Durham Cathedral kitchen dig serves up food for thought

Archaeologists from Durham University have revealed what was on the menu at Durham Cathedral after excavating the kitchen

Archaeological dig inside Durham Cathedral Great Kitchen
Archaeological dig inside Durham Cathedral Great Kitchen

A dig by archaeologists in a cathedral kitchen has served up plenty of food for thought.

The investigation by Archaeological Services Durham University has been taking place in what was the Great Kitchen of Durham Cathedral. Working with the cathedral’s archaeologist Norman Emery, they have taken the unique opportunity to carry out excavations in advance of developments linked to the cathedral’s Open Treasure project.

The former kitchen, which was later used as the cathedral bookshop, has been cleared prior to work to converting it into a new exhibition space.

And the dig has revealed what was on the menu over the centuries at the cathedral.

Mr Emery said that the kitchen was in use from the 14th Century up until the Second World War, catering for the monastic community, pilgrims and patients in the cathedral infirmary.

“We have come across a vast amount of food waste,” he said.

A test pit one metre square contained 21,000 fish bones.

Fish would have been an important part of the religious order’s diet, and the finds showed that the monks were eating North Sea cod, herring, sole, turbot, and salmon and trout from the River Wear.

Mr Emery said that although some dried and salted fish would have been eaten, most were fresh.

Livestock bones included that of “white meat” calves, while a wide range of birds was also on the menu.

These ranged from domestic fowl to game and wild birds from the estuaries and moors of the region.

Mr Emery said that the cathedral would have had its food suppliers, and records of what was brought in survive.

There is one reference to puffins on the food list, and lapwing.

“The kitchen would have been a very busy place, with people milling about,” said Mr Emery.

Fragments of Roman Samian ware, a high class ruby red pottery, have also been found.

These are in addition to scattered Roman finds in the past elsewhere in the cathedral area and the uncovering of what is thought to have been a Roman farmstead-villa on the opposite bank of the river during gravel excavation in the Second World War.

Mr Emery said: “The pottery is very interesting because it makes you wonder if there could have been a Roman site here on the Cathedral peninsula. “

One of the pieces of Roman pottery has been recycled to make a spindle whorl for spinning thread.

The archaeological works are in preparation for the next phase of Open Treasure, which will see a new exhibition route created, taking visitors up to the Monks’ Dormitory, through a new gallery and finishing in the Great Kitchen where the Treasures of St Cuthbert will be on display, before returning to the Cloister via the Covey.

The work also includes building ramps and installing lifts for improved access for visitors.

Chris Cotton, Durham Cathedral’s architect, said: “Historic buildings are coming under huge pressure to change and adapt, especially where accessibility is concerned.

“Creating access to the mediaeval Claustral spaces involves meticulous planning and careful work with archaeologists to make sure we are not damaging anything and preserving the Cathedral’s history.”


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