Case Study 14: Early medieval sculptured stone and the production of social value

Siân Jones

The historic, evidential and aesthetic values of early medieval sculptured stones are well-established and these contribute to the national and international significance they are accorded. Yet issues surrounding their conservation and display frequently arouse strong public opinion, suggesting that these monuments are also associated with contemporary social and communal values. This case study focuses on the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish symbol-bearing cross-slab (hereafter HoC), which was the focus of a detailed ethnographic study in 2001–2003 (Jones 2004). The aim of the research was to increase understanding of the meanings surrounding such monuments, and gain insights into their role in the production of memory, identity and place. Qualitative research methodologies were used, including participant observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews with local residents.

The large upper section of the HoC cross-slab is on display in the Museum of Scotland (NMS), but the discovery and excavation of the lower section at the HoC chapel in 2001 ignited public protest and ownership claims (Figure 1). Certain aspects of the cross-slab’s local social value were already known to the heritage professionals, archaeologists and art historians involved. These included a body of oral historical and folk narratives. However, the ethnographic research revealed that the cross-slab is imbued with deep metaphorical and symbolic significance in local contexts. It is often conceived as a living thing; indeed even an ancient member of the village. In interviews, people talked of it being ‘born’, ‘living’, ‘breathing’, ‘dying’, and even having a ‘soul’ and ‘charisma’. Furthermore, just as people are traditionally seen as ‘belonging’ to both community and place by virtue of kinship and birth in this part of Scotland, the cross-slab ‘belongs’ in similar ways. The research shows that the cross-slab’s metaphorical and symbolic associations are key to its role in the production of community identities and sense of place. Here the monument provides a means to make Hilton a place of significance, set against economic decline and strong sense of marginality. At the same time, against the historic backdrop of the Highland Clearances and large-scale emigration, the biography of the monument provides a metaphor for processes of displacement and loss that remain a powerful focus of social memory.

The HoC study suggests that carved stones are likely to be embedded in a complex and dynamic body of social meanings, identities and memories. These may not be evident in their fabric, or accessible to the distanced observer, but they underpin their important role in the production of community and place. The research therefore has significant implications for how we understand these carved stone monuments, as well as how they are conserved and displayed. However, the HoC study also shows that social values may diverge from, and even conflict with, historical, evidential and aesthetic values. There is a pressing need for further studies into the social value of early medieval and other kinds of carved stone. The HoC research demonstrates that in-depth ethnographic research is well suited to eliciting insights into social and communal values. However, there is also a strong case for incorporating focused qualitative methods into routine heritage management contexts, so that social and communal values can be taken into account in conservation decision-making alongside other values. 

A colour photo of a group of people stood in a field around a large, flat stone which is wrapped in straps and laying on a sheet of foam

Figure 1: The lower section of the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab shortly after excavation in 2001. © Sian Jones

Return to Section 4.2: Identifying and evaluating value, significance and importance

Return to Section 4.3.3: Social

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