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  • Able Minds and Practiced Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century
  • Jane Geddes
Able Minds and Practiced Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century. Edited by Sally M. FosterMorag Cross. Pp. xii, 434. Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 23. ISBN: 1 904350 74 7; 978 1 904350 74 3. ISSN: 0583 9106. Leeds: Maney Publishing. 2005. £44.00 (non members), £35.00 (members).

The year 2003 marked one hundred years since the publication of Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (ECMS) by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson. This monumental work of scholarship placed research on Scotland’s antiquities at the forefront of Europe. Its minute thoroughness seems to have stalled further excursions into the field for fully a generation. But, after a century, other countries, particularly England, Wales and Ireland, have caught up and Scotland is once more in need of a modern corpus which will include all the new discoveries and changing approaches of the twenty-first century.

This book, with twenty-six papers, is the result of a conference organised by Historic Scotland and the Society for Medieval Archaeology and the National Committee on Carved Stones in Scotland. It reviews the state of research today and outlines the parameters for future study. The brains and stamina of Allen and Anderson drove their project to completion in a mere thirteen years. Struggling with poor transport and cumbersome recording apparatus, these two titans completed the inventory of about 500 monuments, together with a compendious taxonomy and general iconographic analysis. This new book shows both the progress we have made, and how much higher the mountain is to climb. The sheer number of contributors, stakeholders in any future project, demonstrates how the subject has become increasingly specialised and how many disciplines can now be brought to bear on ‘just an ald steen’ (Iain Fraser).

With Historic Scotland as a major sponsor, several papers deal with issues of recording and conservation. The tasks of seeing and interpreting are discussed by John Borland and Ian G. Scott. The stippled drawings of today convey far more nuances than either the retouched photos or line drawings of ECMS, not least because modern artists look at all sides of the monument, not just the ‘interesting’ face. The future potential of 3-D laser recording is explained and demonstrated by Stuart Jeffrey and Alistair Carty. Conservation is not just what to do with the chemistry of decaying rock (Ingval Maxwell) but also with the much wider issue of where monuments (or are they artefacts?) belong. Should they be in museums for safety or in situ for their ‘presence’ in the landscape, even when sweating in a glass house (Colin Muir, Mark Hall, Siân Jones, Norman Atkinson)? Once the stones are assembled or fall under the concerted gaze of curators, display and interpretation become an issue (Sally Foster, Peter [End Page 333] Yeoman, Mark Hall, Norman Atkinson). Historic Scotland’s new museum at Whithorn (Yeoman) embodies the most intelligent use of modern resources: a quietly understated room with fleeting natural light, in which the stones are now given the space and grace to communicate on their own terms. Visitors are able to access information at whatever level of browsing or ruminating they require.

All the above issues were peripheral to the main goals of ECMS, which were recording and interpreting. Such a purely art historical exercise is no longer possible or else art history has grown into a far wider subject, beyond the basic analysis and identification of motifs. In this area, one can draw up clear modern bench marks against ECMS. For a start, there are all the new discoveries. The early medieval period in Scotland still suffers from a lack of systematic excavation driven by research, but sensational discoveries on the Tarbat peninsula are changing the interpretation of the Pictish church. Martin Carver’s rich monastic settlement at Portmahomack is placed in context; the movements of the newly-discovered Hilton of Cadboll base are recorded (Heather James), while Ian Fisher makes an important case for examining stone bases, previously overlooked but often crucial for locating a wandering stone correctly. Kellie Meyer and Jane Hawkes beam...


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pp. 333-335
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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