Abstract pattern on stone fragments from Applecross

the master carver of northern Pictland?

Cynthia Thickpenny (Author)

ornament, fret pattern, key pattern, carved stone, sculpture, Early Medieval, Pictish
Applecross (Ross and Cromarty); Rosemarkie (Ross and Cromarty); Nigg (Ross and Cromarty)
8th century, 9th century, Early Medieval, Pictish


Eighteen early medieval carved stone fragments (Applecross 5.1–5.18) were recently recovered from Applecross, Wester Ross, Scotland, a site that functioned as an important ecclesiastical centre in the early medieval period. These 18 fragments join a pre-existing collection of monuments and other carved stones at Applecross, including three fragments (Applecross 1, 2 and 3) that together likely belonged to the same cross-slab. Both the Applecross slab (Applecross 1–3) and the newly discovered fragments are decorated with relief-carved, geometric ornament common to early medieval Britain and Ireland, including interlace, key and step patterns, and are of exceptional workmanship.

This paper presents a comparative analysis of the patterns, which reveals that at least 16 of the 18 new fragments also belonged to the same monument as Applecross 1–3. In particular, the author has applied a new, artist-focused, artwork-centred approach to the study of key pattern and its structure, drawn from her doctoral research of this type of ornament. Through close physical analysis of the internal symmetry of individual spiral units and the negative (carved-out) lines in these key patterns, it is possible to identify where the new fragments were located on the Applecross monument, as well as their orientation within it. Furthermore, detailed analysis of the patterns’ negative lines confirms that Applecross was linked to Nigg and likely also to Rosemarkie – two contemporary, high-status, Pictish ecclesiastical sites in Easter Ross – and that a single carver or team produced stone sculpture in all three places. The Nigg cross-slab and Rosemarkie’s collection of carved stones are widely recognised as amongst the finest in the Pictish corpus, and the Applecross fragments rival them in their supreme, virtuoso quality. This is the first concrete evidence for a single Pictish artistic hand on multiple artworks – a master carver or expert team whose oeuvre spanned both Easter and Wester Ross and who created some of the greatest surviving art-historical monuments in Britain.


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How to Cite
Thickpenny, C. (2019). Abstract pattern on stone fragments from Applecross. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 148, 147-176. https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.148.1253