St Andrews museum calls in the experts

Stone uncovere during work at St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum.
Stone uncovere during work at St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum.

Set as it is in the heart of St Andrews, it would no surprise to hear that history is on the doorstep of the Preservation Trust Museum.

However, when builders working in the museum garden dug up a large stone with a carved bowl shape on one side, they knew they had uncovered something a bit out of the ordinary.

Curator Samantha Bannerman recognised it was of archaeological interest but did not know what it was, what it had been used for and where it had come from.

She turned to Perth-based Alder Archaeology to see if its experts could solve the mystery.

Alder specialises in a range of services to help with archaeological conditions that arise from developments like the museum’s building work.

There was not complete agreement initially on what the stone’s purpose would have been - one theory was that it was a ‘knocking stone’ used for pounding cereal, another was that it had been a baptismal font - but the archaeologists eventually came to a considered conclusion.

“This looks more like a font because the depression seems to be worked into a squared-off piece of masonry, rather than being cup-shaped, like a knocking stone usually is,” a report from Alder said.

“The masonry block is flat along one side, probably to fit into/against a wall.

“I think it’s architectural, from a church building. Of course, it might have had a secondary use as a knocking stone.”

However, after further investigation it was concluded it was most likely a ‘stoup’, or what is now called a holy water font.

“The only surviving medieval baptismal fonts in Scotland seem to be stand-alone bowls on pedestals, often octagonal and decorated with coats of arms, Biblical scenes, etc,” the report continued.

“Holy water stoups on the other hand are stone basins which are set into walls, so I think there’s a good chance this is a stoup.

“Thinking about the practicalities of the baptismal font, you wouldn’t really want to set this into a wall, for fear of banging the head as you baptised it, so this makes it more likely to be a stoup.”

The work currently being carried out in the museum garden is to create a new research room, which is due to be completed by the end of September.