What is an Image Stone?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An image stone is a stone which has been carved or painted to tell a story in pictures, with a series of images depicting various events. Some people use the term “image stone” to refer specifically to monuments erected during the Viking Age and Germanic Iron Age, while others use this term more generally to refer to any stone monument which is covered in pictures, whether it's in the American Southwest or a cave in Indonesia. Many image stones can be seen in situ, while others have been moved to museums for further study, and to make them more accessible to people who want to see them.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The age of image stones varies, depending on where in the world they are, but many are quite ancient. Although the defining feature of an image stone is the use of pictures to tell a story, rather than words, some image stones also include text. In cases where text has been added to an image stone, it is usually minimal, often providing no more than the name of the person the stone honors.

Because image stones tell stories in pictures, archaeologists often have trouble interpreting them. The images are often worn with time, and in some cases, they have been deliberately defaced. In the case of societies which left no written records, image stones may be one of the few testimonies left behind, and a lack of knowledge can make it hard to tell what is going on. The figures depicted, for example, could be gods, rulers, or ordinary individuals, and without context, it is impossible to tell.

In societies where image stones have been built, they typically go through several stages. An image stone from an early period is covered in simple pictures, with a heavy emphasis on geometric designs. As society evolved, so did the image stones, and later image stones tend to be extremely ornate. Archaeological studies have also shown that some image stones were decorated with bright pigments in addition to carvings.

The role of an image stone would have varied, depending on the society which made it. Evidence suggests that many such stones were erected as memorials, and image stones are often found around burial grounds, or along major roadways where they would have been seen by many people in a community. They may also have been used to tell stories from a culture's mythology or history, or simply to provide information to travelers; the mysteries of some image stones may never be unraveled.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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