Power and placement–Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture

My second post for this blog (Religious syncretism in Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture) was about religious syncretism as seen in Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture. I said then that this is one of my favourite topics, and I will say it again. They are such fabulous monuments that I felt the need to come back to them and explore what I think is their most remarkable feature: their continued presence in their original landscape. In this post I want to talk about the significance of landscape and the difficulties faced by museums in recreating or re-establishing the cultural context once the object has been selected for museum display.

Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculptures have a wide geographic distribution in the areas of England which saw Scandinavian settlement, indicating that they were a broad cultural phenomenon. There are more than fifty surviving monuments displaying both Norse and Christian iconography. I explored some examples in the earlier post that had Christ and Viðarr depicted on the Gosforth Cross, but now that I’ve introduced the iconography, what about the placement? Did placement matter? Why put these enormous monuments in the landscape?


In this post, I’ll use sculpture from the county of Lincolnshire to highlight patterns of distribution and meaning. Lincolnshire’s stone sculpture has been thoroughly examined and mapped, but patterns of distribution and their meaning have only recently been embraced. I’m going to argue that placement and iconography are of equal significance and that both are integral to a reading of these monuments.

Lincolnshire stone sculptures
Lincolnshire stone sculptures. Picture credit: Everson and Stocker 1999.

Stone monuments are generally associated with the presence of a contemporary Christian graveyard and have survived in great numbers in counties across England. In Lincolnshire, one in five still-standing medieval churches have stone sculpture from the pre-Conquest era, with some areas of the county having an even higher proportion, although it is interesting to note that Lincolnshire actually doesn’t have a tradition of carving before the Scandinavian contact period. (See the very useful Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture volume on Lincolnshire: Everson and Stocker 1999).

Everson and Stocker have argued that stone sculptures were transported across the waterways as they were large and heavy and liable to breakage. They argue that the pattern of distribution would support this, along with written references to this type of shipment, and also because of the high cost of transporting heavy stone over land (1999: 70).

Edenham remains. Picture credit: Wikipedia
Edenham remains. Picture credit: Wikipedia

Although the majority of the stone sculptures from the Anglo-Scandinavian period in Lincolnshire are associated with a funerary function, as a memorial or burial marker, some may have had a preaching function, or even a combination of the two. One example from Lincolnshire is the cross-shaft at Edenham. It’s thought to have been associated with the giving of a sermon and may have been in the background of the event. Standing at a height of 5-6 metres, this piece would have been an imposing part of the ceremony for the audience.


The original landscape

Stone sculpture from the Anglo-Scandinavian period can still be seen in its original landscape, making these pieces an incredible case study for landscape studies. In fact, the following statement has been made:

Where a stone now is, in general, is where it has always been and where it was produced. (Bailey 1996: 12)

Excavations have shown that where early stone monuments have been reused, they tend to remain within the same building and when they are moved, it is rarely to another building or another town (Stocker 2000: 180). For this reason, the distribution of sculpture which is seen today is worth serious consideration as it represents an unchanged distribution. It also gives information at a local level about acculturation and integration. Landscape has been used by Meggen Gondek (in a really fabulous article) in particular to examine the social and political meaning of stone sculpture in Scotland between the sixth and eleventh centuries.

It may be that community figures in the emerging Anglo-Scandinavian landscape attempted to legitimise and publicise their new-found authority by commissioning large-scale stone monuments.

Martin Carver has recognised the value of an investigation of stone monuments and their political power:

Monuments comprise the vocabulary of a political language, fossilized versions of arguments that were continuous and may have related more to what was desired than what had occurred. (Carver 2001: 1)

I’m going to write something really post-processual now: these monuments had a meaning beyond their function as art. I hope you’re still with me.


If the original landscape is so important, and the objects are still situated in the same place, how can people see them? Well, they can travel to Lincolnshire or to any of the sites and see them in situ. Visiting sites can be tricky, and in a future post I’ll talk about some of the difficulties inherent in visiting archaeological sites, the heritage tourism industry and imagining a former landscape. Swain, in the influential An Introduction to Museum Archaeology (2007), said that ‘so many archaeological sites are so difficult to understand visually’ (2007: 211). The challenge of effective communication is particularly hard for archaeology.

One of the main benefits of a site-specific museum is the connection between the object and the landscape. The role of the landscape can be explored with a post-processual approach by allowing the visitor to see material culture in the place it is from in order to make that connection themselves. But that’s a luxury not everyone has.

Rune stone at the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen
Rune stone at the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

The Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen has a room of rune stones, with them standing on pebbled areas dotted around an open gallery space. They’ve been displayed with attention paid to the fact that putting them behind glass totally divorces them from any kind of engagement with the viewer. Thankfully they are open to the viewer, imposing and without any material culture next to them. You’re never going to forget you’re in a room rather than an open landscape, but really, it’s better than seeing them behind glass surrounded by shiny things.


What I hope I’ve suggested in this post is that the placement of the work and the monumentality of the sculptures were not incidental, and introduced the concept that they were deliberately and carefully chosen to project a sense of authority, wealth and legitimacy onto the community and landscape as it changed.



Next week: the dead don’t bury themselves, so let’s dig up some graves for Halloween and peek inside

Works cited

BAILEY, R. N. 1996. England’s Earliest Sculptors, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

CARVER, M. 2001. Why that? Why there? Why then? The politics of early medieval monumentality. In: CRAMP, R., HAMEROW, H. & MACGREGOR, A. (eds.) Image and power in the archaeology of early medieval Britain: essays in honour of Rosemary Cramp. Oxbow.

EVERSON, P. & STOCKER, D. 1999. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture in England: Lincolnshire, Oxford University Press.

GONDEK, M. 2006. Investing in Sculpture: Power in Early-historic Scotland. Medieval Archaeology, 50, 105-142.

SWAIN, H. 2007. An Introduction to Museum Archaeology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


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