulate the ambiguity that allowed both interpretations to be possible in a certain circumstances. It should not be a surprise if missionaries related what local communities knew to what stories were in the Bible so as to persuade more readily. A recent inspiring work on Gallic images was that of Natalia Venclova (2002), who studied descriptions of the so-called Celtic tonsure and found its resemblance on Iron Age and late Bronze Age statuary. Another line of inquiry might be to compare the sequence in the Pictish forms of standing stones and their iconography with the remarkably similar sequence on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a transition from symbol, to picture, to cross and from incised to relief carving can be observed, but which mostly took place before there was a Christian church on the island. The forces powering these transitions do not depend on Christianity, though they do depend on the intellectual concerns of the day. Questions should be directed at finding the balance between indigenous motifs and stories, and Christian introduced and appropriated ones.

At the same time a greater emphasis on archaeological approaches and prehistoric contexts will bear fruit in a different area. Initial work has been undertaken in locating the stone used for carving in both Tarbat and Strathmore, for example (Miller and Ruckley 2005; Miller 2008, 289-94). The procurement of stone and the control of quarries no doubt had, or came to have, significance. Extraordinary as it may seem there is scarcely a single Pictish stone which has a known context, for example it is not known in what kind of place the great monuments of Moray or Angus stand or even if they are still in situ. One of the few exceptions is Portmahomack where there is an excellent ecclesiastical context for the site’s early medieval sculpture. The association of the so-called Class I stones with burial grounds, while likely, has never been confirmed in a primary context.

Pictish standing stone (number 1) at Aberlemno, dating to around the 7th century AD.©RCAHMS

It would be a reasonable working assumption that all Pictish stones belong in a ritual context of some kind: i.e. they mark an enclosure, a burial or a feature in the landscape (Carver 2005). To explore their immediate context would seem a key priority. In heritage management there is a need to be sure that in conserving a stone in situ, one is not simply conserving the tip of an iceberg. And in research terms the investigation of the immediate context of the only artefacts that are ipso facto Pictish has the capacity to unlock the whole period. Among the candidates for major research investment, including evaluation, project design, excavation and area survey are Aberlemno and Shandwick – but there are dozens of others. The best conjuncture would be achieved where an unencumbered standing stone lay in an area well served by RCHAMS – so Rhynie.

The tactile links between the written word and monumental expression can be seen in a Scandinavian parallel that is of relevance to understanding Pictish stone sculpture and the Viking presence in Scotland. At the tenth-century royal seat of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark, King Harald Bluetooth erected the country’s archetypal rune stone in the form of a massive three-sided block with complex inscriptions recording his rise to power, land claims and religious proclamations. In this sculpted document announcing Denmark’s conversion to Christianity, the rows of runes are laid out horizontally instead of using the more usual vertical scheme, with illustrative panels at the beginning, and it is clear that the overall design of the monument is mimicking the pages of an illuminated manuscript – literally a book in stone (Roesdahl 1999).