Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Hogsback Stones in the Goven Church

Three ‘Brilliantly’ Carved Medieval Gravestones Unearthed By 14-Year-Old Scottish Amateur Archaeologist

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A 14-year-old boy digging in a churchyard in Glasgow has rediscovered three rare medieval gravestones with highly-detailed interlacing carved patterns.

The three very special gravestones were unearthed during an archaeological survey of the Old Parish Church in Govan, a town now within the region of Greater Glasgow city that was established in the early Middle Ages. The modern Govan Old Parish Church stands on the site of older sacred sites, including the Church of St. Constantine, and the site has yielded many ancient Christian artifacts with some dating to AD 500.

The site in Govan, on the banks on the River Clyde is reputed in archaeological circles for its wonderfully intricate carved stones that date to between AD 800 and 1000 and according to a Live Science Article about the recent discovery, “the most impressive of the stones was carved during the early part of this period. It's a sarcophagus made from a single hunk of stone, carved with images of a warrior astride a horse.”

Sarcophagus in Govan Parish Church. It shows a horseman. (The Govan Stones)

Sarcophagus in Govan Parish Church. It shows a horseman. (The Govan Stones)

These carvings were executed at a time in history when Govan was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, somewhere between the seventh and 11th century. The Govan Stones website published that the stone’s discoverer Mark McGettigan said:

“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”.

But Mark was not randomly digging in a graveyard!

A recent BBC article explains that Mark, an S3 pupil at Lourdes Secondary School, was among volunteers on the “Stone and Bones community dig” aimed at finding lost carved “Govan Stones”. Mark discovered the three stones ‘not’ as a qualified archaeologist, but as a volunteer on his first-ever archaeological dig, which was run by the charity Northlight Heritage, with funding from the Glasgow City Region City Deal and the Govan Cross Townscape Heritage Initiative.

Carved cross in Govan Old Church. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carved cross in Govan Old Church. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stephen Driscoll, a professor of historical archaeology at the University of Glasgow and a member of The Govan Heritage Trust, said in the statement on Govan Stones website that:

“[The] Newly discovered examples are a collection of international importance, and these recovered stones reinforce the case for regarding Govan as a major early medieval center of power.”

A Blinding Discovery Of Great Archaeological Value

Young Mark really did hit something special - three "Govan Stones” buried in a churchyard, but not just any old churchyard. In AD 870, Vikings, based in Dublin attacked and destroyed the power center at Dumbarton at the mouth of the River Clyde which runs through Glasgow. Govan, being located further up the river, became the new capital in the kingdom of warrior chieftains that emerged to resist the Vikings.

Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow, Scotland. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow, Scotland. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A 2015 BBC article explains that these massive solid stone blocks [hog backs] “are not, as the name might suggest, representations of pigs but stones which are designed to make the tombs of the dead look like mighty buildings in the Norse style. And while ‘hogbacks’ are found exclusively in areas of northern Britain settled by Vikings - southern Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire - “the Govan examples are by far the largest.”

Highly trained stonemasons and artisans based at Govan carved incredibly detailed stone crosses and longer slabs with a sloped shape known as “hogbacks.” Both styles of stone were used as grave markers and they also created large flat “cross-slabs” to cover graves. In total archaeologists have logged “Thirty-one Govan Stones” but another 15 have always thought to be lost forever when in the 1970s a neighboring shipyard was demolished, and the Govan Stones were thought to have been removed with the rubble.

While many examples of Norse stones have been recovered, each of the three rediscovered stones feature Celtic interlacing designs and crosses. No human remains were found with the stones because the chances are high that the stones have been moved around several times over the centuries, however, archaeologists said they hope Mark’s discoveries indicate that more of the believed ‘lost’ stones might just still be out there.

 Top image: Hogsback Stones in the Goven Church             Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ashley Cowie

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

Next article