Enjoy a virtual walk through Durham Cathedral’s medieval stone collection from home with Open Treasure Exhibitions Officer, Marie-Therese Mayne.

Image: David Wood

As you enter Open Treasure, the museum of Durham Cathedral, the first display you see is a large collection of carved stones – statues, monuments, crosses and grave covers. Some of these date from the Roman period, carved during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, and representing the ‘old gods’, the pre-Christian era. Most are later, but still very early! Dating from between the 8th and 12th centuries, these stones are used to map out and explore the development of Christianity in the north east of England. They form one of the most complete and comprehensive collections of early medieval stone sculpture in the country, and they were mostly gathered together by one man, Canon William Greenwell, over a period of about thirty years, in the late 1800s.

Canon William Greenwell

Greenwell became a minor canon of Durham Cathedral in 1854, and was appointed Librarian in 1863, a post he held until 1908. As well as being a churchman, Greenwell was also a highly-regarded archaeologist: a member of The Surtees Society, the Societies of Antiquities in Newcastle, London and Edinburgh, as well as President of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham. An avid collector, he began gathering examples of early medieval and Viking-period sculpture in Northumbria which he feared would be lost in a wave of modernisation and ‘restoration’. While some of these stones were found in archaeological excavations, others were preserved because they had been reused – cut up and built into church walls, or broken into fragments and used as filler rubble for the foundations of buildings. Some of the stones were found on the site of Durham Cathedral itself, including a group of grave covers and cross heads dating from the late 10th or early 11th century. In 1891, work was taking place on rebuilding the Chapter House, which had been partially demolished in 1795. When workmen dug down into the original 12th century foundations, they found some extraordinary fragments of memorial crosses, which had been broken up and used to pack the foundations.

This is one of the best preserved of those stones. The ends of the side arms and the sides of the top arm are decorated with complicated interlace patterns. In the centre of one face is carved a lamb with a cross behind it. This is an ‘Agnus Dei’, a symbol representing Jesus Christ. It refers to the Bible where John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Above the lamb is an angel with four wings, and on either side of it are birds and animals, perhaps representing the four Evangelists; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

On the other face is carved what might be a baptism or ordination scene. Above it is a large bird, which might be either a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, or an eagle, representing Jesus Christ. On the cross arms to the sides are carved figures holding crosses and books, perhaps priests or churchmen, who watch the ceremony in the centre.

Why would anyone destroy something so beautiful, and especially on a Christian site? The answer may lie in the Norman Conquest, when William the Conquerer took over the country after 1066. He installed his own, Norman bishops in cathedrals across the land, including at Durham, and they wanted to make their mark. It was the Normans who swept away the early 11th century cathedral built by Bishop Ealdhun and built the Durham Cathedral we know and love today. There was a huge programme of rebuilding and change in the years after the Conquest. These crosses were probably monuments in the old cemetery attached to Ealdhun’s cathedral, destroyed as the buildings around it expanded. As part of the ‘old order’ they were frowned upon, but why waste good stone? And so, they were repurposed as building materials – recycling is not a modern concept! Fortunately for us, burying them also meant that they were not exposed to centuries of weathering and erosion, and so when they were uncovered in 1891 the carvings on them were almost as crisp and clear as when they were made. This coped grave cover (below), broken into three pieces, was also found in the foundations.

As word spread that Greenwell was collecting these objects, friends and fellow clergy would often send him pieces that they had found in their own parishes, perhaps while repair work was being carried out. Greenwell also sometimes bought stones from auctions or dealers, and was not above ‘rescuing’ others that he thought were being neglected or ignored! Describing how he gathered the collection, he said:

“I got them in various ways, legitimate and illegitimate, by gift, by purchase, and by felony!”

He justified this by describing how, having previously identified an early medieval carved stone in a churchyard and been denied permission to buy it for the collection, the vicar promised to move it indoors for preservation.  Returning years later, Greenwell found it had been instead used as decoration for a doorstep!

“After that I felt no compunction, if I found a stone under similar conditions, in carrying it off and placing it where it would be preserved.”

We are not sure exactly which stone that one was, and we certainly do not condone such behaviour! However, Greenwell’s efforts have ensured that all of the stones he collected are able to be appreciated and enjoyed today, and will continue to be so for many more years to come.

We hope you enjoy these digital highlights of Open treasure while the museum is closed. For more information about Durham Cathedral’s award-winning museum visit


  1. Thank you for this fascinating insight. I last visited the Monk’s Dormitory in about 1986. I think it was my first meeting with a hogback!

    When I get to visit again, I’d love to take photos of some of the stones but I understand that there’s a no photo policy. Is this something that might be reviewed? Obviously, the stones would not be damaged by an accidental flash from a visitor’s camera and if they are displayed away from fragile artefacts, could non-flash photos be allowed?


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