Teenager Mark McGettigan has decided to join a community archaeology dig in the Scottish town of Govan. And during his time in the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church, the schoolboy sticks his prod into the ground in search of anything significant. Suddenly, though, he hits something hard, meaning it’s time to start digging. Then when McGettigan and his colleagues begin to shovel up the dirt, something stunning is revealed in the earth.
We’ll come back to the astounding find that McGettigan made. Firstly, though, let’s find out why this community archaeological dig – dubbed “Stones and Bones” – was taking place in this particular location in the west of Scotland. And the reason is simple: Govan and the surrounding area are steeped in a turbulent history that dates back thousands of years and encompasses the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Today, Govan is a part of the wider metropolis of the city of Glasgow; back in early medieval times, though, it was an important town in the Kingdom of Strathclyde. And it seems that the area once played a crucial part in the early history of Christianity in Scotland. In the seventh century, you see, it’s said that a monastery was founded at the site of what is now Govan.
At the very least, archaeological work has revealed that Govan Old Parish Church was long ago a Christian place of worship. After all, radiocarbon dating suggests that two graves there – both of which appear to adhere to Christian burial customs – hark back to either the fifth or sixth century A.D. And as a consequence, this ancient Govan church seems likely to be part of the earliest recognized Christian settlement in this region of Scotland.
As for the monastery, the prevailing legend is that it was founded in the seventh century by Strathclyde’s ruler King Constantine. That said, much of our knowledge of Constantine comes from the historian John of Fordun, who lived some seven centuries after the events he described. Yet despite that perhaps unreliable historical record, Constantine is recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church as a saint.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Strathclyde Kingdom of which Govan was once a part included parts of modern-day northern England as well as lands in what is now southern Scotland. And our earliest knowledge of the region comes from what Ptolemy’s Geographia tells us of goings-on there in the first century A.D. – not long after the Romans had arrived in Britain.
In particular, Ptolemy drew up a map of the Strathclyde region for use by sailors as a navigational aid, with this work giving the names of various tribes who lived there at a time when there was no united kingdom of Strathclyde. The clans included the peoples of the Otalini, the Damnonii, the Novantae and the Maeatae.
And during the Roman occupation of Britain, the northernmost frontier of the invaders’ territory fluctuated between Hadrian’s Wall – located fairly close to the modern Scottish-English border – and positions further north in Scotland. We can trace the origin of Strathclyde as a coherent kingdom, then, from the time that the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 A.D.
However, the specific boundaries of Strathclyde remain obscure, as written information about the kingdom after the Romans left was often created long after the period described. Nevertheless, we have some certainty of what was going on in Strathclyde in the fifth century A.D. from chronicles that were written 200 years or so later. For example, we can be fairly confident of the existence of two kings.
Coroticus was one of these rulers in the latter part of the fifth century, and he possessed the title of king of the Height of the Clyde. It’s suggested, too, that Coroticus was Christian, judging by a letter written to the monarch by St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And the other king that we know of is a descendant of Coroticus named Rhydderch.
As we move forward to the seventh century, however, the confusing fog of uncertainty lifts to some extent. At the time, Strathclyde was known as Alt Clut, and in the early 600s it may have been conquered by the splendidly named Áedán the Treacherous. Áedán, by turn, was probably kicked out of Alt Clut by Æthelfrith at the Battle of Degsastan.
Æthelfrith was king of Bernicia, which lay on the eastern side of Britain and encompassed elements of modern-day southeastern Scotland and northeastern England. And while we do not know much more about affairs in Alt Clut during the seventh century, the history of the area during Viking times is somewhat documented.
Those fearsome warriors came crashing into Strathclyde in 870 when two Viking chiefs, Ímar and Amlaíb Conung, attacked the castle on Dumbarton Rock, laying siege to the stronghold of the people then known as the Britons. The operation lasted for four months and only resulted in victory for the Vikings when the castle well ran dry.
And as reported in the Annals of Ulster, the Viking chiefs returned to their Irish headquarters in 871 after their victory at Dumbarton. In doing so, the men traveled in 200 ships that were packed with defeated Britons who would largely go on to exist in slavery. These prisoners may have included Artgal map Dumnagual, the king of the Strathclyde Britons. Artgal was put to death in 872 in the Irish city of Dublin, which was then controlled by the Vikings.
However, after the raid from Ireland, it seems that some of the Vikings may have settled in Strathclyde. At least, that’s what can be surmised by some of the place names that still exist in this part of Scotland; the archaeological evidence that has been found in Govan and elsewhere in the region also points to this being the case.
And that brings us back to McGettigan, our 14-year-old student at Glasgow’s Lourdes RC Secondary School, which lies just a couple of miles from Govan Old Parish Church. But before we get on to the dig and the teenager’s discovery, it’s worth learning a little about the historic place of worship just mentioned.
The Govan Old Parish Church that stands today was built back in 1888 and was the work of noted Victorian-era architect Robert Rowand Anderson. And the church’s architectural merit has been recognized by the Scottish historic building listing system – an honor that also nods to the structure’s overall cultural value. But the history of Christian devotion at this site far precedes the 19th century.
You see, the location of the current Govan church has seen Christian worship since as far back as the 500s. And the first church there was built in around 493 – about the same time that King Coroticus received that letter from St. Patrick we heard about earlier. Apparently, St. Patrick wrote to implore Coroticus to cease the practice of seizing Christians and selling them as slaves.
But what’s really interesting about Govan Old Parish Church is the medieval artifacts that have been revealed there over the years. Collectively, these finds are known as the Govan Stones. And these relics – which date from the ninth to the 11th centuries – are all evidence of the splendor of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Among the most striking of the 46 stone artifacts discovered in the 19th century is the Govan sarcophagus, which remains on display inside the church. The receptacle is a monumental hunk of carved stone featuring motifs that highlight influences from both the Norse and Pictish cultures.
