The perversity isn’t lost on me that the main focus of my blog yesterday was complaining about investment in an important early medieval EH heritage site, when the main archaeology news has been the closure of a major, important, national and regional museum: Bede’s World (see also the Wikipedia page here). Carve as many Merlins as you like at Tintagel EH, tragedy is happening everywhere else in the UK heritage industry and museum services.
The closure of Bede’s World is a disaster for public engagement with the Early Middle Ages in North-West England, these islands as a whole, and across Europe. This is another kick in the teeth for the UK’s culture and heritage industry and another punch in the nose for the threatened museums and heritage services of the North of England in particular.
Lord Bragg has rightly condemned this closure, as have so many others. This is not a museum simply about the 8th-century monk the Venerable Bede. No, this is a key indoor museum for the early medieval culture of these islands including displays of fabulous carved stone monuments and architectural stone sculpture. This is combined with an open-air museum with important and varied dimensions including live animals, reconstructions of historic buildings and art. Visitors can also explore the adjacent remains of the monastic site of Jarrow and its surviving church – St Paul’s – containing further stone sculpture.
For my part, my last and only visit was in 2006 and I thought it appropriate to post some photographs to give a sense of what a loss this closure is in terms of the early medieval archaeology of Britain, including its mortuary dimensions. Here I focus on the indoor museum and the many mortuary and commemorative dimensions it includes: early medieval graves and stone sculpture.
As you can see, the narrative of Bede’s World might at first seem to rely heavily on settlement archaeology – including rural settlements, palace sites and monasteries. However, intertwined through are artefacts from furnished graves (actual and reconstructions), a display of a furnished inhumation grave, and various fragments of sculpture which, in part, were deployed to construct social memories for these early medieval religious communities. The models of Yeavering and Jarrow include mortuary dimensions too.
I also note that Bede’s World had a fabulous new exhibition on ‘Bede’s Skull’, following on from the research of Story and Bailey as published recently in the Antiquaries Journal. Hence, there are many mortuary dimensions to the indoor museum at Bede’s World.
Not all is lost: please follow Bede’s World on Twitter and support the museum’s hopes to re-open.
I sincerely hope that this post doesn’t mark the last possible opportunity to visit and celebrate the long-term efforts of Bede’s World to communicate the early medieval heritage of these islands.