Crypt-ic clues deepen mystery at church

UNDERGROUND ... St Paul's Church verger and warden Jimmy Guy, ponders the possibility of a long-buried crypt.
UNDERGROUND ... St Paul's Church verger and warden Jimmy Guy, ponders the possibility of a long-buried crypt.

TWENTY-first century technology has uncovered a mystery at one of the most historic sites in South Tyneside.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has identified what appears to be a large cavity or chamber beneath the chancel of St Paul’s Church in Jarrow, once the monastic home of famous medieval scholar and saint the Venerable Bede, who lived, studied and worshipped at the site more than 1,300 years ago.

Although experts are uncertain about the exact nature of the void, it is similar to crypts found in Anglo-Saxon and continental churches.

The cavity was revealed during a research project being carried out as part of the landmark World Heritage Site bid by the twin monastic site of Wearmouth-Jarrow, which is due to be judged next summer.

St Paul’s Church verger and churchwarden, Jimmy Guy, said: “More research will have to be done to determine what the cavity is, but there has long been talk of an Anglo-Saxon crypt beneath the chancel, which were quite common in churches of the period.

“One expert who researched St Paul’s has speculated the church could have included a timber-framed crypt.

“But as it stands, and without further research, this is a complete mystery.”

Mr Guy said a fibre-optic probe of the chancel could help unravel the mystery of the buried chamber.

GPR technology has been employed in recent months to investigate the ancient chancel at St Paul’s, in Church Bank, Jarrow.

The technology is particularly useful for the identification of stone-built walls, floors and other architectural features.

A brochure prepared as part of the World Heritage bid site research project and exhibition, called One Monastery in Two Places, states: “This method has provided some unusual and interesting results at Jarrow.

“Initial surveys have identified what seems to be a large cavity below-ground and beneath the chancel.

“In size and form, this feature bears similarity with subterranean crypts at Anglo-Saxon and other continental churches.

“Further survey is being undertaken at St Paul’s to try and elucidate further information about the shape, form and depth of this possible buried chamber.”

Dr Sam Turner, senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University, who is involved in the One Monastery project, stressed that more research is needed before any firm opinion can be formed on the nature of the cavity beneath the site.

He said: “It could be a 19th-century burial vault, which is probably more likely, and the level of resolution in a 7th-century church chancel means we cannot be certain at this point.

“But the cavity may be earlier, which potentially could make it very important.”

Jarrow team vicar, the Reverend Jenny Lancaster, while expressing caution about the find, and stressing that a full-scale excavation of the chancel would be unlikely and costly, added: “As this stands, and without further research, the cavity is a mystery.”