I think both our jaws must have hit the floor as we hit the jackpot. The third room of the little museum seemed to bring together all the threads of the skein that we had been following on our travels. A house-shaped stone… thought to be a grave marker; carved with tiles and looking very like our hogback stones… carved crosses, standing cross shafts… an assortment of heads… and a huge sarcophagus… all just assembled together and waiting for us, while strange beasts and the birds, frozen in stone by the mason’s skill, watched our wonder.
I didn’t know where to begin… My companion headed for the Pictish cross slabs, but the sarcophagus drew me. All I could see of it at this stage was its shape and the end panel, intricately carved with an equilateral cross. In two opposing corners, twin serpents curl around an orb, in the other two twin figures that look like children at play. From here it seemed as if the two end panels might be intact, one side and some of the corner supports.
I wandered round to the left towards the more obvious damage, saving what appeared to be the intact side panel for last… like a child eating the cabbage first, as grandma had taught me so long ago, and saving the best bits till last. The boards gave a little history. The sarcophagus had been discovered in 1833 in the abbey precinct, its pieces separated. It dates back to around AD750… the Dark Ages. Yeah right… very ‘dark’ judging by the sophistication of the design and the artistry…
It is believed to have been made for the Pictish King Óengus (729 -761) though it may have been used to inter his predecessor Nechtan. It was made to be displayed and would have stood in the church… it is thought that the cross would have faced the congregation The slab roof is completely missing, which is a great pity as it must have been magnificent if the rest of the sarcophagus was anything to judge by…
The other end panel proved to be mere fragments… intriguing though, as once again the ‘twin’ theme was carried through, only this time it seemed to be dragons and what looked to be rather like dogs. Dredging my memory I am sure there was a mythological connection between dogs and the sun… which would have tied in with the orbs at the other end. The corner supports were heavy pillars of stone, carved in the deepest relief with entwined serpents. I might have been able to make more sense of them if I hadn’t been felled by the remaining side panel.
A large imperial figure, dressed like a Roman Emperor serenely holds the jaws of a lion, very reminiscent of the Tarot card of Strength and symbolically signifying perhaps the same thing, at least on one level; the strength of the King to protect his people. In the centre is a hunting scene full of exotic animals… we don’t have monkeys in Britain for a start! A horseman rides amongst the animals and a hunter with a spear. It is an incredible piece of art; the sculpture and still crisp and fresh even after twelve hundred and fifty years.
You know, from this country, as from many others, we travel the world in search of art, antiquities and history. Yet here, on a January day that looked like spring, in a small coastal town, we had found treasures we could not have imagined. I always wanted to travel the globe and see so many places… all for their beauty or archaeology… and no doubt, were I to get the chance I would still take it. But the burning desire has gone; there is too much to see in this little cluster of isles we call Albion… more than I could see in a lifetime. If I spend the rest of my days looking at weathered stone circles and fragmentary ghosts of the past it will be more than enough for me.
There was so much to see… in three little rooms alone we had enough to keep us thinking and pondering the meanings of geometries, symbols and myths almost indefinitely… and that was without everything else we had seen or were yet to discover. I think we both needed air by this time, so we wandered out into the vast expanse of the cloisters, through the Norman arch and into the sunlit precinct where centuries of our ancestors seemed to smile fondly at these children who know so little and who can merely gaze in wonder at the traces they have left behind.