Digging Deep into the Past

As many of you will know, Durham Cathedral is going through a period of great change at the moment as our Open Treasure project develops.

This project will transform the Cathedral’s future; a new exhibition route will be opened and the Treasures of St Cuthbert will be on display. But for me it is also a chance to look back into the Cathedral’s past and discover what has gone on here in the hundreds of years before us.

Ours is not the first generation to bring about change. Work in the Great Kitchen has revealed much more about John Lewin’s design as well as the monastic kitchen that preceded it, through archways and steps that we are exposing.

And it isn’t just the building itself that we are learning about. Layers of kitchen waste have been deposited over hundreds of years revealing a monastic diet rich in sea fish and oysters, as well showing us some of the butchering techniques used on livestock, visible through tool marks on the bones.

Excitement levels rose earlier in the year when we unearthed a small piece of Roman samian ware, which had been worked into a spindle whorl as well as a piece of 13th-century stained glass.

But not all of the archaeology work is about digging in dirt and I have also been working closely with the Cathedral’s joiners and stonemasons, particularly in the Monk’s Dormitory. Here we made our latest discovery; a set of folded newspapers hidden in a sealed void under a bookcase that we were dismantling. The papers date back to 1880, which has thrown up new questions, as the Cathedral’s records show that the library opened in 1856, after which it would have been impossible to get under the bookcases. The discovery suggests that perhaps the original library was smaller than the current one and was extended at a later date.

The discoveries we have made so far are all being documented, processed and analysed and we hope that some of our findings may make it into a future exhibition in the newly transformed spaces once the Open Treasure project is complete.

Norman Emery – Durham Cathedral Archaeologist

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