In the 19th century, 46 ornate medieval gravestones were discovered at a churchyard in the Scottish district of Govan, which is now part of Glasgow. Thirty-one of the “Govan Stones” were moved into the church for safekeeping, and the rest were displayed against a churchyard wall. But in the 1970s, amid the hubbub of the demolition of an adjacent shipyard, the outdoor stones disappeared. Experts believed they had been destroyed.
Thanks to a 14-year-old aspiring archaeologist, however, there is now hope that the lost Govan Stones have survived to the present day, as the BBC reports. Mark McGettigan recently took part in a community dig in the graveyard of the Govan Old Parish Church, and was busying himself by “prodding the ground to see if there was anything there,” he explains. Suddenly, he heard a noise.
“I realised I had hit something,” he says.
Two professional archaeologists then joined Mark in extracting the object from the ground and cleaning it off. Records helped confirmed that the stone they pulled from the ground was in fact one of the famed Govan set. Subsequent excavations led to the discovery of two more of the missing stones. The trio, which date to the 10th and 11th centuries, are adorned with crosses and Celtic interlace patterns similar to the ones seen on the stones inside the church. Stephen Driscoll, a professor of historical archaeology and the University of Glasgow and a member of the Govan Heritage Trust, called the recent find “the most exciting discovery we have had at Govan in the last 20 years.”
“The Govan Stones are a collection of international importance,” Driscoll added, “and these recovered stones reinforce the case for regarding Govan as a major early medieval centre of power.”
Collectively, the Govan Stones harken back to a turbulent period before Scotland was born as a nation and opposing groups battled for control of the British Isles. By the 6th century, a kingdom of native Britons that would become known as the kingdom of “Strathclyde” spanned along the River Clyde. The group’s capital originally centered on the stronghold of Dumbarton, but when Dumbarton was sacked by the Vikings in 870 A.D., the kingdom shifted its base to nearby Govan.
The Govan Old Parish Church that can be seen today was built in the 19th century, but it stands on a site of religious worship that dates back to the 6th century. The remarkable stones that were found there testify to the power of the lost Strathclyde kingdom and represent “one of the best collections of early medieval sculpture anywhere in the British isles,” British Museum curator Gareth Williams told the BBC in 2014. The most impressive of the bunch is a large sarcophagus carved with hunting scenes and Celtic interlace. Also among the Govan Stones are five huge sandstone blocks known as “hogbacks,” which may have been designed to resemble Norse buildings.
“It underpins this idea that this British kingdom of Strathclyde has some strong connections with the Scandinavian world,” Driscoll told the BBC. “My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain's hall.”
Driscoll says that he now hopes further excavation work to find additional stones will be carried out with the help of the local community. As for young Mark, he is quite pleased with the results of his first foray into archaeology. “I am extremely happy,” he says. “[I]n fact I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.”