Case Study: Strength in disciplinary collaboration: early medieval examples

Case Study 18

Strength in disciplinary collaboration: early medieval examples

Sally Foster

Not only are there pros and cons to different types of disciplinary co-working, but carved stones from different periods have different traditions of research that reflect different disciplinary cultures. In Scotland, work on early medieval sculptured monuments offers the most sustained examples of the power and potential of disciplinary collaboration to date. It is no coincidence that these are the type of carved stones that have, since the early 2000s (Hall et al. 2000), been subject to biographical studies, approaches which have their roots in the wide enthusiasm for this type of monument in Scotland.

The loan of the St Andrews Sarcophagus to the British Museum for the 1997 Heirs of Rome exhibition prompted HS to encourage new scholarship—in recognition of the fact that, although well known and highly significant, the Sarcophagus was not well researched. HS, together with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland organized a conference about the Sarcophagus, and a number of additional papers were commissioned (Foster 1998a). The monument was also recorded in detail by Ian G Scott and Isabel Henderson added a detailed description of the monument. Many people spent time individually or in groups examining the monument afresh. While this is primarily an example of multi- rather than inter-disciplinary working, the cumulative effect of these papers was a substantially different understanding and perception of the Sarcophagus. In addition this work prompted renewed international interest in its significance (notable in its first loan abroad for the Il Futuro dei Longobardi exhibition in Via Musei, Breccia, Italy, from 14 June to 20 November 2000) and laid the ground for other studies of a similar nature (Welander et al. 2003).

Able Minds and Practised Hands (Foster and Cross 2005) is a landmark in the sense that it illuminated for the first time just how many different disciplines could come together at a conference and offer a new perspective on a body of carved stones, whether contributing to understanding their cultural significance, conservation needs or interpretive potential. Advances included essays on context, biography, social value, geology and 3D scanning, while years of curatorial experience were distilled in essays relating to heritage issues and opportunities. Some of the essays were explicitly interdisciplinary (e.g. Hall et al. 2005) but many still applied a singular yet still valuable disciplinary lens to explore particular issues.

The Hilton of Cadboll project is an example of a more sustained attempt at interdisciplinary working to understand the cultural significance of a single carved stone monument (James et al 2008). Multiple contributors worked from their own disciplinary perspectives (notably Henderson’s art-historical analysis) and more interdisciplinary perspectives (the archaeological elements), but it is the biography chapter that best reflects the outcomes of the project’s interdisciplinary perspective (Foster and Jones 2008). Jones’ use of ethnographic survey techniques in her exploration of social value at Hilton of Cadboll (see also Jones 2004; Contemporary social value: Case Study 16) is a good example of transdisciplinarity.


Figure 1: The St Andrews Sarcophagus. A Pictish Masterpiece and its International Connections was the study of a single monument and its context by scholars working in different disciplinary and professional contexts. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland


Figure 2: A Fragmented Masterpiece: Recovering the Biography of the Hilton of Cadboll Cross-slab shows just how much there is to learn from an interdisciplinary approach to a single carved stone monument, but also offers insights into the practical challenges of such approaches. © Society of Antiquaries of Scotland