Historical value is at the heart of how we value our heritage—its age, developmental sequence, function, rarity or representativity, relationship to things of the same class or related classes or periods, or to features in the vicinity, relationship to the landscape, and associations with people and events (past and current). This is exemplified by traditional designation criteria, which also tend to place an emphasis on aesthetic considerations (Historic Scotland 2011). The historical value of carved stones therefore lies in their educational/academic value, namely their potential to tell us more about our ancestors and what happened in the past, and in their ‘artistic’ value, as a good, unique or representative example of a type of work, etc. (Mason 2002).
Academics have their own individual interests and preferences like anyone else, but what they all have in common in some way is that they value carved stones for their potential to tell us about the past and present, or other scientific potentials. As might therefore be expected, most of the long history of research on carved stones falls in some way into this category, but the knowledge and understanding on which to make such evaluations is highly uneven (see Section 2 and Section 3). The carved stones can be explored on many different levels: the intrinsic interest of a stone or stone collection; its immediate context/location; and the landscape setting. There are also scientific developments in the fields of recording and analysis that allow us to ask different questions of the stones themselves. This all means we can still learn to value carved stones in quite different ways from a historical perspective.
There is a welcome trend towards researching the archaeological context of carved stones and their landscape setting (notably prehistoric rock art and early medieval carved stones), but we need more of this. These aspects of historical value are particularly important when few stones from a particular period (such as early medieval), still stand outside, yet we still have the potential to recover information about where some of these stood or once stood. The former locations of stones, even very important ones, are likely to be unmarked and unprotected. This applies to the site of the Dupplin Cross, which was descheduled after small-scale excavation in advance of the 1998 relocation of the cross to St Serf’s, Dunning. The reason for the move was to protect it from weathering, and it was formerly located on private land where it was difficult of access. The move to Dunning was preceded by a sojourn at the National Museum of Scotland, and the return of the stone to Strathearn was commemorated by the local community, who walked from Dunning to its former hillside location, where a few words were pronounced (pers comm. M Hall). This is a useful reminder of the intangible activities and values associated with carved stones and their (former) locations, but it also begs the question of how and if such sites should be protected/researched/commemorated in the future, and the implications of not doing so.
A key and very positive shift is the recognition that all elements of the history of a carved stone contribute to its biography, need research and are relevant (see Sections 3.3.3 and 4.3.7). There is also a growing appreciation of the value of pre-digital recording technologies for carved stones, notably plaster casts (Figure 81). These are things of interest in their own right, and for what they can tell us about their parents, objects that may worn or even lost (e.g. Needham and Cowie 2012; Foster et al. 2014). They invite a composite biographical approach, which also offers, among other things, important insights into the histories of curatorship, of past communities of interest, and the craftsmen who made them (The craft of replicas: Case Study 13; Foster and Curtis 2016).
Blatant weaknesses in understanding historical value include the assumption that even the best-known monuments are well understood (Stone of Scone: Case Study 32) and fully published, a preference for the most complete and visually impressive stones, disregarding the loose and vulnerable fragments (but see Henderson 2005), and a tendency to focus on select attributes of carved stones, rather than seeing them and their context in a more holistic sense. This is very much the case for gravestones where there has been little analysis of values at assemblage level at individual sites even though it is recognized that sites and regions can be highly individual and culturally specific. The potential of collections is generally under exploited, whether because assemblages come from one place, or have come together in a particular museum collection (where a part of their value is what it tells us about histories of collection). More generally and critically, our ability to understand the contextual characteristics of carved stones is hampered by lack of reliable scholarly overviews, and ready access to standardized records about the carved stones. It is often difficult to put them into the wider (regional and supra-regional, ignoring modern national boundary) contexts that are necessary to evaluate them fully from a historical perspective.