3.2.2 Materiality

Archaeological thinking about ‘materiality’ provides a framework to explore how carved stones are made and experienced rather than simply focusing on their meaning (although analysis may help to reveal this). This theoretical approach originated in philosophical interest in structures of embodied human experience and consciousness (phenomenology) which spread to other social studies, including archaeology in the 1980s. Theories of materiality emphasise that people encounter and engage with carved stone in a multi-sensory way that includes not just vision but also touch, smell, and hearing. People’s engagement with monuments is not only or indeed primarily intellectual, but also physical and emotional, and takes place within a wider social, cultural and physical context (Tarlow 1999). The on-going dynamic of these human-artefact relationships may be complex and hard to recover but it is through these interactions that meaning is created (Figure 68). Carved stones are viewed as being imbued with ‘agency’ in the sense that they are understood to act on people (though, of course, it is understood that in reality the agency is that of humans acting on other humans via carved stones).

Figure 68: Detail of early medieval cross-slab (Iona no.75) made from mica-rich hornblende schist which sparkles in sunlight, recalling a metalwork cross. © Adrián Maldonado

The physical nature of the material itself is the starting point, but from the viewpoint of human engagement. Materiality is thus a fundamentally humanistic perspective. In looking for the human stories behind monuments, materiality is a useful angle for presenting monuments to the public because the narratives it yields can resonate more readily with contemporary audiences who, in a post-Christian world, may lack the knowledge or interest to make sense of iconography. A materiality approach is likely to give heightened attention to the processes of a monument’s creation, not just its reception by an audience. These may include practicalities of quarrying and transporting stones, the way in which the physical nature of the stone itself enables or constrains carving, the conception and design of carvings, the technical processes of carving itself, the status of carvers and their relationship to designers, patrons and audiences.

Archaeological approaches to materiality are inherently interdisciplinary, but they could benefit still further from a wider range of dialogue. Materiality is an area in which cutting-edge archaeological-science and social theory may work hand-in-hand. There are a variety of destructive and non-destructive methods of analysing the material from which objects are made and the traces of natural and human action on stone surfaces (Section 3.6). Materiality’s focus on the experiences of artists/artisans can benefit from ethnographic comparisons and engagement with contemporary craft practitioners. To date this is an under-exploited seam, but Edinburgh College of Art’s Stone Project—which drew on the testimonies and experiences of contemporary fine-art sculptors in stone together with those of traditional stone-carvers in other parts of the world—constitutes a valuable resource for future work in this area (Stone Project: Case Study 10).