Conservation of the Govan Sarcophagus
Following the conservation ( 1993/4 ) and display ( 1994 ) of 7 pieces of
early mediaeval sculpture, Historic Scotland provided a detailed condition
report on the whole collection of sculpture based on a visit on 20th August
1996. Stephen Gordon's report on the Sarcophagus is reproduced with kind
permission and reads as follows:
The sarcophagus is carved from a monolith of sand stone with the
natural bedding plain lying horizontal. The stone consists of well
sorted sub angular to rounded grains of quartz sand cemented with
a non-calcerous matrix forming a coarse grained but even texture.
The stone is highly decorated on its four external faces, depicting
low relief interlaced patterns, a figure on horseback and various
beasts. There is no cover to the sarcophagus. Several fragments from
around the head and from the opposite end are missing.
The dressed surface of the stone is covered with a light sulphate
layer brought about by exposure to airborne pollutants. The upper
walls and rim of the sarcophagus are badly fractured and have been
crudely repaired with a cementicious mortar. Some of the fragments
are badly misaligned indicating that they have at one time been
completely detached. In the recesses of the fractures on the east
side remain traces of pink dental wax which may have been used as
a temporary filler when the mould was taken in 1990. Elsewhere there
are traces of paint, in particular around the base.
|Front panel at HSCC, before conservation
|Rear panel at HSCC, before conservation
The crude repairs to rejoin the fragmented rim and sides of the stone
leave much to be desired both in terms of the cementicious repair
materials and also their poor alignment. The repair material should
be removed and if necessary the fragments correctly realigned
jointed with more inert material. Dental wax and paint residue
should also be eradicated as part of the conservation treatment.
Analysis of the soiling and any residual salts should be undertaken.
The stone is currently displayed on a sandstone table tomb supported
on four stone blocks. Some buffering material should be placed between
the blocks and the base of the sarcophagus where there is stone to
stone contact. Neoprene or plastizote would serve as a suitable
material for this purpose.
In terms of its general display, two other points are worth
mentioning. Firstly the stone is very poorly lit making it
difficult for the visitors to read the carved detail and secondly
the positioning of it is such that only three sides are easily
seen as the fourth is up against a wrought-iron screen between
the choir and the baptistry.
The final report by Historic Scotland's Senior Conservator, also
reproduced by kind permission, is self-explanatory and reads as follows:
Following my report of 19 November 1996 on the entire collection
of carved stones within the Church we were requested to take on the
conservation of the Sarcophagus.
I decided that the recommendations of my report would be best
implemented in a controlled studio environment where specialist
equipment and adequate lighting could be utilised. In tandem with
the conservation treatment, the plinth was to be moved slightly more
to the centre of the aisle to allow better viewing access to all four
sides by visitors. For this reason, preparations were made for moving
the Sarcophagus weighing, as it turns out, around 1,000 kilograms.
The operation to remove the Sarcophagus took place in 25 November 1998.
It was lifted with nylon slings incorporating "Neoprene" pads to
prevent abrasion, suspended from "A" section lifting frames and
chain block and subsequently placed on a 4 wheel handbarrow. In order
to negotiate the three changes in floor levels to the main entrance,
timber ramps were constructed. It was transferred into a van and
transported to Historic Scotland's Conservation Centre for
The Sarcophagus was initially photographed to record its condition
prior to treatment. Following this, a detailed examination was made
of the surface condition and cementicious fill around the rim. This
highlighted several facts which had been overlooked in the church
due to the low levels of lighting such as considerable deposits of
plaster and wax crayon. Also, the sulphate layer appeared glossy
suggesting that some other coating may have been applied in its
history. The plaster deposits were almost certainly attributed
to a plaster cast taken in the early 1900s as the sections of the
cast could be made out.
The fractured sections of the rim were dismantled by carefully
removing the cement mortar. Plasticene and dental wax were also
found between the joints of the fragments, both evidence of
previous mould-making for casts. Tests of the black sulphate coating
were undertaken to ascertain the most gentle but effective means
of removal in order to liberate the original carved surface. As part
of this, salt analysis revealed negligible contaminants that might
affect its future welfare.
Some inert solvents in the form of poultices and direct applications
were tested with little positive effect. Methylene dichloride
was found to be very effective in removing the surface coating which
appeared to be an oil-based varnish or similar. Insufficient quantities
were available for more scientific analysis. The solvent was applied
by paintbrush and immediately removed with a micro steam cleaner and
cotton wool swabs. The entire surface are was treated in this way. In
the deeper recesses of the carving, earth and other debris was evident,
apparently originating from its earlier position in the ground.
|Both panels after conservation
On completion of the removal of soiling, the rim fragments were
resest, correctly lined to harmonise the carved decoration. They
were reattached without inserting dowels using a styrene resin
( Technifil ) applied sparingly to the adjoining surfaces. The joints
were then filled with an acrylic mortar ( PB72 and sand ) to complete
the repair. These repairs are all designed to be completely reversible.
The final photographic survey was then taken.
|Broken fragment after conservation
Replacing the Sarcophagus in the Church was the reversal of the
procedure adopted for its removal.
Future care and maintenance of the Sarcophagus should only
necessitate the occasional removal of dust using a very soft brush,
such as a large paint brush. In the event of other works or
maintenance in the Church, it should be covered for the duration with
polythene to avoid resoiling.
To allow better access for visitors, while the Sarcophagus was being
conserved in Edinburgh, the opportunity was taken to act on the
recommendations of the 1996 report. Hunter & Clark moved the sandstone
table tomb away from the metal screen dividing choir and baptistry, and
provided a new base, matching the original, and renewed tiles damaged in
the process. The generous grant support of Historic Scotland and the
Jennie S. Gordon Foundation is thankfully acknowledged. The Friends are
grateful to the three friends who cleaned the table tomb using an
appropriate solution provided by Historic Scotland, and following their
instructions; to Brian Park of Page & Park, Architects, for his
involvement in the project; to Chris Hutchinson of Historic Scotland
for the "before" and "after" photographs; and especially to Stephen Gordon,
Colin Muir and Alan MacKenzie for their stunning conservation of the Govan
- "Conservation of Early Mediaeval Sculpture" in Friends of Govan Old
Fourth Annual Report 1994, pp.2-7 based on Historic Scotland,
Final Report, 1994
- Historic Scotland, Govan Old Parish Church, Mediaeval Carved Stones,
November 1996, pp.1,2
- Historic Scotland, Govan Old Parish Church, Sarcophagus,
April 1999, pp.1,2