Fourteen-year-old student uncovers lost medieval sculptured stone

29 March 2019
A student volunteer on the Stones and Bones archaeology dig at Govan Old Parish Church has uncovered a medieval sculptured stone that is part of a set of three lost stones belonging to the celebrated Govan Stones collection.

A student volunteer on the Stones and Bones archaeology dig at Govan Old Parish Church has uncovered a medieval sculptured stone that is part of a set of three lost stones belonging to the nationally important Govan Stones collection.

Volunteers on the ‘Stones and Bones’ community dig set out in search of a set of lost gravestones in the graveyard of Govan Old Parish Church near Glasgow. The dig has uncovered long-lost gravestones from the Middle Ages, when the area was a political and religious power centre on the Clyde.

One young volunteer, 14-year-old local school pupil Mark McGettigan, was helping out with the survey of the area when he felt something solid below the surface in the graveyard. Mark has found what turned out to be the first of three lost medieval sculptured stones, part of a unique and nationally important collection called the Govan Stones.

The Govan Stones discoveries

The new discoveries, which date to the 10th-11th centuries, feature crosses and Celtic interlace designs similar to those on the stones housed inside the church. 

Nicola Reid, Field Archaeolgist, Northlight Heritage; Mark McGettigan, aged 14; Megan Kasten, Project Office & Volunteer, Northlight Heritage and Ingrid Shearer, Community Engagement Officer for Stones & Bones excavation, Northlight Heritage examining one of the three Govan Stones rediscovered at Govan Old Parish ChurchMark’s mother Sandra said: “My son Mark has always wanted to be an archaeologist. 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 was lost forever.”

Mark, an S3 pupil from Lourdes Secondary School, said: “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.”

Stones and Bones dig

The Stones and Bones dig was being carried out by Northlight Heritage with local participants for the Govan Cross Townscape Heritage Initiative and the Glasgow City Region City Deal.

The Govan Stones, most of which are now housed in Govan Old Parish Church, shine light into an obscure period of history before the nation of Scotland existed, when warlords battled for control of the British Isles and Viking long ships caused mayhem along Scottish coasts and waterways.  

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A total of 46 stones were found in the graveyard in the 19th century, and 31 of them were taken into the church for safe keeping. The remaining stones were displayed against the wall of the churchyard, under the shadow of the Harland and Wolff shipyard.  In 1973, the shipyard building was demolished and scholars believed that the stones were destroyed in the process.  

However, it now seems likely that many of these long-lost stones have survived and awaited rediscovery by Mark and the community dig.

A major centre of power

Professor Stephen Driscoll, the University of Glasgow’s Professor of Historical Archaeology, is part of The Govan Heritage Trust, which owns Govan Old Parish Church and the Govan Stones.  He said: “This 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.  

“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.  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.” 

The Govan Heritage Trust are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to secure the future of the building and its rare collection.  Anyone wishing to support the Trust can contribute here.

Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage said:  “We’re delighted that our volunteers have had the opportunity to make such a significant discovery.  They’ve toughed it out through rain and snow over the past few weeks and their hard work and commitment has really paid off.  Govan Old is the oldest churchyard in Scotland and we hope that this find will give a boost to plans for the future.”

The Stones and Bones community archaeology project is being funded by the Glasgow City Region City Deal and Govan Cross Townscape HeritageInitiative.  The archaeology forms part of the third phase of public realm works being taken forward as a priority of the Central Govan Action Plan.  The graveyard and the stones form a Scheduled Monument due to their national importance and are protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.  The current works have scheduled monument consent from Historic Environment Scotland.

The Govan THI is supported by The National Lottery through The Heritage Fund.  

Further reading

Hogback Gravestones at Govan and beyond (Friends of Govan Old Church)

Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan, John Maxwell, Stirling Maxwell


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(images copyright Martin Shields Photography)