The exquisitely executed carving that surrounds the sarcophagus includes a hunter on horseback in pursuit of two stags. Such imagery was a frequent staple of Pictish art and was intended to portray the royal power of kings. Elsewhere, there are other animals as well as intertwined patterns of lines that are typical of art created by the Picts.
But while it’s believed that the coffin was built in recognition of the church’s patron saint, Constantine, there is some doubt as to which particular Constantine received that devotion. In any case, it seems likely that the ornate sarcophagus would have been used to hold the remains of the saint and so act as a centerpiece for the church.
And Stephen Driscoll, a historical archaeology professor at the University of Glasgow, spoke about the Govan sarcophagus to the BBC in 2014. “I think [the coffin] is to house Constantine’s relics as part of making this church into an important place,” he said. “This is unique. There is nothing else like this in Scotland.”
The professor also pointed out, “It was just not something [people] did at the time. If you were being buried, you would [be put] in the ground. Sometimes they lined the graves with slabs, but mostly they would be put in the ground in a wooden box or just a shroud – no matter who they were. If you are king, they may put something special on top, but this treatment is unknown.”
And by way of explanation for the existence of this extraordinary coffin, Driscoll continued, “I’m sure [people at the time] would have seen Roman sarcophagi when they went on pilgrimage and things like that. So they would have had the sense that emperors belong in a sarcophagus.”
Meanwhile, the 19th century also saw another fascinating series of stones – ones known as “hogbacks” – being unearthed. But despite the name, these sandstone artifacts are not believed to represent pigs but rather grand Norse-style buildings. The hogbacks would have been placed atop the coffins of notable people in order to emphasize the status and importance of the occupants.
And in the same manner as the sarcophagus, the hogbacks are decorated with carvings of noblemen hunting as well as Pictish interlaced linear patterns. Interestingly, too, such stones have only been found in parts of Britain that were formerly occupied by the Vikings, such as northern England and southern Scotland. The hogbacks discovered in Govan, however, are the largest to have yet been dug up.
In his interview with the BBC, Driscoll further remarked that the shape of the hogbacks does indeed resemble that of a typical Viking building. “It underpins this idea that this British kingdom of Strathclyde has some strong connections with the Scandinavian world,” the academic said. “My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall.”
“These hogback monuments – you only find them in Britain,” Driscoll added. “You don’t get them in Scandinavia, and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here. So, somehow the Vikings come here and see [that] they are in this world where people carve stones all the time. And they think, ‘Let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us.’”
Yet while Driscoll recognizes that some of the designs carved onto the hogbacks are similar to pagan Viking works, he nevertheless believes that the stones’ location in a churchyard is strong evidence that these Vikings had adopted Christian beliefs. In this way, the invaders may have been somewhat influenced by the people whom they had conquered.
And as previously mentioned, 46 stone artifacts – including five hogbacks –were discovered in the churchyard of Govan Old Parish Church in the 19th century. Originally, all of the stones were left in the churchyard, although 31 were ultimately moved inside the church in 1926; a number of the hogbacks, by contrast, remained at the mercy of the elements.
Meanwhile, in 1973 the Harland and Wolff shipyard – which had ceased building ships over a decade previously – was finally demolished. At one time, Govan had been at the center of a thriving shipbuilding industry on the River Clyde; trade would decline, however, spelling the end for the Harland and Wolff operation.
Now this shipyard was directly adjacent to the Govan churchyard. And somehow during the process of the demolition work, the stones that had been left outside were lost. These included three of the unique hogbacks, and it was thought that they had probably been inadvertently destroyed during the razing process.
But let’s get back to McGettigan as he pierces the ground in the Govan Old Parish Church’s grounds. And as you may remember, he felt something firm underneath the soil when he pushed down. But what happened next? Well, in a press release published on the Govan Stones website, McGettigan would recall exactly what transpired on that spring day in 2019.
“I was just prodding the ground to see if there was anything there. And suddenly it made a noise, and I realized I had hit something,” McGettigan recalled. “[I] and two of the archaeologists worked out the area of the object, and [then we] started to dig it out and clean it. I wasn’t too sure at the start what it was.”
Then, however, there was a moment of realization about what he had found. McGettigan went on, “We checked with the records, and we realized [that the object] was one of the lost Govan Stones. I am extremely happy; in fact, I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.” Not a bad achievement for a 14-year-old on his first archaeological dig.
As McGettigan’s mother Sandra put it in the same press release, “My son Mark has always wanted to be an archaeologist. [And] when I saw there was a community dig in Govan, I signed us both up to take part. I still can’t quite believe that on Mark’s very first archaeological dig he uncovered these stones that everyone thought [were] lost forever.”
And what’s more, the unearthing of that single hogback stone led to the retrieval of the other two that had been lost. Of this stroke of luck, Driscoll – who is also a member of the Govan Heritage Trust – said, “This is the most exciting discovery we have had at Govan in the last 20 years. The Govan Stones are a collection of international importance, and these recovered stones reinforce the case for regarding Govan as a major early medieval centre of power.”
Driscoll additionally pointed out, “The discovery is very timely because the Govan Heritage Trust is embarking on a major refurbishment of Govan Old Parish Church, which will culminate in a redisplay of the collection.” The archaeological work would also continue, he said, in the hope that other lost stones would be uncovered.
So, aspiring archaeologist McGettigan already has an astonishing find to his credit – one that marks the start of what could be a promising career in the field. And thanks to the 14-year-old, our knowledge of Scotland’s medieval history – a time of kingdoms and battling warlords – may just have been extended.