Older studies have been justly criticised for focusing too narrowly on the stone itself with insufficient attention given to its physical setting in the landscape. Carved stones were often taken out of context and rarely recognised as being, to use modern parlance, ‘site-specific installations’ (Figure 72). Since the 1990s, however, the development of landscape archaeology and the growth in interest in materiality and biography has fostered a heightened awareness of the importance of the physical context of stone monuments—at a variety of scales from the immediate setting to the wider landscape, whether on a local or regional level. It should be noted that landscape archaeology refers here, not simply to the biophysical environment but to a cultural landscape theorized as a space composed of three aspects: the material, social and cognitive. In keeping with other humanistic social theories, landscape approaches model places and spaces as dynamic participants in past behaviour, viewing them not simply as a setting for, or artefact of, human action.
The landscape approach is inherently multi-disciplinary (Donside: Case Study 11). There are obvious intersections with archaeological science, which can assist in the recreation of the palaeo-environment through above-ground and below-ground archaeological investigations. Recent advances in, e.g. survey technology, digital scanning, data visualization, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), have provided a number of tools to carved stone researchers. One such is viewshed analysis which is used to reconstruct the line of sight to and from a monument, and thus helps situate it within a defined landscape. Advances in recreating past routeways facilitate a better understanding of movement through a landscape and thus how monuments are viewed or otherwise interacted with.
Theories of materiality are of particular assistance in exploring how stones were experienced in combination with other elements in their environment, whether these are cultural or natural, physical or conceptual (e.g. other monuments, buildings, water-courses, boundaries). It also directs attention to the dynamic nature of environmental interaction, e.g. how the play of light across a carved surface highlights different aspects of carving at different times of the day or year (Figure 73; Gefreh 2015); or the influence of changing weather conditions (Pulliam 2013). Biographical approaches have fostered interest in secondary locations, and encouraged due attention to original sites in the many cases where stones have been moved. Attention to landscape and biography directs attention to how monuments may be conceived of as being in dialogue with existing and subsequently erected monuments around them. It thus encourages the study of assemblages, whether on the level of a single site, or a wider landscape. Emphasis on landscape enables the identification and understanding of factors, both environmental and social, which underlie movement, loss and other changes to carved stones—this data can be applied to identify potential threats before they happen and to strengthen legislation. It also encourages modern visitors to carved stones to experience them not in isolation but as part of a landscape (Faith in Cowal: Case Study 12).
Approaches such as these are effective at various scales and can be applied as usefully to a single site as to a slice of countryside. A graveyard, for instance, can be considered, as it is experienced, as not just a collection of individual burial monuments, but as a complex and integrated multi-element burial landscape in microcosm. Such a holistic approach seeks to understand the interconnected relationships of all physical features present within a graveyard (including carved stones individually and as an assemblage), and linked social behaviour, and their spatial, chronological and historical relationships to each other and to the site’s setting.
In addition to, and intersecting with, materiality, biography and landscape, various other theoretical frameworks used in archaeology are available to carved stones researchers. Williams et al. 2015b and others have discussed carved stones as a ‘mnemonic technology’ through which societies ‘do memory work’ by remembering and forgetting past meanings. Other theoretical frameworks, e.g. agency theory, performance, and gender have been drawn on to a lesser extent (for gender and the Ruthwell Cross see Farr 1991). The contribution of all is to open out new ways of thinking about carved stones, and to prompt new questions.