A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales

Around 550 early medieval inscribed stones and pieces of stone sculpture are now known from Wales and are of crucial importance to our understanding of the period between the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Normans. For example, their archaeological context can help us to identify early burial and church sites and reveal much about the development of Christianity and the patronage of major monasteries. Equally, a study of the form, ornament and iconography of the monuments, as well as the inscriptions, their formulae, languages (both Latin and Celtic) and epigraphy (including ogam), can shed valuable light on the functions and dating of the stones and indicate Christian contacts, both between different parts of Wales, and further afield with the Continent, Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, and the ‘Irish Sea Province’ in the Viking period.

All three regional volumes of A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales  have now bee published by University of Wales Press. Volume I by Mark Redknap and John M. Lewis covers South-East Wales and the English Border (2007). Volumes II and III are by Nancy Edwards and cover South-West Wales (2007) and North Wales (2013). Each volume consists of a full analytical introduction and a catalogue of individual monuments with discussions and numerous illustrations, both photographs and line-drawings. Volume II won the Cambrian Archaeological Association G.T. Clark Prize.

Image of Book Cover Image of Book Cover

This project was in partnership with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and was initially promoted by the University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies. Volumes II and III have received grants from the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Wales, Bangor University and the Cambrian Archaeological Association.

New Discoveries

For new discoveries from St Patrick’s Chapel, Whitesands Bay, near St Davids see http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/digdiaries2014/stpatricks.html and for the re-discovery of a lost monument from Silian, Ceredigion, recorded in Volume II, see http://heritageofwalesnews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/exciting-rediscovery-of-lost-medieval.html.

Also  Edwards, N. and Vousdon, N., 2014 ‘A rediscovered piece of early medieval sculpture from Silian, Ceredigion’, Archaeology in Wales, 53, 125–30.

 

Volume III North Wales

Research and Fieldwork

For Volume III on North Wales, also led by Professor Nancy Edwards of Bangor University, is now far advanced. Over 160 monuments have been recorded in the field, a considerable number of which were not included in V.E. Nash Williams’s Early Christian Monuments of Wales (1950). Discoveries made in the course of fieldwork in 2007 included a previously unknown ogam inscription on a roman-letter inscribed stone from Llanfaelog and a small freestanding cross and cross-carved stone from Llanfihangel Tre’r Beirdd, Anglesey.

Image of Cross from Llanfihangel Tre'r Beirdd

Cross from Llanfihangel Tre'r Beirdd

Fieldwork also allowed new interpretations of monuments. For example, Nash-Williams did not include an inscribed stone with a cross from Llandecwyn, Merioneth, in his catalogue because it was considered too late. The inscription, which is no more than graffiti, is very difficult to read but it appears to name the local saint and the monument might have functioned as a consecration stone.

Image of Cross-carved stone with inscription, Llandecwyn, Merioneth

Cross-carved stone with inscription, Llandecwyn, Merioneth

The techniques used to record the monuments have revealed much new evidence. Firstly, considerable use has been made of antiquarian and other early documentary sources in order to chart the discovery of monuments and changing interpretations of them. In some instances the stone itself has since been lost and therefore antiquarian records are all we have. A small number are first mentioned in medieval land deeds and poetry because they stood out in the landcape. However, the first antiquarian in Wales to show a major interest in the early medieval inscribed stones and stone sculpture was the Celtic scholar and natural scientist Edward Lhuyd (1659/60–1709). He included several inscribed stones from north Wales in the new edition of Camden’s Britannia (1695) and during his ‘Great Tour’ (1697–1701) he and his assistants recorded many monuments in the region. Although some antiquarians, such as Lewis Morris (1701–65), were active during the eighteeenth century, it was not until the mid-nineteeth century when the Cambrian Archaeological Association was founded in 1847 that a real interest in the monuments was revived.

Secondly, the vast majority of monuments have been specially photographed for the volume, either by Jean Williamson or by Iain Wright of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, some for the first time. Two main techniques have been used. Either the monument has been photographed using two flash-guns mounted on tripods at an angle so as to produce oblique light across the carving. Or a generator has been used, often at night, to power studio lights again positioned to provide oblique lighting.

Thirdly, careful use of rubbings has allowed the readings of a number of inscriptions to be refined and the letter-forms to be accurately recorded. Examples include Llantrisant 1 (now in Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery), the longest memorial inscription of fifth- to early seventh-century date known from western Britain. Unusually it commemorates a woman but almost all of the inscription is about her husband, who was a churchman on Anglesey during the sixth century. The rubbings also provide the basis for the line-drawings in the volume.

