Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2017
Howard Williams, Joanne Kirton, and Meggen Gondek, eds. Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape Rochester: Boydell Press, 2015. 293 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781783270743)

The eight essays in Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape, along with a substantial introduction by editors Howard Williams, Joanne Kirton, and Meggen Gondek, offer original insights on the objectness of early medieval sculpture: they describe physical encounters with monuments, mnemonic qualities of stone, and multiple reuses of artworks, medieval and post-medieval. A main strength of the volume is its thematic, rather than geographic or chronological, orientation. Three chapters concern sculpture in Scotland, one England, two Scandinavia, and two Ireland, and the introduction foregrounds two Welsh examples. This allows for comparison of commemorative strategies and social memory practices across several early medieval cultures, and it also provides a dynamic account of the complex, rhizomatic intersections of the three central themes of materiality, biography, and landscape.

In their “Introduction: Stones in Substance, Space, and Time,” Williams, Kirton, and Gondek stress the need for expansion of current scholarship, not only in geography but also in method. Rather than through style, ornament, and iconography—the focus of most previous studies of sculpture of the period—the essays in Early Medieval Stone Monuments treat stones holistically, in their physical and affective dimensions. As a result, familiar debates about the symbolism of motifs and the style, dating, and patronage of early medieval sculpture are not a concern of this book, and indeed the most well-known monuments, such as the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses, are not discussed at all. Instead, the chapters deal with unornamented shafts and plain stone crosses, purposefully obscured imagery, alternative uses and reuses, and sensory encounters.

Most of the contributors are archaeologists, and this shapes the volume’s articulation of the three themes, both in what they propose and in what they challenge. The attention to landscape is grounded in fieldwork and in the phenomenology of archaeology developed in prehistory studies, especially in essays by Christopher Tilley, Gabriel Cooney, and Ian Hodder. In “Locating the Cleulow Cross: Materiality, Place, and Landscape,” Kirton explores the function and meaning of a tenth-century stone cross in present Chesire. Using ArcGIS maps and viewsheds, she describes the cross’s situation in the natural topography and argues that the cross would have helped to orientate people in the local landscape, creating a practical mental map and facilitating communal gatherings. Clíodhna O’Leary’s insightful, interdisciplinary essay, “Memory, Belief and Identity: Remembering the Dead on Iniscealtra, Co. Clare,” is also concerned with bodily movement and social memory. She argues that the cross-inscribed stones in Iniscealtra’s monastic graveyards are a ritual landscape, where movement was regulated between orderly rows of slabs and in circumambulations that connected each of the church buildings to the cemetery, and involved bodily orientation, kneeling, and public oration.

Biography as an interpretive method concerns the life-histories of artifacts and monuments: their reuse, replication, and circulation. Discussions of spoliation and of modern reproduction are familiar in studies of medieval art, but the essays in Early Medieval Stone Monuments also approach biography and afterlives in other notable ways, including explorations of reception and adaptation within the medieval period. Gondek, for example, in “Building Blocks: Structural Contexts and Carved Stones in Early Medieval Northern Britain,” considers the uses and reuses of Pictish Class I symbol stones not in ecclesiastical settings as they are most often studied, but in forts and settlement complexes. These stones were often hidden from view or positioned with carvings turned down, spatial deployments that Gondek argues have votive intention in pre-Christian Scotland, connecting communities physically and mnemonically with the underworld. It is a speculative essay that reveals how partial our investigations are, and it offers ways of dealing with sculptures whose symbolic code remains out of our reach. The speculation is convincing, in large part because it is grounded in Gondek’s field research, including the 2011–16 excavations at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, the site of a high-status (possibly royal) settlement.

Other essays also use the theme of biography to press at assumptions. Uninscribed stone crosses on pre-Christian mounds in Rogaland, Norway, for example, are usually understood as products of the conversion process, and thereby dated to the tenth to twelfth centuries. In “The Biographies and Audiences of Late Viking Age and Medieval Stone Crosses and Cross-Decorated Stones in Western Norway,” Iris Crouwers proposes that they may have been erected later, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In doing so, she raises crucial and often unasked questions: how long after a death or other event was a commemorative monument erected? And how should we treat that in-between time?

