A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales. Volume II: South West Wales by Nancy Edwards

Campbell, E. (2009) A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales. Volume II: South West Wales by Nancy Edwards. English Historical Review, 509, pp. 916-917. (doi:10.1093/ehr/cep167) [Book Review]

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Abstract

A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales. Volume II: South-West Wales, by Nancy Edwards. ( Cardiff: U. of Wales P., 2007; pp. 568. £70).
This splendid volume, one of three planned to cover the whole of Wales, is an important work of scholarship which gives historians, archaeologists, linguists and epigraphers access to one of the most important collections of early medieval sculpture in Europe. This Welsh material is of fundamental importance to our understanding of the development of the Insular Celtic languages, at a period from the fifth to seventh centuries when the Brittonic (Welsh) and Goidelic (Gaelic) branches were undergoing rapid fission. The stones also represent the major body of artefactual evidence for the early medieval period in Wales, given the continuing difficulty in discovering archaeological sites of the period. This volume is a truly interdisciplinary study, combining art historical, archaeological and linguistic approaches. Although based on the format of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, the volume pays special attention to the language of the inscriptions (with a chapter by Patrick Sims-Williams), and their landscape context.
A series of eleven introductory chapters detail the historical, archaeological and geological background, followed by a series on aspects of the inscribed stones and sculpture, the inscriptions, and finally a summarising chapter on the development of stone-carving in Wales. These chapters are all extremely useful, giving sound analyses of the material, in much greater depth than in the Anglo-Saxon Corpus. For this reviewer, highlights included: a discussion of the original locations of the early inscribed stones, most of which can be shown to be associated with churches, in contrast to north Wales, and thus often provide the earliest evidence for these sites; illustration that the roman-letter inscriptions are not derived from Roman lapidary capitals and later Continental uncial book-hand, but from the general late-Roman cursive tradition and a range of lesser scripts; the definitive decoupling of the famous Voteporix stone from Gildas’ tyrant Vorptipor; and the discussion of the location of the cross-carved stones which are shown to be associated with parish churches rather than important monasteries, and demonstrate the early medieval origins of the parish system in this area.
However, the meat of the volume lies in the catalogue of 216 monuments. These are well presented, with excellent photographs of all the decorated faces, often taken using modern lighting techniques. There are outline drawings of all the inscriptions, along with a selection of the decorated sculpture. The entries on each stone are of the highest quality, with comprehensive critical discussion of any antiquarian accounts (often important in preserving lost information), the language and epigraphy of the inscriptions, and the decorative elements. The production of the volume cannot be faulted, though one might have expected some colour illustrations. The eight pages of comparative scale drawings of a large number of the stones, following the model of the Scottish Royal Commission's corpus of the West Highland sculpture, are particularly useful. The entries are organised by county and parish but, unless one is familiar with the location of every Welsh parish (these are not shown on any map), it is difficult to locate individual stones on the maps. It might have been better to have used the catalogue numbers on the location maps, and also on the page headers for ease of cross-referencing. Given the current debate on the best means of recording and presenting these complex three-dimensional monuments, the one surprising omission is any discussion of the recording methods employed. It is not clear whether the outline drawings of the inscriptions were prepared independently or under supervision, why only some of the other stones were drawn, or why the fully shaded drawings used by the Scottish Royal Commission were not employed. Cost was no doubt a major factor in these decisions, but some acknowledgment that there are alternatives, and that these can affect the interpretation of the monument, would have been welcome.
The difficulties of carrying out this work cannot be overestimated. Most of the monuments are in remote rural locations, often in locked or disused churches, some requiring complicated negotiations to gain access, as well as co-ordination of access between the geologists, photographers and illustrators. Many months of fieldwork were required, and Dr Edwards is to be commended for her dedication to this project. The Board of Celtic Studies, the National Museum of Wales, and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales are to be congratulated on supporting this venture. Overall, this volume is an outstanding achievement and an essential work of scholarship and reference for anyone with an interest in early medieval Britain.

Item Type:Book Reviews
Status:Published
Refereed:No
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Campbell, Dr Ewan
Authors: Campbell, E.
Subjects:C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CC Archaeology
College/School:College of Arts > School of Humanities > Archaeology
Journal Name:English Historical Review
ISSN:0013-8266

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