[ FoGO ]
Conservation of the Govan Sarcophagus


Historic Scotland

Following the conservation ( 1993/4 ) and display ( 1994 ) of 7 pieces of early mediaeval sculpture[1], 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[2]:


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.

[ Plate 1 ]
Front panel at HSCC, before conservation

[ Plate 6 ]
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[3]:

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 conservation treatment.


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.

[ Plate 2 ]
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.

[ Plate 7 ]
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 Sarcophagus.


  1. "Conservation of Early Mediaeval Sculpture" in Friends of Govan Old Fourth Annual Report 1994, pp.2-7 based on Historic Scotland, Final Report, 1994
  2. Historic Scotland, Govan Old Parish Church, Mediaeval Carved Stones, November 1996, pp.1,2
  3. Historic Scotland, Govan Old Parish Church, Sarcophagus, April 1999, pp.1,2
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