The collective power of displaying sarcophagi cannot be underestimated. Nowhere is this clearer than at Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, one of Cheshire’s and the UK’s paramount medieval heritage sites. It is a rare example (as is the recently discussed Sutton Hoo) where detailed, long-term modern (aka not ‘antiquarian wall-chasing’) archaeological investigations have informed a heritage site’s interpretation and museum display on the site itself. More succinctly, it claims to be the ‘most excavated monastic site in Europe’.
The heritage site tells the story of not only an Augustinian priory and later abbey of St Mary, but its full life-history over 900 years. This charts its early 12th-century origins (founded 1134), through the development and occupation of the monastery, the post-Dissolution use of the Abbot’s lodgings by the Brooke family, down to the 18th-century house built over the west range of the cloister. The site was presented to Runcorn Development Corporation as a ruin by Sir Richard Brooke in 1966.
Next came two decades of archaeological excavations (1970-1987) leading to the redevelopment of the museum and gardens as a leisure amenity for Runcorn. The museum was opened in 1982 and as well as the display of the ruins ther are extensive gardens to investigate leading up to the Bridgewater Canal and a separate Walled Garden for visitors to enjoy.
Archaeological publications were forthcoming. J. Patrick Greene produced a synthesis of the dig in 1989 and his subsequent Leicester University Press review of Medieval Monasteries drew heavily on the Norton Priory excavations. Most recently, an Oxford Archaeology North have produced a full analysis of the site drawing on the site archive (Fraser and Howard-Davis 2008). In terms of current archaeological research, Shirley Curtis-Summers’ PhD utilised the burial evidence and employed stable isotope analysis on the skeletons, while the Wellcome Trust are funding DNA analysis of the skeletons from the priory which have a high frequency of Paget’s disease.
Today, both outside among the ruins and gardens, and inside in the atrium, undercroft and museum, one can learn about life, but also death, burial and commemoration, health and disease, at an Augustinian priory. This was already the case before, but the re-opening in August 2016 following the Heritage Lottery Funded Monastery to Museum 900 project has seen the expansion of the covered area to conserve the undercroft, redisplay of the museum and augment the monastic ruins with new display boards.
So much is right about Norton Priory’s re-vamped displays this was already the case, but things have definitely changed and improved with the latest redisplay. The museum shop has the usual trinkets, but also actually sells relevant books, including the Oxford Archaeology North monograph on the excavations (so often this is not the case at heritage sites!). The striking statue of St Christopher, dated to c. 1390, retains a prominent position here. The ruins of the monastery are low and unimpressive compared with so many others, but viewing galleries and signboards allow visitors to navigate them and integrate them into many stories. The size and character of the museum, and the survival of the undercroft, as well as the garden settings, make Norton Priory both impressive and distinctive as a heritage site.
With the re-display, the museum has endeavoured to put far more mortuary remains on display and many more grave-covers, headstones and some stone coffins too. There are also enhanced displays of many other aspects of medieval and post-medieval life on the site, including its many architectural fragments. This helps visitors in particular appreciate the variability of medieval mortuary practices in terms of containers and covers. Attention is particularly afforded to osteoarchaeological investigations of the skeletons and the stories we can tell from the bones, as well as towards facial reconstructions of multiple individuals to give a sense of a long-term burial community of monastics and patrons interred in and around the priory church. I’ll return to these displays in a subsequent post.
What I wish to discuss here is the outside displays. Of particular note are the sarcophagi. 49 stone coffins are known from Norton Priory, perhaps the biggest collection on display at any single British medieval monastic site (I’m happy to be corrected if anyone knows somewhere with more!). Most significantly, as the 2008 report states ‘it is possible to conclude that nearly all the stone coffins are still at or close to where they were first found.’ The evidence suggests these were not for display: there is no indication any were raised above the ground surface. Instead, these were for inserting below floor surfaces, allowing the coffin lids to operate as floor surfaces.
They are found across the abbey church, most notably in the north transept and associated with the Dutton family chapel. There are further examples from the chapter house.
They vary in form: some are tapering – a style most common in the 12th/13th-centuries, others are trough-like as is more common in the 14th/15th centuries. The most distinctive is the semi-hexagonal slab in the centre of the choir.
A further striking element is the evidence of child-sized coffins, notably a group of three in the chapter house together with an adult-sized arrangement.
In terms of features of coffins, well-constructed ones have drains at their centre, to allow the decompositional fluids to drip out. They are called ‘corpse-eaters’ (the precise meaning of ‘sarcophagus’ in the original Greek) after all, but such stone coffins might equally be called ‘bone-makers’.
Stone coffins were not essential components of burial in this period, and there are well-preserved wooden coffins on display at Norton Priory too. Still, not only indicative of status, but also of the ability to inter the dead in a shallow position and to constitute the dead as part of the floor surface of monastic sacred spaces, made sarcophagi an integral part of the process and performance of mortuary practice at this Augustinian house.
In addition to the sarcophagi outside, there are some inside the museum too. Conversely, there are some grave-covers outside too, dislocated or in position (in one instance) as a fragment over a grave.
Presencing the Absence Dead
The display of the stone coffins is the construction of a particular process of archaeological excavation in which disturbed and investigated graves have been revealed and their contents removed. These sarcophagi were not intended for display in the Middle Ages, so here they are, out of context – bereft of contents and above ground – despite staying in context. Morever, they are empty shells that not only imply their individual occupants’ former presence as decomposing bodies and then as skeletons, their display collapses time and displays a community of absence. Together, they are artefacts citing mortuary processes, commemorative practices and displaced bodies. This is emotive too: the implied human form, especially the small-size of the child coffins, facilitates an awareness and prompts the imagination of the lives and deaths of those who occupied these spaces.
As such, they are yet another foil to the preoccupation of professionals that the present-day visitors to heritage sites are exposed to death primarily through human remains. Instead, as the example of Norton Priory shows, the entire site is saturated with the absent dead through sarcophagi, grave-covers and headstones. These lithic traces of the medieval dead give a sense of the deep-time community of the dead which accumulated during the centuries that the medieval monastery was a locus of mortuary and commemorative practice for both the community and its patrons.
Brown, F. and Howard-Davis, C. 2008. Norton Priory: Monastery to Museum. Excavatrions 1970-87, Lancester Imprints 16, Oxford: Oxford Archaeology North.
Smith, L. 2012. Norton Priory, Runcorn, in D. Breeze (comp.) and H. Williams (ed.) Liverpool and South Lancashire, Supplement to Archaeological Journal 169, 22-29.