Early medieval sculpture in southeast Ireland: identities, landscape and memory

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Colbert, Kate
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University College Cork
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This project investigates early medieval (c. AD 400–1200) sculpted stones as commemorative technologies and agents of cultural transmission, instilled with an array of meanings that varied between individuals and over time. Using the southeast of Ireland as a case study, it considers the sculpture in five modern counties – Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford, and South Tipperary – within which were a range of ecclesiastical sites, including some of ‘national’ importance such as Lismore and Ferns. The core aim of this study is to expand our understanding of carved stones and their role in early medieval society by examining why these monuments were created and how people interacted with them, as well as the meanings and values with which they imbued their surrounding landscape. Some of the questions explored in this thesis are why some sites invest in sculpture while others do not, why sculpture is produced at certain times during the life of a site and not others, and what these carved stones can tell us about the priorities and social identities of their communities. Analyses were often augmented by computational imaging tools – primarily photogrammetry, though reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), and geographic information systems (GIS) were also selectively applied – as a means to enhance the examination and interpretation of pieces with particularly worn or weathered carvings. By utilising a synthesis of recording techniques and theoretical approaches, it is hoped that a more fully comprehensive study of the early medieval sculpture of this region has been achieved. High crosses and otherwise undecorated ogham stones were not surveyed, as several studies on these monuments have already been done, or are ongoing. Instead, this project focused on other stone monuments with sculpture, e.g. grave-markers, boundary markers, portable stone objects, etc. Altogether, 260 carved stones were analysed for this study, distributed across 53 sites. A wide variety of monument-types are represented in this region, including some for which there are only a handful of examples in Ireland, e.g. sundials, tau crosses, gable finials, etc. The distribution of sculpture shows that major ecclesiastical sites in the southeast, particularly Emly, the premier church of Munster, did not invest heavily in stone sculpture, and, instead, chose to invest most of their resources elsewhere. This is in stark contrast to several other major ecclesiastical sites in Ireland, e.g. Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, and Iniscealtra, which produced hundreds of pieces of stone sculpture. Additionally, some of the more significant findings to come out of this thesis are the subjects of stand-alone chapters. A reassessment of the large assemblage of sculpture at St Berrihert’s Kyle, Co. Tipperary was undertaken due to the reorganisation of several carved stones at the site since this collection was last published. Sculpture appears to have been a specialty of St Berrihert’s Kyle, especially in the 8th century. This site, and the nearby Toureen Peakaun, together contain one of the highest concentrations of 7th–8th century grave-markers in Ireland, and yet, stylistically, the sculpture at these two sites are markedly different. This seems to suggest that ‘house styles’, as well as preferred monument forms, reflect the development of separate ecclesiastical identities, even between communities with close links. A group of four ‘marigold’ stones were identified in Co. Wexford with shared hagiographical, socio-political and ecclesiastical links, both with each other and with several Welsh churches, particularly St David’s. More importantly, this group of stones present us with physical evidence for ties between specific religious foundations around and across the Irish Sea, which have been hitherto difficult to identify. At the ecclesiastical site of Clonmore in Co. Carlow, components of at least one, possibly two, composite stone shrines were discovered. This new archaeological evidence, together with its already considerable assemblage of early medieval sculpture, supports a number of textual sources of the period that claim Clonmore housed a significant collection of corporeal saints' relics. Moreover, the cult of relics which had been built around this collection differed markedly in its expression from most other relic cults across Ireland and, to an extent, elsewhere in Western Europe — indicating that the cult of relics in Ireland was perhaps more diverse in its character and material manifestations than previously assumed.
Archaeology , Stone sculpture , Early medieval
Colbert, K. 2020. Early medieval sculpture in southeast Ireland: identities, landscape and memory. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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