3.2.3 Biography

Older studies have tended to privilege the moment of initial creation/construction of an object (its ‘birth’), with less interest directed at the later stages of its ‘life’ (or indeed, multiple ‘lives’). A more holistic view would see it as impossible to fully understand a given object through a focus on any one aspect of its existence. The notion that things could be thought of as leading social lives derives from social/cultural anthropological theory (Appadurai 1986), but the metaphor has been readily adopted by archaeology (e.g. Gosden and Marshall 1999) where it has encouraged a focus on an object’s modifications, movements, changes in meaning, neglect, re-purposings, decay, destruction, etc. It is a people-focussed approach which emphasizes human investment in objects and encourages consideration of social aspects of artefact production and consumption alongside the purely functional. By focussing on the values attached to stones in the past, the biographical approach blends seamlessly into a consideration of the contemporary values of stones (see Section 4.3.3). The biography of an object extends to replicas and representations of it, and citations of its form in other monuments (Figure 69). These can be taken to constitute its ‘composite biography’ (Foster and Curtis 2016).

A two piece grave monument with a large rectangular flat stone with writing and a large standing cross shaped stone behind with wave and circular decoration

Figure 69: Grave of Lieut. the Hon. Alfred Walter Charteris, d. 1873, Aberlady kirkyard, East Lothian, closely modelled on early medieval cross from Soroby, Tiree. © Copyright Kim Traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The biographical approach is particularly appropriate for the investigation of carved stones, whether as individual objects or classes of object. The durability of the raw material is one reason why carved stones can be seen frequently to have lived multiple lives (Clarke 2007): they accrue meaning and significance through their longevity. Examples include: prehistoric cup-marked stones re-used in the early middle ages as Pictish symbol-stones; Roman sculpture reused as spolia in later structures; early medieval sculpture cut down into building blocks and reused (sometimes multiple times) in medieval and modern buildings; early medieval cross-slabs re-used as gravestones in the early modern period, as at Govan, or, famously, Hilton of Cadboll (Foster and Jones 2008); stones of all periods incorporated in the gardens and designed landscapes of the gentry. Value can take a negative form: neglect is an aspect of biography, as is casual or directed damage (e.g. as with the iconoclastic destruction of monuments following the Reformation). Changes in meaning may arise independently of any changes of form or location: e.g. a prehistoric cup-marked stone, or Pictish symbol-stone may be pressed into service where it stands as a parish boundary marker (Fraser and Halliday 2011) (Figure 70).

Black and white photo of two standing stones in a field - a larger on in the foreground

Figure 70: Successive phases of significance: pair of prehistoric standing stones at Nether Corskie, Dunecht, Aberdeenshire. The one on the right bears a prehistoric cup-mark and has been incised in the early medieval period with a pair of Pictish symbols. The stones stand near a three-way parish boundary (post-12th century). Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

The biographical approach has been used extensively in the study of Scotland’s early medieval carved stones, less so for other periods. The leading exponent is Hall who has conducted biographical studies of several stones, alone (Hall 2005a20112012a20142015a) and in collaboration with others (Hall et al. 2000; Hall et al. 2005). Other important biographical studies include Clarke’s work on Pictish symbol-stones (Clarke 2007), and Foster and Jones’s work on the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab (Foster and Jones 2008) (Monument biography: Case Study 16).

There is considerable overlap between biographical and materiality approaches (Section 3.2.2). Each investigates the on-going story of human interaction with monuments and the traces these may leave on the stone itself, e.g. in the wear patterns that may result when stones are repeatedly touched, rubbed, kissed as part of religious devotion, knelt on, smeared with substances, or chipped to remove relics/mementos. Similarly, the biographical approach is sympathetic with a landscape approach: there is a close affinity in studying the landscape palimpsest and the life histories of objects, indeed the two should be linked.

BLack and white photo of a carved cross slab with iron pointed top railings in front

Figure 71: Pictish cross-slab from Fowlis Wester, Perthshire, fitted with iron ‘jougs’ for the restraint and public humiliation of petty offenders (post-Reformation). Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Biography has an important role to play in understanding reverse taphonomy. In archaeology, taphonomy (from the Greek taphos, meaning ‘burial’) is the study of what happens to material from the moment of burial (by any means, not necessarily funerary or even deliberate) until its discovery by archaeologists. By investigating the biological or cultural processes which affect the preservation and recovery of material from the archaeological record, taphonomy yields insight into the pre-deposition state of material and how representative a recovered sample might be. Reverse taphonomy is, as the name suggests, a method of working backwards from recovered material, using an understanding of the forces which will have affected its preservation, to an improved understanding of its original condition and significance. The taphonomy of prehistoric rock art would have to take into account, for instance, patterns of destruction associated with agricultural improvement, preservation due to agricultural marginality, and recovery connected with forestry. The taphonomy of early medieval sculpture would require attention to its frequent re-use as building material in different periods.