The smallest of five rare hogback stones, dating back to the days when the Vikings raided the Clyde, has recently left Scotland for the first time in 1100 years. The others (each weighing half a ton) will still remain in Govan, but one will make its way to London for a new exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend, which will run till June 2014 at the British Museum. It is hoped that it will help to raise the profile of the historic importance of Govan in general and these Govan Stones in particular.
Govan’s more recent history in the industrial fields of shipbuilding, has largely overshadowed its past as one of the earliest bases for Scottish Christianity and the Kingdom of the Northern Britons (Govan had risen to prominence following the Viking destruction of Dumbarton in AD 870).
On display at Govan Old Church, (only built in 1888, though there has been a church on this site for many centuries) the Govan Stones now number 31 recumbent gravestones, the five hogback stones (impressively massive sandstone blocks) and one sarcophagus. Sadly, around 45 artifacts had existed until the 1980s but some were destroyed along with other debris when a neighbouring shipyard was demolished.
The monolithic sarcophagus which had been found buried without a body, is thought to have once contained the relics of St Constantine who died in AD876, in battle against the Vikings.
A curator at the British Museum describes the Govan stones as one of the best British collections of early medieval sculpture. And, as the largest collection of such stones in Great Britain, these hogbacks are certainly amongst Scotland’s most important cultural artefacts. At the time these stones were created (around 925-1000), Govan was the spiritual and administrative capital of the ancient Britons. The stones themselves include representations of Viking art forms. So, the combination of the mainly Viking designs and shape, and the mainly Celtic wording, indicates that Celtic, Briton and Norse influences all met and integrated here.
The hogbacks were created with the intention of appearing as Norse style buildings, while the recumbent gravestones carved with scenes from hunting and life would have been placed over a coffin (perhaps a gravestone to mark the grave of one of Strathclyde’s kings).
Interestingly, though the hogback stones were inspired by Norse culture and buildings, they can only be found in the North of Britain, not in Scandinavia, and not before the influx of the Vikings. Therefore they indicate a particularly fascinating cultural overlap.
Govan’s social and spiritual importance began to wane at the beginning of the 12th century as its neighbour Glasgow, situated only around 2.5 miles away, emerged as centre of the kingdom of Scotland.
Though the Govan Stones have recently returned to prominence only because of the removal of one of their number, the other stones and sarcophagus are still available to view in the church, as they await the return of their fellow.
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