Mark A. Hall’s “Lifeways in Stone: Memories and Matter-Reality in Early Medieval Sculpture from Scotland” opens with a section on cultural biography and human-object networks that should be read by any medievalist (or indeed any art historian) interested in object agency. Hall picks up a key theme in the volume, and a key critique of both art-historical and archaeological scholarship: the privileging of an original moment of production over longer-term use and reuse. This is a productive thread throughout the volume, and Hall’s essay is a standout in this respect. He draws on a range of recent scholarship (including his own extensive fieldwork) to trace reuses—reinscription of prehistoric slabs, ritual sword strikes and blade marks, late medieval repurposing of stones as bridges, and reproduction in modern memorials—and suggest the complexity of social performance from the early medieval period to the present day.

Materiality is trickier to define and more tentatively expressed in the volume, and it is always addressed in conjunction with issues of landscape or biography. Close attention to the physicality of objects allows several authors (including Kirton and Gondek) to explore relationships among monuments or between monuments and people. In “Walking Down Memory Lane: Rune Stones as Mnemonic Agents in the Landscapes of Late Viking-Age Scandinavia,” Ing-Marie Back Danielsson describes bodily encounters with inscribed boulders. Many Viking-Age rune stones were sited on pathways and at crossroads where people stopped or slowed on their journeys. Back Danielsson argues that Uppland 112, which is over three meters high and eighteen meters in circumference, controls human movement in another way; her photograph of a woman and her horse treading carefully around the huge boulder’s protruding edge to continue along the path is a clear demonstration of the affective power of rune stones.

Williams’s contribution, “Hogbacks: The Materiality of Solid Spaces,” approaches materiality differently. He argues for a reassessment of the skeuomorphism of this distinctive form of Anglo-Scandinavian mortuary sculpture, which is usually understood to represent the Viking-Age feasting hall. Williams convincingly proposes a wider view of influence and intermateriality. One of his most intriguing suggestions is that the patterned, inscribed surfaces of some hogback monuments called to mind tents, canopies, textiles, or leather—ephemeral or permeable materials, which played in profound ways on the solidity of stone.

In this collection, materiality is not about conservation, artistic practices, medieval theology, or commodification; neither is it based in the object-oriented ontologies of philosophers like Graham Harman or Ian Bogost. The attention is rather on networks and entanglements, and when theorists are invoked it is a little bit of Alfred Gell, some Karen Barad, and Bruno Latour. Indeed networks, both spatial and temporal, are at the heart of this volume, something perhaps clearest in Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh’s “A Stone in Time: Saving Lost Medieval Memories of Irish Stone Monuments.” Her aim is to “resocialize” Irish medieval art (217)—that is, to indicate the dynamic networks of human actants in which stone- and metalwork circulated. She does this by examining ownership inscriptions, nonutilitarian reuse of carved stones, and literary references, and considering how responses to monuments changed over time.

Early Medieval Stone Monuments is original in method and intellectually stimulating as a whole, especially in chapters that describe embodied encounters and adaptive reuses. The volume is well illustrated with plenty of maps, drawings, and black-and-white photographs. Each essay covers a lot of ground, and so at times analytical depth is sacrificed to a broader (yet provocative) survey. What is largely absent is a consideration of specific historical audiences. Some authors, including Kirton and O’Leary, do make connections to political contexts, but given the emphasis on networks and encounters we might expect more than a glimpse of the historical human actors, and more specificity about the content, and not only the mechanisms, of cultural memory. Those are issues that could be fruitfully expanded in future work. Early Medieval Stone Monuments succeeds well at engaging with the sculptures themselves from a range of perspectives and with a great variety of material insights. The contributors challenge numerous assumptions about interpretive priorities and offer new models, especially for nonnarrative accounts of sculpture. The speculative tone of much of the volume, along with the thematic and methodological interplay between essays, suggests an open conversation about the multivalence of medieval monuments. It is a conversation that more art historians should join.

Karen Eileen Overbey
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University