Bridgeness Tablet and Carriden Cross to feature in new exhibition at Callendar House

Opening the replica at Kinningars Park, the Bridgeness Tablet is the third object on Geoff Bailey's historic local trail.
Opening the replica at Kinningars Park, the Bridgeness Tablet is the third object on Geoff Bailey's historic local trail.

The History of Falkirk in 10½ Objects will open in the Second Floor Gallery at Callendar House tomorrow (Saturday) and will run until May 4.

And among the objects featured are two amazing discoveries in the Journal and Gazette area.

Remarkable discovery...Carriden Cross dates the district's Christian roots, hence its inclusion in the exhibition.

Remarkable discovery...Carriden Cross dates the district's Christian roots, hence its inclusion in the exhibition.

The exhibition is based on a talk I have given to many local groups in the last five years, as archaeologist and curator at Falkirk Museum for more than 30 years.

In the exhibition, I have tried to tell the 3500-year history of Falkirk and its area in just 10 and a half objects.

Each has a very personal story about the people who created it and used it.

It’s an amazing tale of invention, discovery, perseverance, artistic talent, hard work and the usual mayhem and slaughter!

The Bridgeness Tablet was discovered in 1868 when a kailyard was being lowered during improvements to a dwelling at Bridgeness.

For several years the occupants of the house had walked over the upside down tablet. The landowner, Henry Cadell, subsequently donated it to the National Museum in Edinburgh, where it is now on display.

The Bridgeness Tablet was drawn soon after discovery, along with the stones found with it.

A new method of recording the image had not long before become available – a photograph was taken with the gardener in the background.

Recently the latest technique was exploited and a laser scan was made.

The stone is the largest of a series of inscribed stones that once studded the second century Roman frontier wall built on the order of the emperor Antoninus Pius to replace Hadrian’s Wall.

Each commemorates the construction, by a named legion, of a stated length of the frontier.

The Bridgeness Tablet is by far the largest and most ornate of the distance stones, measuring 2.8 metres long.

Its inscription gives the various official names and titles of the emperor and states that the Second Legion built 4652 paces of the wall – which would have taken construction as far west as the River Avon.

The inscribed central panel has animal headed pelta terminals, typical of the mid second century AD.

To either side are scenes depicting the propaganda of Empire.

On the left, a brave noble Roman cavalryman is riding down what appears, at first glance, to be a group of four barbarians – the first real image that we have of the local people.

However, the figure may be viewed as a single combatant in four stages of subjugation.

In the first, he still has a shield to defend himself but has already cast aside his sword.

In the second he is cowering and has the broken end of a spear in his back.

Then he is shown dejected and captive. Finally, the figure is beheaded.

Traces of Roman red paint have been found in the channelled out lettering but also, rather gruesomely, at the severed neck!

On the right side of the panel is a scene depicting the sacrifice of a pig, a bull and a sheep – a combination that shows this to be the act of souvetaurilia, undertaken either at the start of a major military project or its successful conclusion.

Here, it surely commemorates the Antonine Wall’s completion.

The stone reflects Roman culture, propaganda and values in its commemoration of what was, at the time, the most up-to-date linear frontier in the Empire.

The Bridgeness Tablet is now built into a wall at the National Museum of Scotland so the exhibition will feature a life-size photographic reproduction.

The Carriden Cross is also worthy of inclusion.

While I was recording the gravestones in the old churchyard next to Carriden House I saw what at first appeared to be rustic decoration on the back of one of the small and unimportant grave markers.

It took me a few minutes to realise that, far from being an 18th century design, it was a broad interlace pattern from 800 years earlier.

I had made a remarkable discovery – the first, and so far only, early Christian Celtic Cross in Falkirk district.

The Carriden Cross is made of local sandstone and was reused in the 18th century as a grave marker with the initials of the deceased cut into the back.

Presumably the broken stones of the cross were lying around the churchyard and provided a convenient source of stone just as earlier, in the 12th century, stone was robbed from a Roman bathhouse 50m away.

The other identifying features of the 10th century cross are the two inward curving arcs on the top of the stone. These are part of the typical thinning of the shaft or arm of the Celtic Cross – what archaeologist jovially call “armpits”.

The cross is the earliest definite physical evidence that we have for Christianity in the area.

Place name evidence, examined by historian John Reid, hints at an earlier Christian presence, as do the patron saints of many of our early churches, such as St Kenera at Bothkennar, St Ninian at Blackness, Helen at Seabegs and Catherine at Kinneil – where we also have a note of a visit by St Serf.

Long cist burials, dating from the seventh to 10th centuries, are also often associated with Christian practices – though this may not always be the case.

Their distribution includes Linlithgow Bridge, Denovan, Airngath Hill, Avonglen, Polmont Hill and Blackness and suggests that they were peripheral to the main settlements.

Another early cross was found in the foundations of Kinneil Church in 1952 and is also noteworthy.

Much larger than the one from Carriden, it depicts Christ on the Cross with the manus dei (the hand of God) pointing down from a cloud, and skulls on the floor.

The arms bear the symbols of the evangelists. It is a century or so younger and is unique, being of major importance in the religious iconography of Scotland.

Together these crosses demonstrate not just the presence of Christian communities but the official adoption of the religion by the authorities.

This makes the Carriden Cross a fitting symbol of the age and worthy of its place in our exhibition.

You can explore more of the museum’s collection online at collections.falkirk.gov.uk.