The nature and scope of past research on carved stones varies greatly between periods and types: in some areas there is a substantial legacy of past study, in others much less work has been done (see Section 2). Since 2012 the NCCSS has maintained on its website an annual bibliography of published research and online resources on carved stones in Scotland. Section 10 of this ScARF provides extensive bibliographies of existing research in each sub-field of Scottish carved stone research.
Even when researchers are aware of existing studies, there are problems of access. The interdisciplinary interest of carved stones means that relevant material is widely scattered in disparate, sometimes obscure, sources. The accelerating drive towards Open Access publishing via the web means that in future academic research is more likely to be readily accessible, but there remain difficulties in accessing existing scholarship. While progress has been made in digitizing complete runs of many relevant journals, less attention has been given to digitizing out-of-print books or other hard-to-access material (e.g. short-run publications by local museums or special interest societies). Another difficulty concerns access to relevant research hidden in ‘grey literature’ (i.e. materials and research produced by organisations for internal use but not published via commercial or academic channels). While much could be done to disseminate such material via the web, there remain hurdles, e.g. issues of copyright, intellectual property, commercial sensitivity, and privacy, not to mention the sustainability of platforms when material has been produced by commercial outfits, rather than institutional bodies with an obligation to maintain archives.
Further problems of access arise from the often highly specialist nature of many publications which are aimed at a specific discipline and therefore assume certain background and/or technical knowledge. There is a need for authoritative yet accessible overviews (capable of reaching researchers in other disciplines and also a non-academic audience), yet researchers may find it hard to prioritize the production of these over primary research, especially, given current pressures on UK academics to prioritize publications eligible for periodic assessments of research quality (Research Assessment Exercise/Research Excellent Framework). The number of researchers with the necessary skills and knowledge is few in comparison with the scale and significance of the carved stone resource and there is an ongoing need to build capacity in the relevant specialist skills.
There is much basic research to be done and many fundamental questions remain unresolved. While adequately recording bodies of material to a modern standard is a sine qua non, it is wrong to view recording and analysis as separate and sequential steps. (Section 3.4.1). Rather there is a close cyclical relationship between the two: decisions regarding what to record and how to record and present it are based on understanding of the material and how it is valued; while the nature of the record shapes which questions can be asked of it. Even where bodies of material have been well recorded there is danger in viewing this as an end in itself and it is essential to continue to apply new perspectives to well-known material, returning to existing data and existing scholarship.
Current research builds on the foundation of past work not only in terms of knowledge but also in terms of the cultures of thought which have evolved in each sub-field, implicitly or explicitly influencing what is studied and how. In order to discriminate between the helpful and the unhelpful aspects of this legacy it is necessary to understand the biases and agendas of past scholars (and to acknowledge that current work is also subject to biases and agendas of which we may not be fully conscious). The most rigid divisions have tended to be chronological, with few studies looking at themes/issues across period boundaries, though there are signs that approaches developed in relation to one period are being applied in others (e.g. Gondek 2015).
While the central message of this ScARF is that there are advantages to be gained from a cross-cutting ‘carved stones perspective’, these gains must be balanced against the risks in separating carved stones from other aspects of their contemporary context (Histories in wood and stone: Case Study 22). Due attention is required to the implication of these and other methodological decisions, such as, for instance, categorical distinctions of ecclesiastical versus secular, urban versus rural, architectural versus non-. While these can be meaningful and helpful divisions, problems arise if categories harden to ‘silos’, inhibiting fresh perspectives which can bring new insights. Similarly, the ethnic labels (e.g. ‘Pictish’, ‘Viking’) which have been invoked in the study of early medieval sculpture in Scotland are a two-edged sword. On the one hand they serve to focus scholarly attention and attract popular interest, while on the other, their use risks over-simplifying a more complex, nuanced and fluid reality.
The focus on Scotland in this ScARF is a pragmatic one shaped by institutional remits and funding mechanisms but we acknowledge that modern national boundaries are irrelevant to much of the material under consideration. For example, it is a matter of regret that the British Academy’s Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture takes the modern boundaries of England as its limit, thereby omitting from the catalogue the significant body of Anglo-Saxon sculpture from southern Scotland (including the Ruthwell Cross) which is included only as ‘comparative material’. It is encouraging that, by contrast, two current studies take an explicitly cross-border perspective (Whitworth 2016 in press; Barnes in prep). Questions of ‘what is Scottish?’ also bear on material furth of Scotland, e.g. the Scottish cemetery in Kolkata, India, founded in 1820 and containing over 1600 headstones and monuments, almost all made in Scotland (The Scottish Cemetery in Bengal: Digitising the Untold Empire: Figure 67).
Since the 1980s there has been a growing desire within archaeology to explore the utility of intellectual frameworks originating in other humanities and social sciences (including philosophy, psychology, anthropology, literary studies, etc.) for the interpretation of archaeological data, including carved stones. An important consequence of this been the demonstration that even apparently ‘common sense’/empirical approaches are shaped by implicit theoretical standpoints: there really is no escape from theory. The application of ‘theory’ to archaeology has opened up radically new ways of thinking about the material. These are centred on an exploration of the relationship between people and things. In relation to carved stones, the relevant approaches can be subsumed under three broad headings: materiality (Section 3.2.2), biography (Section 3.2.3) and landscape (Section 3.2.4) (see Williams et al. 2015a). These three have much in common, indeed, there is considerable overlap between them, and they are to be viewed as complementary not exclusive. Neither are they to be viewed as negating or superseding established disciplinary approaches to carved stones (e.g. ‘traditional’ art history) for these are far from exhausted: a holistic view should encompass them all.