Exploring St Cuthbert’s Tomb with David Willem

By Pen-Yuan Hsing

Here at the Ustinov Global Citizenship Programme (GCP) we explore what it really means to be a global citizen in today’s highly interconnected world. As part of that, I’ve had the distinct privilege of being a member of its Café Scientifique.

As one of my colleagues lamented, we now live in a “post-factual” society. However, I believe science literacy and critical thinking are more important than ever in today’s increasingly globalised world. This is what we investigate in Café Scientifique events. In fact, our first set of events at this time last year were called “Why should you care about science?”.

For our first event of this year, we partnered with the Ustinov Senior Common Room (SCR) and wonderful college mentor Stuart Forster to organise a conversation around a very local topic. We invited Mr David Williams (aka David Willem), author of St Cuthbert’s Corpse: A Life After Death, to talk about his work on the multiple openings of Saint Cuthbert’s tomb through the centuries. In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Saint Cuthbert was one of the most important saints in Northern England. His tomb was moved multiple times after his death in 687 and the wagon carrying his coffin even got stuck whilst travelling through Durham. This was interpreted as a direct sign from Saint Cuthbert and he now rests in Durham as a result.

A full house for Saint Cuthbert. Credit: Diego Astorga De Ita
A full house for David Williams and Saint Cuthbert. Credit: Diego Astorga De Ita

For this event, David talked about the multiple openings of Saint Cuthbert’s coffin and focused on a gold Anglo-Saxon cross that was found among his remains. The presence of this cross was a great mystery, not only because it did not fit with the Saint’s ascetic hermit lifestyle, but also that it was normally viewed as a woman’s accessory!

David discussed several explanations. One is that the cross was placed in the coffin by a nun who was close to Saint Cuthbert. Another suggested that the cross was hidden in his coffin centuries later during the Reformation.

We had a fascinating evening learning all about the story of Saint Cuthbert! For me, however, the biggest lesson was a new appreciation for how much detective work goes into archaeology, just like any other science. For example, the golden cross was discovered under several layers of cloth wrapped around Saint Cuthbert’s famously “incorrupt” body (meaning that it had not undergone decomposition yet!), which indicates that its placement was considered and deliberate.

Saint Cuthbert must have been cross when he discovered this in his tomb... Credit: Diego Astorga De Ita
Saint Cuthbert must have been cross when he discovered this in his tomb… Credit: Diego Astorga De Ita

So why should you care about this science? Even if you don’t care about Saint Cuthbert’s story, the narrative itself demonstrates the careful gathering and assessment of evidence and it indicates the attempt to arrive at the best solution to the problem. This is a lesson that could be applied to our lives as citizens of the world.

In democratic discourse we also start by establishing a baseline of facts. With that, we each do our best to come up with solutions to our common problems. Through vigorous debate we put those ideas forward for scrutiny and let elections or other democratic mechanisms take their course to arrive at a plan of action.
Science literacy is much more than the collection of facts. It is a way of looking at the world and critically considering the issues that confront us. This is something we should all care about, whether you consider yourself a professional scientist or not.

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