Major archaeological excavations of the monastic sites at Wearmouth and Jarrow took place under the direction of Professor Dame Rosemary Cramp between 1959 and 1978, with some further excavation inside St Peter’s Church in 1986. These excavations were ground breaking for a number of reasons. The site itself is of great significance in the history of Northumbria and of early monasticism, and is the context for the life and work of the Venerable Bede, who spent his life studying, teaching, and writing there. He gives us a first-hand account of the foundation of the Wearmouth and Jarrow, and of the early years of the twin monastery. The site is described in the World Heritage nomination documents (Nomination Document p19) as the earliest surviving and most completely excavated Western European example of a monastic foundation:
“Its architectural remains in the original monastic churches and below ground remains of the associated monastic complexes, exceptional both in quality and quantity, provide a visible link between the past work of late-Roman antiquity and the coming world of the European Middle Ages.” (p18)
In his description of the foundation of the monastery by Benedict Biscop, Bede tells us that Biscop brought masons from Gaul to build a stone church ‘according to the manner of the Romans which he had always admired’ (Lives of the Holy Abbots). The excavations have demonstrated that this was indeed the case:
“Both sites produced evidence for large scale buildings with lead roofing, opus signinum floors and painted and sculptured wall decoration, as well as the greatest quantity of 7th– to 8th-century coloured window glass from any site of comparable date in Europe.” (Cramp pxx)
The excavations were also notable for the use of volunteers, including people from the local areas. The excavation report states that “… the excavations were, in modern terms, ‘community based’ in that members of the churches and local inhabitants as well as shipyard workers at Wearmouth were all involved.” (Cramp pxvi) This is also supported by oral history statements in the localities in the 2020s. Local residents remember that Professor Cramp was always keen to include local people in explanations of the excavations and discoveries, including local schoolchildren and ship workers in their breaks and after work, as well as having volunteers from the area.
This was the first post-war large-scale excavation of an early monastic site (Cramp pxvii).
The twin monastery held a significant place in monastic and Northumbrian history from its foundation in the late seventh century, to it’s destruction in the mid ninth century. Benedict Biscop had travelled widely in Europe and was impressed by the monasteries he visited and the buildings he saw in Rome. The foundation first at Wearmouth and then at Jarrow was by royal command and Biscop sought to bring to Northumbria the type of buildings and monastic life he had witnessed on his travels, creating an important centre of worship, learning and culture, including glass makers from Gaul, and John the archchanter to teach the Roman mode of chanting. Bede tells us that Biscop and Ceolfrith between them brought back to the monastery from Europe a large quantity of books, religious pictures, sacred vessels and vestments, and ‘abundant spiritual merchandise’ first for St Peter’s and then for St Paul’s. This foundation was pioneering in it’s architectural, spiritual and cultural aspects.
The popularity of and demand for Bede’s writing across Europe during his life and since, kept interest in the sites alive. However “nothing was known of the physical context of this work – save for the surviving parts of the early churches – until these excavations took place.” (Cramp pxx)
Wearmouth Jarrow Partnership, 2011 The twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow: nomination as a world heritage property: nomination document. Sunderland City Council.
Cramp, R J et al, 2005 Wearmouth and Jarrow monastic sites. English Heritage.