Volume I | Chapter 3 | Circumstances of ProductionNext Back to catalogue index
by Rosemary Cramp, University of Durham

There is no definite evidence in this area for the circumstances under which sculpture was initially produced nor under whose patronage. I have discussed this problem more fully elsewhere (Cramp 1977, 191–2; Cramp 1978a, 1–6), but it seems clear that pre-Viking stone sculpture was exclusively used in ecclesiastical contexts and that stone craftsmen would be most reasonably retained in the big monastic houses, where there were not only churches but domestic buildings of stone to maintain (p. 23). By the ninth century there were seemingly many centres in Bernicia providing both architectural and cross sculpture.

However the circumstances of production of the early inscribed slabs, which are a distinctive feature of this area, raise some problems. Among the Irish, who played a fundamental missionary role in Bernicia, inscribed slabs are associated with graveyards of literate communities, and seem to follow traditions which are separate from those of the high crosses (Lionard 1961, 155–7). The same is true in Northumbria where, at such centres as Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, stone slabs but no stone buildings are yet known, and for Hartlepool no evidence exists for the development of stone crosses.

One would expect inscriptions to be produced by literate groups, but it has also been noted that inscriptions are not essential for the designs of the name-stones: 'If commercial masons made these pieces, they may have prepared in advance numbers of incised slabs, adding names to them as they came into use' (Page 1973, 161). Two of the Hartlepool inscriptions (nos. 4 and 5) have been tentatively assigned to different times of cutting, and on the Herebericht slab, Monkwearmouth 5, the formula asking for prayer is in a different hand from that of the deceased's name. Although eighth-century moneyers might be cited as a parallel for lay groups producing inscribed objects, we do not know the circumstances of production of dies in the early period. In the seventh and eighth centuries it seems preferable to envisage ecclesiastical workshops producing sculpture for a variety of secular and clerical patrons. At Jarrow at least there are closely similar patterns on architectural sculpture and crosses, and similar lettering on the dedication slab of the church and on large inscribed memorial slabs.

It seems probable, for a generation or so after the Viking invasions and settlements in the north, that a slow redistribution of craftsmen and patrons took place. Some craftsmen may have lingered near old centres and incidentally provided help to newly founded centres (see, for example, the Jarrow influence on Chester-le-Street 1). Some may have become itinerant, or apprentices may have set up on their own, creating a new 'style-book' from tracing off existing models, or producing new designs which reflected the secular art of the time. Most of the early tenth-century Bernician stones may have been produced by itinerant craftsmen. The copying of earlier monuments and the use of templates is clearly manifested in the schools between the Tyne and Tees in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Adcock (1974) has provided evidence for interlace templates which link together schools of carvers from Lindisfarne through Chester-le-Street to Durham. Bailey has produced interesting evidence for template construction of figural and animal ornament, and moreover one which embraces carvings with clearly Viking taste in Scandinavian-dominated places, such as those from Sockburn and Brompton, and stones from English places, such as Ovingham and Tynemouth or groups at Durham (Bailey 1978, 180–5, pls. 9.2–9.12). It is difficult, in skilful work, especially in the early period, to be certain whether identity of design is achieved through the careful use of the same constructional grid, or the use of templates. In the later period when patterns do not conform to the same geometric principles, repetition seems to imply templates and tracing.

Architectural sculpture in the form of panels, string-courses or imposts, which is preeminent in introducing new motifs into southern English sculpture of the tenth and eleventh centuries, is missing in this area. Crosses, however, increase in number and seem to evolve strictly local stylistic groups, such as one sees in Aycliffe and Gainford. Some small slabs for head- or foot-stones could be quarry-workshop products, but no major centres of production have been determined through the analysis of stone types in this area. This is largely because so many carvings are of sandstone and the exact quarries for this stone are difficult to locate. A development in the petrological study of this area could well define more precisely workshops or schools.