Image of Inscription on Llantrisant 1 recorded using a rubbing

Inscription on Llantrisant 1 recorded using a rubbing

Wherever possible the original findspot of the monument has been studied in its broader archaeological context. This can be very revealing. For example, many of the early inscribed stones of Merioneth, most of which are probably Christian, are located on routeways, some of which follow the line of Roman roads. Others are associated with Roman forts, which went out of use during the second century but must have remained important places in the landscape. Perhaps those commemorated wished to emphasize their links with the Roman past. Some inscribed stones were erected in association with prehistoric monuments such as standing stones or burial mounds associated with mythical heroes. However, less than half are associated with sites which later become churches. The locations of these and of cross-carved stones and more ambitious sculpture can often help us to identify a hierarchy of early medieval church sites and their evolution over time. For example, important collections of Viking Age sculpture at Penmon and Llangaffo on Anglesey testify to the existence of significant foundations on these sites which are barely mentioned in the early medieval documentary sources.

Geology

Geological identifications of the monuments have been carried out by Dr Jana Horák and Heather Jackson of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Most of the stone used is very local. However, the stone for the crosses on Bardsey Island at the end of the Llŷn and at Dyserth, Flintshire, had been quarried in south-east anglesey and had been transported long distances by sea. The nearest source for the sandstone used the Pillar of Eliseg is a few kilometres away. The cylindrical shaft demonstrates what survives now was once part of a very ambitious monument which would have required considerable effort to quarry, transport and shape.

Image of The Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen, Denbighshire

The Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen, Denbighshire

Language and Epigraphy

Research on the Celtic languages and phonology of the inscriptions was carried out by Emeritus Professor Patrick Sims-Williams of Aberystwyth University. Although the inscriptions are generally in Latin they include Celtic names which provide valuable clues to the evolution of the Celtic languages. Exceptionally the inscriptions on seventh- to ninth-century cross-carved stone Tywyn 2, Merioneth, are in Old Welsh and the cross-shaft at corwen has a short runic inscription. The letter-forms of the later inscriptions, studied by Dr Helen McKee, can also provide valuable insights.

Dating

The dating of the monuments remains a major problem and is almost entirely dependent on form, typology, art-historical comparison, epigraphy and language. Only two monuments in north Wales can be more securely dated. The Latin-inscribed stone Llangadwaladr 1 on Anglesey names Catamanus ‘wisest and most renowned of all kings’ who may be identified as the Cadfan, the ruler of Gwynedd who died c 625. The Pillar of Eliseg was once a cross with a lengthy inscription, transcribed by Edward Lhuyd in 1696, but now illegible. It names Eliseg, a ruler of Powys, who set up the monument. He died in Rome in 854 thereby dating the monument to around the second quarter of the ninth century.

Image of Llangadwaladr 1, Anglesey

Llangadwaladr 1, Anglesey

Future Conservation and Display

Research for this volume, as for Volumes I and II, has thrown up several issues concerning the future preservation of these important early medieval monuments. On a number of sites vegetation, including ivy, threatens to engulf monuments making them very difficult to locate. At Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf, Anglesey, a small freestanding cross, still intact in 2001, when cleared of vegetation, was now found to be in two pieces. In other instances monuments are housed in churches which have become redundant or are built into the church fabric which is in danger of becoming ruinous. Others stand in the open where they are at serious risk from the weather.

A by-product of the Corpus project has been the establishment by Cadw of ‘National Committee for Recording and Protection of Early medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture’, now the 'national medieval Welsh Scuplture Panel'. this has compiled a List of monuments at risk in order to promote and facilitate their better preservation and display in the future.

Acknowledgments

Volume III has been published in association with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and with a publication grant from bangor University. Research for Volume III has been generously funded by the British Academy through their grant of a Research Leave Fellowship to Nancy Edwards (2006–8) and a Small Research Grant to finance geological identification of the monuments. Financial assistance has also been received from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through their award of a Fellowship to Nancy edwards (2010-11), the University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies and the Cambrian Archaeological Association. Nancy Edwards is also grateful to All Souls College Oxford for a Visiting Research Felllowship, Michaelmass Term 2007, during which time much of the more specialized comparative research was conducted.