Volume III | Chapter 1 | Earlier Research Next Back to catalogue index
by James Lang

Of the hundreds of pre-Conquest carvings in Yorkshire, only two excited antiquarian interest in the eighteenth century: the sundials at Kirkdale (Ill. 568) and Aldbrough (Ill. 418) (Brooke 1779; idem 1782). Both carry inscriptions, and it was the epigraphy which attracted scholarly attention almost exclusively throughout the nineteenth century. The absence in York and eastern Yorkshire of any truly monumental sculptures equal in scale to the crosses at Bewcastle, Cumberland, and Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, perhaps led to this neglect, though the foundation of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1827, together with its building of the Yorkshire Museum, ensured that occasional finds of Anglo-Saxon carvings were preserved in its collections. The Reverend Charles Wellbeloved recorded this process in a series of museum handbooks (Wellbeloved 1852; idem 1854; idem 1858; idem 1861; idem 1869; idem 1875; idem 1881; idem 1891).

At first the Yorkshire Archaeological Society remained less than curious in this field, not even commenting on such monuments on their excursions, except for the indefatigable Father Haigh's identifications of runic inscriptions in the 1870s. If many of these have apparently disappeared in the passage of our own century, it is possible that some may have been the trick of Victorian light. His readings are now usually regarded with caution, but his pioneer recording of the stones was a foundation for later studies. Early in this century, however, the neglect was more than remedied in a series of papers in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal by W. G. Collingwood. Collingwood surveyed the whole of Yorkshire's pre-Conquest sculpture, describing, measuring, and drawing nearly every piece (Collingwood 1907; idem 1909; idem 1911a; idem 1915). These articles are seminal, a sine qua non for any study of the material, whether in or beyond the county.

Collingwood's catalogue forms the basis for this volume, though inevitably supplemented by the new material only recently discovered under York Minster. So often the evidence for discovery rests in his entries and, by and large, his dating of the carvings remains perfectly acceptable. As well as producing the corpus of his day, Collingwood also classified the ornament and forms of monument (Collingwood 1915, 261–99). His drawings served as an index to the repertoire of these, and have remained so until the publication of the present volume. Further articles by Collingwood on aspects of the subject, such as the dispersion of the ring-head cross (Collingwood 1926), put the eastern Yorkshire material into a broader context and prepared the ground for his synthesis of the subject, Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age, in 1927. That book still provides a key to interpreting the material, not least because of its illustrations. Its dating of the sculpture, however, should be used with caution; it tends to suggest too neat a chronology, the styles changing promptly on the quarter century. It is safer to rely on the articles in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal than on the 1927 book in this respect. In his later years, Collingwood also produced a chronology of Anglian monuments (Collingwood 1932).

Collingwood's broad sweep has not been matched since. Kendrick's published work (Kendrick 1938; idem 1949), like Br{**}ndsted's (Br{**}ndsted 1924), rests upon Collingwood's fieldwork and analysis. The Yorkshire pieces, however, are placed in the broadest of frameworks by Br{**}ndsted, Kendrick, and latterly Wilson (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen 1966), who have rightly been concerned to convey the wider view. In the 1930s Kendrick established the British Museum's card index of pre-Conquest sculpture, which extends Collingwood's catalogue, and provides useful information regarding provenance. A sharper focus was attempted by Binns in his detailed analysis of the Middleton group (Binns 1956). His monograph changed the approach from generalized comment to the scrutiny of particular detail. Over the following fifteen years a debate ensued (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen 1966; Sawyer 1971; Lang 1973), which spilled over on occasion into settlement and place-name studies, fields of study in which pre-Conquest sculpture provides unreliable signposts.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s excavations at York Minster, first by Hope-Taylor and Ramm, and then by Phillips, revealed a pre-Conquest cemetery under its south transept (Hope-Taylor 1971, 26–7; Phillips 1985, 45, 79–81). Here was an eleventh-century cemetery with decorated tombstones in situ over the graves. Nearly fifty sculptures were recovered, including reused early Anglian monuments of a type hitherto unknown (see Chap. 5). A selection of the Anglo-Scandinavian examples was published by Pattison (Pattison 1973), but many important pieces have had to wait until the present volume for publication. The Minster collection has altered the balance, and provided new criteria for the assessment of styles in both Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian carvings throughout Yorkshire.

In the wake of Binns and Pattison, who considered local groups of monuments in detail, a series of studies by the present writer, on hogbacks, Nunburnholme 1, the York Metropolitan School, Stonegrave, and Levisham, have appeared (Lang 1967; idem 1977; idem 1978b; idem 1984a; Firby and Lang 1981; Hall and Lang 1986). The establishment of workshops, and even of individual hands, has demonstrated that sculpture from York and Ryedale provide exemplars for methods of construction and cutting technique (Lang 1985). The present volume proceeds further in these directions, as well as publishing many new finds, and opening up new opportunities for exploring the implications of the recent analysis of the geology of the stones by John Senior (see Chap. 3).

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