TECHNIQUES (Grammar of Ornament, p. xxii, and fig. 8)

More research is needed on the choice of stone for different types of monuments and the relationship between stone types and apparent technical skill. For example, the finer detail on the lathe-turned balusters or interlace patterns on architectural details from Monkwearmouth, in comparison with Jarrow, may be due to the soft limestone used for the former as against sandstone for the latter, rather than a decrease in skill or delicacy of taste. Softer stones, which could be polished smoothly, may also have been preferred as a good basis for paint. Much of the architectural sculpture from Monkwearmouth and Hexham has surviving fragments of background gesso and red or black paint. However sandstone pieces from Hexham and Jarrow also have such a background and the surface of the stone has been given a very smooth finish. It appears that in the seventh and eighth centuries a particularly finely polished surface was preferred on Northumbrian sculpture. This can be seen not only on architectural details but also on name-stones from Hartlepool, Lindisfarne and Monkwearmouth, where the surface has perhaps been finished with an abrasive.

Although the surface is often rougher on stones of the ninth to eleventh century, it appears that paint was still used (Collingwood 1915, 288–9). The shallow grooved styles of carving where outlines are roughly picked and grooved out would be rendered more effective by the use of paint. Traces of paint still survive on stones from, for example, Chester-le-Street (no. 2), Hexham (nos. 33–4) and Monkwearmouth (nos. 14 and 20).

It is possible, when considering the earliest pieces, that some of the skills in setting out the ornament of a manuscript page could have been translated into the medium of stone by the use of slightly more robust tools. The use of a straight-edge is shown on several of the early name stones, in particular Hartlepool 6, where the centre line for the incised cross arm survives. Moreover the mark of the compass which was used for forming the curves of the terminals of the arms on crosses from Hartlepool and Lindisfarne can also be seen on unweathered specimens. The grid, which is marked out in hole points as a guide for the cutting of interlace (Grammar of Ornament, p. xxix), is usually formed by a series of small punch-holes, and, in Anglo-Scandinavian work of the tenth century, such as Sockburn 7, the central points of the Como-braid loop, and the intersection of the strands of the flat interlace are heavily emphasized with what could be a drilled point. Fine laying-out lines for ornament can be deciphered on newly excavated or unweathered pieces ranging in date throughout the period, and it is possible to measure the size of the tools used. Fine chisels with differing widths of blade have left marks which are still visible on excavated material at Monkwearmouth (Pl. 260), and the use of fine chisels and points is to be found in the modelled style of carving. Such tools were also used by the carver of the Durham grave-cover (no. 11) and Aycliffe 1 at the end of the period, although much of the later work uses a coarser technique of outlining and gouging with larger tools including the pick, point, or punch.


Most of the geological formations of Durham and Northumberland consist of rocks of Carboniferous and Permian age which dip eastwards towards the North Sea (Fig. 4).

The predominant rock types of the Carboniferous are limestones, sandstones and shales, with limestone being most important in the Lower Carboniferous. This becomes less common at higher stratigraphic horizons, where sandstones become correspondingly more important. The youngest rocks of Carboniferous age are the Coal Measures which consist mainly of sandstones with thin coal seams and shale horizons.

Overlying these Carboniferous deposits are beds of Permian age consisting mainly of magnesian limestone (limestone with a high magnesium content) and marls (calcareous clay-rich rock).

Most of the stones examined were of Carboniferous sandstone, which is the commonest suitable building stone over most of the area. Unfortunately it is not possible to locate precisely sources of this material because it is so uniform in appearance, and the terms used in the Catalogue to describe the stones, such as colour and texture, do not imply any stratigraphic or geographical location. Sometimes a sandstone has been described as micaceous; this is simply an indication that it contains noticeable quantities of a mica mineral such as muscovite.

It is possible to be more precise when dealing with material of Permian age. It can be seen from Fig. 5 that the outcrop is mainly restricted to eastern Durham, and in particular the Hartlepool and Roker dolomite is of very limited occurrence.

This particular rock type, soft and pale cream in colour, sometimes has an oolitic texture, that is, the rock consists of spheroidal carbonate grains about 1–2 mm diameter, so that it is easily recognizable. It is a commonly used material east of Durham.

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