Rosemary Cramp, leading archaeologist and the first female professor at Durham University, has been made a dame. Ruth Addicott talks to her about her achievements.

WHEN Rosemary Cramp discovered Roman remains on her father’s farm as schoolgirl, little did she know it would lead to a distinguished career in archaeology and an honour by the Queen.

Rosemary, 82, is one of Britain’s foremost experts on Anglo-Saxon history and has now been made a Dame following her CBE in 1987.

She grew up on a farm in Leicestershire, which is where her interest in archaeology began. She was only 12 when she stumbled upon the remnants of a Roman villa and wrote to leading archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, who wrote back and said: “This is evidence, don’t destroy it.”

Although a farmer has since ploughed over the fields, the excitement of such a big find stayed with her.

After graduating from St Ann’s College, Oxford, in 1950 and doing a spell there as a lecturer, Rosemary moved to the North-East and joined the department of archaeology at Durham University in 1955.

It was there she was able to pursue her passion and focus on the Anglo- Saxon and later medieval periods. “It hadn’t occurred to me to read archaeology at Oxford, I just thought it would be a hobby,” she says.

“When I came here I knew very little about the North-East and the North- East knew very little about the Anglo-Saxons. I was pointed out as someone who was studying the paper cup culture I thought, we’ll show them it’s not.”

In 1966, Rosemary was promoted to senior lecturer and five years later became the first female professor at Durham.

Over the next 35 years, she played a key role in expanding the archaeology department and carried out ground-breaking excavations at the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, home to the Venerable Bede.

She has worked on a number of excavations, including famous Anglo- Saxon sites in Whitby and Bamburgh, as well as in France and Italy, and has lectured extensively in Britain and abroad.

Rosemary has also been a leading figure in the ongoing campaign to elevate Jarrow and Monkwearmouth to World Heritage status.

“Nobody had any idea what an Anglo-Saxon monastery was like before then,” she says. “Monkwearmouth was a big challenge because we were digging under a town, at Jarrow the buildings were more intact.

We were digging in circumstances that probably wouldn’t be allowed now because of health and safety. We were lucky to be alive. I wasn’t the toughest woman, but I have had some very tough women on my digs.”

The Jarrow and Monkwearmouth project took 18 years to complete, with local volunteers and students from all over the world taking part.

One of the finds that stands out for Rosemary were the different fragments of coloured window glass at Jarrow.

“We dug up 980 fragments from one place, they looked like jewels lying on the ground,” she recalls.

“We were the first to find it and it filled a gap in history.

When I was eight, I wanted to be a detective and that’s really what an archaeologist is – when you’re in the field, it is all about detection. Every time you dig you are destroying evidence, it is an unrepeatable experience, so you jolly well have to record everything you have done.”

While there have been times she has been on excavations and failed to find what she was looking for, she says it is rare to come back with nothing.

“There usually is something, it may not be what you expect, but man always leaves a trace. I’ve never dug a site that was empty,” she says.

Rosemary retired from Durham University in 1990 and is now emeritus professor.

She has held a variety of influential posts, including a trustee of the British Museum and consultant archaeologist at Durham Cathedral and has served as president of the Council for British Archaeology, vice-president of the Royal Archaeological Institute and president of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

THE creation of The Rosemary Cramp Fund, set up on her retirement, has facilitated numerous small grants to students and staff and, as the first female professor at Durham University, she has helped promote women within this academic field.

“One of the oddest things I did was an excavation in the middle of Catterick Camp over a very snowy four days,” she recalls. “I had no idea of the hierarchy present on the camp or that you shouldn’t wheel your wheelbarrow across the parade ground and the commanding officer came out and said, ‘I’ve never seen women so tough’. There was a lot of rain and mud at times. Digging is hard physically, but it is also hard mentally because you are looking for clues and little traces.”

Since retiring, Rosemary has maintained her involvement with the university, frequently turning up with chocolate for the research department, and continues to lead the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, a long-running, highly-acclaimed project based in the department of archaeology. Her portrait, painted in 2010, hangs in the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London, Britain’s oldest, most distinguished archaeological society, commemorating her tenure as president from 2001 to 2004.

When she’s not completing papers on the life of the Anglo-Saxons, she can often be found pottering around the garden. A bad knee prevents her from embarking on any big missions.

“It’s an archaeological wound,” she says, resignedly.