Case Study: Writing beyond the book

Image of graveslab from Kilnave church, Islay, an example of West Highland sculpture © RCAHMS

With respect to grave monuments, at a practical archaeological level there is little understanding of the relationship of monuments to the people commemorated – how or when the monuments were commissioned, and the actual physical relationship between monument and dead body. It is important to understand that, thanks to the monuments, from time to time medieval archaeologists will actually be dealing with the physical remains of known people. That might suggest that a much greater degree of analysis and research should be directed at such interments than the bulk of unidentifiable ones.

There has been no adequate survey of grave monuments across Scotland. There is little or no understanding of the dating, symbolism and regional types of the generality of slabs. Only the effigies have been better served with interpretative research, up to now concentrating on the arms and armour on the military images. In many cases grave monuments are at risk from the elements or the hand of man. There is clearly a need for comprehensive regional surveys as a first step to developing a research strategy. Such surveys need to involve geologists to identify the types of rock used and their sources.

A thorough (rather than comprehensive) regional survey has already been made of medieval sculpture – essentially comprehending slabs, effigies and commemorative crosses – in the West Highlands and Islands. The work has been carried out by RCAHMS and published in their Argyll Inventories, and there is a valuable work of synthesis and interpretation by Steer & Bannerman (1977). There is much to criticise in this work, especially suspect and vague dating and a misplaced attempt to identify various schools of work. Nevertheless, it can provide a sound basis for further work. In framing a research strategy for medieval West Highland sculpture, it should be borne in mind that with over 900 examples surviving it has to be the densest concentration of its type anywhere in the medieval European world. Caldwell has argued in two papers (both Caldwell forthcoming) that this is because much of it was commissioned by a professional caste of warriors, many of whom grew rich in the wars in Ireland but had no families or land. The distribution of West Highland sculpture is one of the most obvious, clear-cut examples of artefacts/monuments defining a regional culture in medieval Britain.

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