Dame Rosemary Cramp obituary

Archaeologist who led excavations at the twin monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, home to the Venerable Bede

Rosemary Cramp, who has died aged 93, was a key player in establishing that archaeology could make significant contributions to understanding medieval times, a concept that had been scorned by both archaeologists and historians.

From a lifetime’s career at Durham University, where she was the first female professor, she led major excavations at the Venerable Bede’s twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, as well as an ambitious project to record every piece of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture in England – now nearly completed.

Durham was an ideal location for her. Three centuries after the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede died in AD735, his remains were moved to Durham Cathedral. He had spent his calling at Wearmouth (on the Wear) and Jarrow (on the Tyne), an area that constituted a medieval European centre of culture and learning now half an hour’s drive north-east of Durham.

Frieze fragment from the early 8th-century, the period of Bede, showing a scroll and two birds, reset into the later fabric of St Paul’s church, Jarrow, and catalogued by Rosemary Cramp.
Frieze fragment from the early 8th-century, the period of Bede, showing a scroll and two birds, reset into the later fabric of St Paul’s church, Jarrow, and catalogued by Rosemary Cramp. Photograph: Tom Middlemass/Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Durham University

As Cramp took up her first post in 1955, excavation was getting under way on newly discovered Anglo-Saxon royal halls at Yeavering, in Northumberland; she was able to refer to these in her first, pioneering paper, Beowulf and Archaeology, published in 1957 in the first issue of a new journal, Medieval Archaeology.

In 1959 she began her own excavation at Monkwearmouth (as Wearmouth is known today), followed by further excavation at Jarrow in 1963. Antiquaries had long been aware of the sites’ association with Bede, but had largely dismissed the likelihood of monastic remains surviving.

However, continuing on and off at Wearmouth into the 1970s and Jarrow the 90s, Cramp and colleagues revealed remains of large stone buildings that had once boasted lead roofing, painted and sculptured wall decoration, important sculptures and windows with coloured glass – fragments from which exceeded quantities found at any other comparable European site. All this was detailed in two substantial monographs in 2005 and 2006, bringing a close to what Cramp described as “a large part of my life”, shared on site by hundreds of students and local volunteers.

She launched a small museum and education programme from her Jarrow excavations, which ultimately grew into Bede’s World, a museum and Anglo-Saxon farm with experimental buildings and rare-breed animals, on a reclaimed industrial landscape. This closed in 2016, and immediately reopened under new management as Jarrow Hall and Bede Museum with her passionate support.

Meanwhile she was tracking down finds across England for the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. This monumental undertaking, run from Durham with a large team of specialist consultants and volunteers scouring the country, has to date published 13 volumes, from County Durham and Northumberland (1984) to Derbyshire and Staffordshire (2018). The number of known sites has risen from around 200 to more than 1,000, and more than 3,500 individual stones can be studied in print and online.

Rosemary was born near Glooston, a small village in rural Leicestershire, to Vera (nee Ratcliffe) and Robert Cramp. Her father owed his life to having grown up on a dairy farm: on military duties in France in 1918 his unit was hit while he was away on a mission to milk a cow. It was on the family farm, as Rosemary told the British Academy on her election as a fellow in 2006, that she “became an archaeologist”.

Rosemary Cramp’s excavation at the Hirsel, near Coldstream, Berwickshire, in 1981, showing the outline of a church, with Hirsel House in the background.
Rosemary Cramp’s excavation at the Hirsel, near Coldstream, Berwickshire, in 1981, showing the outline of a church, with Hirsel House in the background. Photograph: Department of Archaeology/Durham University

She was about 12 when she and her younger sister, Margaret, found some Roman tiles, identified with help from a children’s encyclopedia. Rosemary wrote to Kathleen Kenyon, an archaeologist then digging in Leicester, whose reply made it clear she thought the find significant – as it turned out to be for Cramp’s life.

From Market Harborough grammar school, in 1947 she went to St Anne’s College, Oxford, to study English language and literature. She was soon invited to the Ashmolean Museum by Margerie Taylor, who edited the Journal of Roman Studies (JRS) and in which she compiled an annual summary of excavations. On her desk was a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser with a photo of Cramp leaning on a spade. What makes you think you found a villa?, asked Taylor. By the end of the meeting, Cramp’s career as an archaeologist was set.

She went on a training course at Corbridge, a Roman town near Hadrian’s Wall being excavated at the time, and joined the formative Oxford University Archaeological Society. The next issue of JRS reported “Indications of a [Roman] house … found at Ivy House Farm, Glooston (Information from Miss Rosemary Cramp, who found the remains)”.

She was taught by Dorothy Whitelock, a distinguished early medieval historian, and began teaching Anglo-Saxon herself at St Anne’s after graduation in 1950. She realised she could meld her interests in archaeology and literature, and reviewed Old English vocabulary and archaeological evidence for a BLitt.

In 1955 she moved to Durham to teach history and English, and an attached archaeology group. Within a year she was lecturer in a new department of archaeology. She became professor and head of the department in 1971, retiring as emeritus professor in 1990 from one of the UK’s largest and most prestigious centres of archaeology.

Her other excavations included the Hirsel, a church and medieval cemetery in the Scottish Borders, in the early 80s – a unique project in Scotland, bringing her distinctive approach to early Christian archaeology – and a brief investigation at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire. There soldiers had found a medieval grave while raising a signpost, and over four days she revealed part of a Roman building, impressing the commanding officer with her fortitude in the mud and rain.

She was generous with her time advising and steering organisations, which ranged from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (she was a member for over 25 years) to the British Museum (a trustee for 20 years), and from Durham Cathedral (consultant archaeologist) to the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art (member) and the Council for British Archaeology (president), among many others.

Christina Unwin’s drawing of the medieval church at the Hirsel, based on a reconstruction by Rosemary Cramp.
Christina Unwin’s drawing of the medieval church at the Hirsel, based on a reconstruction by Rosemary Cramp. Photograph: Department of Archaeology/University of Durham

The Society of Antiquaries of London (which she served as president) awarded her its gold medal in 2008, and she received six honorary degrees (from Durham, Bradford, Cork, Leicester, Dublin and Cambridge).

At Oxford she was tutored by Iris Murdoch, who dedicated her 1978 novel The Sea, The Sea to her. Colleagues and former students presented her with two festschrifts, the first in 2001 (one writer recognising her “personal kindness, academic rigour and outrageous sense of fun”) and again in 2008. She was appointed CBE in 1987, and made a dame in 2011.

Cramp was dedicated to her work. In 2014 she told Marc Barkman-Astles, a video blogger, that she was grateful for the opportunity she had had “to contribute to public life”, adding in her commanding, elocuted voice: “I’ve had an extremely happy life as an archaeologist.” Her sister Margaret died in 2018.

• Rosemary Jean Cramp, archaeologist, born 6 May 1929; died 27 April 2023

This article was amended on 29 May 2023. Monkwearmouth and Jarrow are not in Northumberland, and are north-east rather than north of Durham. It was further amended on 5 June 2023. An earlier version said that “soon” after Bede died in AD735, his remains were moved to Durham Cathedral; this should have said three centuries later.

Contributor

Mike Pitts

The GuardianTramp

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