Westminster Abbey

What do buildings archaeologists do at the weekend?

Day of Archaeology was one of those occasional days on which my regular job found me staring at a wall, tapping away on my computer. I decided not to post about that… But I also postponed posting because I knew that the next day I was going to go to Westminster Abbey. Amazingly, for a London-based buildings archaeologist, it was my first ever visit there. It’s also come at an interesting time because in the last few weeks, I have also visited (for the first time) Vatican City and the Tōdai-ji temple complex at Nara in Japan. All three are monumental structures, religious centres and World Heritage Sites. I thought that to prove once again that archaeologists are never truly away from work, I would share a few weekend-y thoughts on how the three compare.

Piazza San Pietro

Piazza San Pietro

History

Unsurprisingly, I’m more familiar with the history associated with Westminster Abbey than the Vatican or Tōdai-ji, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the cult of personality at its centre. I think you would learn more about what Britain thinks about its own history through a trip to Westminster Abbey than anywhere else. Its memorials are, as in most churches, dominated by aristocracy and the military. In the UK, larger religious buildings in particular have a tendency to be overwhelmingly martial spaces and the same is true at Westminster Abbey. There are plenty other people commemorated here too, of course, not all of them dead (at the time of installation!). Look closely at the less well-known memorials and you’ll find ‘the mothers’. I spotted more than one on with text along the lines of ‘When XX died, her mother, who loved her more and longer than anyone, and was sadder than anyone else when she died and suffered greater pains than all others, paid for this memorial…’ Well, the dead are buried by the living after all. There’s also an amusing memorial where the text praises the exact manner in which the subject kept her household expenses. You can certainly find a less obvious history than the ‘main’ one, if you look (and don’t be led by just the audio guide).

I felt at the other two sites that although there is, of course, a great history associated with each, they also had more obviously active presents beyond the tourism. There were lots of people praying at Tōdai-ji and frequent pilgrim processions at the Vatican as well as nuns all over the place. It would be hard to pray at Westminster Abbey even if you wanted to.

Stuff

Westminster Abbey is full to bursting with stuff. It’s like a packed antiques shop or, perhaps more accurately, like the too-well-used shed of someone who can’t bear to throw anything away. Although large parts of the Abbey are great to look at, moving even, there are corners where the addition of a defunct exercise bike, some broken skis and an unused bread maker wouldn’t look out of place.

We didn’t actually go into any of the Vatican buildings, so can’t comment on them, but Piazza San Pietro, in front of the Basilica, was not nearly as busy as I expected. There are statues everywhere, but generally on the top of buildings so the space is very open. Tōdai-ji is a huge space and packed as it was with school-children (as most of Japan seemed to be) it didn’t feel busy at all.

Interior of Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji

Interior of Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji

If I’m honest, the amount of stuff combined with the number of people made Westminster Abbey a slightly less-then-pleasant experience in parts.

Not on the tour!

Westminster Abbey has a route. You all walk around the place in the same way. This means that you also get the chance to peer past the ropes and see what hasn’t made it into the visitor experience. Noël Coward’s memorial, for instance, is beyond the rope at the point where people turn to go out into the cloisters. He’ll generally be missed. The rope actually passes directly over Andrew Bonar Law, so I suspect he’s missing out too. Thomas Telford is at an odd angle so you have to try pretty hard to see that his statue is him. My favourite memorial, to Mrs Mary Kendall, is just inside a door so most people walked straight past it.

I was a bit too over-awed to do much ‘around the back’ exploring at Tōdai-ji. We went around the back of the Vatican though and happened upon a scene of people coming in and out of a courtyard hotel with a bouncer on the door, next door to a shop selling ‘religious articles’, and a sudden rush of immigrant hawkers running away from the Vatican police. It struck me as a beautifully medieval moment and quite different to the ‘front’ side.

So, a few thoughts on a few sites. For the rest of my weekend, I’m going to see some more archaeology, then I’m going to write about some archaeology, then edit someone else’s archaeology.

Oops, I forgot to mention the buildings…