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Megan Henvey (2019)

Megan Henvey

The monumental sculpted high crosses of the north of Ireland exist as some of the most important evidence of visual culture, religious beliefs and practices in Ireland in the early Middle Ages yet they have received little in the way of scholarly attention. Traditionally identified discretely as ‘The Northern Group’ according to their setting within modern geo-political boundaries irrelevant to their original production, I take an individualising approach in my research to position them within their local and international historical, artistic and Christian contexts and establish connections of communication between sites.

One area that proved impossible to find information on was the identification of the stone-type of the monuments central to my study. Despite the example of the mammoth (and almost complete) project begun in 1977 that is the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in recording and publishing England’s early medieval sculpture in a holistic manner from geology to iconography, historiography, and beyond, no such study of the Irish material has been undertaken. My Text Technologies Fellowship enabled me to not only commission a report, but to accompany the geologist on his investigations through the north of Ireland. This research trip proved incredibly illuminating not only as I learned a huge amount about stone-type identification that will undoubtedly be of tremendous use in the future, but the combination of our two disciplinary backgrounds gave rise to much fruitful discussion and insights, such that we are now preparing a joint article outlining our findings.

While I am still coming to terms with a vast new glossary of geological terms in order to establish precisely what the results tell us, there are some undeniable highlights of our findings that stand-out. Firstly, most of the crosses are made of a similar grey sandstone, possibly of Carboniferous Age, but likely from various quarries as they display varying traits such as visible bedding (distinctive layers), presence of feldspar, muscovite, and / or quartz crystals (sometimes up to 1 cm in diameter!), and sometimes veins of another stone-type. Others, particularly in County Down, are identified as Mourne or Newry Granite, and one curious case in County Antrim is of a local red basalt. Secondly, an aspect of stone carving I had never before considered was the presence, and exploitation of natural planar fractures; it seems some high crosses had their dimensions dictated by the natural shape of the rock formation and in some cases, protruding areas of the sculpture reveal the original, natural face of the rock. And finally, while the evidence of correlations between the stone-type of the crosses and the bases on which they stand requires further deliberation, the variances have the potential to not only reveal whether or not the cross stands in its original base and / or space, but additionally, what choices were made, and how, regarding the quality and type of stone chosen to be intricately and figurally-carved, or left bare as the base?

These questions are among those with which I will be grappling probably for quite some time. The fieldwork, funded by Stanford Text Technologies, and the report have provided the answers to some of my most burning questions, but as always, have provided me with a whole host of new areas that I can’t wait to explore!