Rediscovering the lost Govan Stones

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Fourteen-year-old Mark McGettigan discovered the long-lost stones on his very first dig. (IMAGE: Martin Shields)

Three long-lost gravestones belonging to one of the most significant collections of Viking Age sculpture in Britain and Ireland have been found during a community dig in the churchyard of Govan Old Parish Church in Glasgow. The stones were (re)discovered by Mark McGettigan, a 14-year-old student volunteering on his very first excavation, which was run by Northlight Heritage.

Mark described how he made the discovery: ‘I was just prodding the ground to see if there was anything there and suddenly it made a noise and I realised I had hit something. Myself and two of the archaeologists worked out the area of the object and started to dig it out and clean it. I wasn’t too sure at the start what it was. But then we checked with the records and we realised it was one of the lost Govan Stones. I am extremely happy, in fact I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.’

The Govan Stones were carved between the 9th and 11th centuries to commemorate the rulers of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, who made the area around the Clyde into a political and religious centre following the Viking siege in AD 870 and the subsequent fall of the British royal stronghold on Dumbarton Rock (see CA 198). Some 46 stones were originally found in the churchyard, but their importance was not fully recognised until the end of the 19th century. Subsequently, 31 were moved inside the church for safekeeping, while the other 15 were displayed against the churchyard walls. It was long thought that when the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished in 1973, these 15 stones had been destroyed as well. But this new discovery has shown that at least three of the stones did survive, and the possibility remains that others may be buried in the vicinity. Archaeologists hope that further excavations in the area might help bring them to light too.

The Govan sarcophagus, one the most important stones in the collection. (IMAGE: Northlight Heritage)

‘The discovery is very timely because the Govan Heritage Trust is embarking on a major refurbishment of Govan Old, which will culminate in a redisplay of the collection,’ said Professor Stephen Driscoll, from the University of Glasgow, and a member of the Govan Heritage Trust. ‘In the coming months we look forward to continuing this community archaeological work to locate the other lost stones, to assess their condition from a conservation perspective, and to consider how best to secure their long-term future.’

It is hoped that the newly found stones – which, like the others in the collection, are decorated with crosses and Celtic interlace patterns – will prominently feature along with the other 31 in the church’s new life as a community heritage centre.

This article appeared in CA 351.

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