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Durham University

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Sculpture in the Early Medieval Irish Sea c.800-c.1000: Interlacing Traditions

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Medieval and Visual and Material Culture research groups.


This project explores the cultural significance of early medieval stone sculptures produced in the Irish Sea regions of Britain and Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries. It challenges prevalent assumptions about state formation and national and ethnic exceptionalism as it has developed in Britain and Ireland, instead investigating their function as symbols of secular, religious and economic power within a culturally connected area. This will allow a nuanced narrative of cultural contact between the areas of ancient and modern northern Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man, which will give greater understanding of the shared materiality in this region. Carved stone monuments of the early medieval Insular world (typically defined as Britain, Ireland and the associated islands in the Irish Sea) are usually studied according to chronological and geographical criteria, using periodization and modern geographical boundaries to categorise, taxonomise and contextualise them. My project takes a new approach to the study of stone sculpture within the culturally interconnected Insular world and further within the wider medieval world. The key research question is how does shared visual culture and iconographic traditions aid and challenge the received historical narratives of the medieval world?


This project aims to address an understudied body of source material, namely that of carved stone monuments, from across Britain and Ireland, broadly distributed from Shetland to Cornwall. These sculptures, often the sole source from these regions for this early period, provide evidence of peoples and cultures and offer valuable information for our understanding of early Christianity that without these monuments would be unattested or underrepresented in the scholarship.


From the Department of History