Tag Archives: Lindisfarne

Cathedral’s Treasures are the ‘Tutankhamun of the North-East’

JONATHAN JONES  visits the wonderful relics of St Cuthbert that are finally back on display at Durham Cathedral in a superb new setting that drew audible gasps at the official unveiling.

St Cuthbert's Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
St Cuthbert’s Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating back more than 1,300 years, and belonging to monk, bishop and hermit, St Cuthbert, have gone back on display in Durham Cathedral.he relics, including the coffin in which St Cuthbert’s body was carried from Lindisfarne, to its final resting place on the site of Durham Cathedral, and the gold cross he wore around his neck, are the centrepiece of The Treasures of St Cuthbert, which opened to the public at the weekend.

The relics were described as the “Tutankhamun” of the North-East, by cultural historian and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Dr Janina Ramirez at the official launch of the exhibition.

Dr Janina Ramirez and an of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett
Dr Janina Ramirez and the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett

She admitted that the excitement of seeing the relics, back in their rightful home, in a purpose-built exhibition inside Durham Cathedral, had made her unable to sleep the previous night.

The ornately carved coffin, featuring runic and Latin inscriptions, is rightfully, the centrepiece of the exhibition, and is regarded as the most important surviving relic from before the time of the Norman Conquest.

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels are still visible on the incredibly preserved oak fragments, and brought audible gasps from the clergy, scholars, officials and journalists gathered to witness them for the first time in their new home, in a specially developed exhibition space inside the cathedral.

The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in the cathedral's great kitchen
The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in Durham Cathedral’s Great Kitchen.

Dr Ramirez said: “Some people think that there is a time in the history of Western Europe when the lights went out – when the civilisation and refinement of the Roman Empire was replaced by a Dark Age, visible to us only through a glass darkly; through scraps of archaeology, fragments of enigmatic text, and the bones of early medieval people, who walked a thousand four hundred years before us.

“But the Cuthbert Treasures fly in the face of this theory: from the complex, visual riddles engraved across the oldest surviving example of wood carving on Cuthbert’s coffin, to the gold and garnet splendour of his pectoral cross; from the continental elegance of the ceremonial comb, to the remarkable examples of Opus Anglicanum, recognised at the time as the best embroidery in the known world, the Cuthbert Treasures bring colour, depth and drama to the so-called Dark Ages.”

She continued: “At their very heart lies a unique individual who was both Anglo-Saxon warrior, and early Christian Bishop. His connection to the North East means we can walk in the footsteps of arguably England’s most important saint.”

The exhibits are housed in the Great Kitchen, which has been transformed into a world-class exhibition space, following a year of environmental monitoring, to ensure the relics are kept in the right conditions to ensure their continued longevity.

Comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert
Anglo-Saxon comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert

The project has seen the construction of purpose built exhibition and gallery space in the Cathedral, with access to the treasures themselves being monitored at all times. Indeed, access to the space itself, felt more like entering the Star Ship Enterprise, than the stone walls of the Cathedral.

Visitors were beckoned into a chamber, through which they could see the artefacts beyond another door. Once the environment was stabilised, the inner door opened, granting access to view the fabulous treasures, in glass cases that only enhance their true beauty.

The relics of St Cuthbert, previously on display in the Cathedral’s undercroft, have been in storage for the past six years, during the main phase of the project.

The creation of this space, marks the completion of the Cathedral’s £10.9million investment in the Open Treasure project. The project has been generously supported by a £3.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Speaking at the launch, Jim Cokill, Member of the North-East Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “A place of worship for thousands and a spectacular attraction drawing visitor from near and far to the city, Durham Cathedral is a heritage treasure in the North East. The Treasures of St Cuthbert and the Open Treasures Exhibition will not only boost the Cathedral’s continuing popularity but will also keep its visitors at the heart of heritage.”

The Conyers flachion, a medieval sword used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham is another highlight of the exhibition.
The Conyers Falchion, a medieval sword, used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham, is another highlight of the exhibition.

But perhaps the final word should go to the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett. He said: “It is very fitting that the final jewel in the crown of Open Treasure is centred on St Cuthbert, in whose honour Durham Cathedral was built.

“The launch of the Treasures of St Cuthbert on permanent display in their new home marks a new phase in the life of Durham Cathedral and its exhibition experience Open Treasure.”

Among the Treasures of St Cuthbert on display are:

  • St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, widely regarded as the most important example of Pre-Conquest woodwork, and finely engraved with linear images, Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes
  • St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, a 7th century gold and garnet cross designed to be worn on a chain around his neck.
  • St Cuthbert’s portable altar, used to support his missionary work in the North East. It is believed to be the oldest surviving portable altar, dating from 660AD.
  • The original Sanctuary door knocker, dating from the 12th Century, and one of Durham’s most enduring symbols. Originally attached to the North Door of Durham Cathedral, those who had committed a crime could rap on the door knocker and be given 37 days of sanctuary, during which time they could reconcile with their enemies, or plan their escape.

The Treasures of St Cuthbert are now on permanent display within Open Treasure in the Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in the UK. Tickets cost from £2.50 – £7.50, and are available online and from the visitor desk at Durham Cathedral. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk, or telephone 0191 386 4266.

Archaeological passions

JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.

Bamburgh is as solid as a rock but it's 99% nothing: Photo, David Simpson
Northumberland is a county rich in history and archaeology

There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.

Chris Burgess
Chris Burgess

Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.

“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.

In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.

More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.

Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.

“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.

“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.

“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”

The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg
The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg in Russia

Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.

Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”

But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.

He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.

“It’s a matter of personal obsession.

“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”

He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”

“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.

“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.

“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.

“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.

“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”

The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.

 

Listen to Chris Burgess being interviewed in 2014 on a Radio 4 feature about the Battle of Flodden bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mj1y4

More about the Battle of Flodden englandsnortheast.co.uk/Flodden.html

Momentum Skills’ North East (Brain Injury Rehabilitation) momentumskills.org.uk/our-services/service/north-east-england-vocational-rehabilitation based in Newcastle, offers vocational rehabilitation services for people with an acquired brain injury and or neurological condition aged 16 years old and over.