Five things to ‘dig’ about heritage at Durham
(16 March 2020)
Our researchers are the history detectives, unearthing exciting things from our past and helping us learn from our ancestors.
We are also the home to important cultural archives available for study. Here’s
From finding long a lost medieval chapel fit for a king, to discovering documents from our royal past. Here are about our strengths in bringing heritage to the world.
Solving medieval mysteries
Our archaeologists helped unearth a medieval chapel that was home to one of the most powerful men in Britain.
Staff and students helped excavate the 14th century Bek’s Chapel at Auckland Castle in County Durham, UK.
Built in the early 1300s for Bishop Antony Bek, (Prince Bishop of Durham 1284-1310), the size, scale and decoration of the two story chapel was larger than the king’s own chapel at Westminster.
This would have been a statement of Bek’s status as a great warrior who had powers to mint coinage, raise armies and even rule on behalf of the king.
The exact location of the chapel has remained a mystery since its destruction in the 1650s, following the English Civil War. The five-month excavation revealed the foundations of the chapel, including walls measuring 1.5m thick, 12m wide and 40m long, the buttresses along the chapel’s sides and part of the floor.
Soldiers’ final resting place
When skeletons were discovered in two mass graves on Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, our archaeologists were able to shed new light on a centuries-old mystery surrounding the last resting place of a group of Scottish soldiers.
Experts carried out scientific tests to date the skeletons, concluding that 'the only plausible' explanation was they were those of a group of Scottish soldiers, captured by English forces following the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650, and imprisoned in Durham Castle and Cathedral.
In May 2018 the remains of the soldiers were laid to rest in Durham, less than a mile from where they were originally found, with a plaque to permanently commemorate them.
New home for Radical Jack
The Palace Green Library, which holds our special collections, was founded by John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, in the 17th century and served as the University’s main library for 150 years.
It’s most recent addition are the archives of Lord Durham, whose support for political reform earned him the nickname ‘Radical Jack’.
Lord Durham was one of four politicians who drafted the Reform Bill, which went on to become the Great Reform Act of 1832, transforming the British electoral system.
The archive includes thousands of letters, dispatches and other papers from Lord Durham’s political and diplomatic work and his personal life, and it’s the first time in 40 years the collection has been available to study.
Remembering a renowned poet
The special collections are also home to the extensive archive of Basil Bunting (1900-1985), one of Britain’s most distinguished 20th century modern poets.
Bunting is famous as the author of Briggflatts, regarded as one of the major achievements of the modernist tradition in English poetry, and his archive includes manuscripts and papers, photographs, films and sound recordings.
Our Centre for Poetry and Poetics also includes the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, dedicated to the study and research of Northumbrian poets and promotes the practice of ‘live’ poetry reading.
As a champion of ‘live’ poetry reading, Morden Tower was the perfect location as the small, circular room on the upper floor of the tower holds only 50 people.
Charting royal history
It’s not very often you discover an ancient royal charter, but that’s exactly what happened to Dr Benjamin Pohl when he was in Durham on a visiting fellowship.
He was studying medieval manuscripts held at Ushaw College Library when he found a rare, original royal charter dated 26 March 1200, the first year of King John’s reign.
Before now fewer than a dozen original charters were known to have survived, making this discovery even more exciting.
Discoveries and collections like these give a fascinating insight into society and political culture of the past and show why exploring archives is so important.
Find out more
- The Bek’s Chapel dig was led by Professor Chris Gerrard in our Department of Archaeology.
- Find out more about the Scottish Soldiers here
- Learn more about archaeology undergraduate and postgraduate opportunities at Durham.
- Read more about our fascinating special collections here.
- Find out about studying in our Faculty of Arts and Humanities here.
- The Basil Bunting archive includes manuscripts, printed material, photographs, recordings and films
- Professor Stephen Regan, Director of The Centre for Poetry and Poetics, worked with Newcastle City Council and Historic England to have the commemorative plaque installed.
- Interested in English Studies? Learn more about undergraduate and postgraduate opportunities at Durham.
- Dr Benjamin Pohl is a Senior Lecturer at Bristol University.