In 1940, she gained a place at King Edward VII Grammar School in Market Harborough and said that, in the following year : "When I was about twelve, I became an archaeologist – or I thought I did – because we found a Roman villa on our land. To be strictly truthful, my sister said she had found some nice things for the floor of the little house which we were building, as children do in the country". She said she had found the pilae tiles of a Roman building and : "At least I thought it ought to be Roman. I only had a children’s encyclopaedia, and I looked it up there. Then I went to see the Rector, as the most learned person in the village. Like most rectors, he took away part of the Roman things and put them in his garden".
"I thought I ought to report this find to somebody else. The only archaeologist I had ever heard of was Kathleen Kenyon, who had been digging in Leicester. She sent me back the first typewritten letter I had ever received, saying :
So we dispensed with the Rector, and the site lay fallow until I was about to go to Oxford University. Then an aged man came, saying he was a real archaeologist – he had dug with Mortimer Wheeler. We dug another wavering trench into the site, and found more wall and this was reported in the Market Harborough Advertiser".
In 1946, just after the end of the Second World War she gained a place to study as an Arts undergraduate for an English Language and Literature degree at St Anne's College, Oxford. She recalled : "When I got to Oxford, I received a note from the Ashmolean Museum Saying, ‘Dear Miss Cramp, Will you come and visit me? M.V. Taylor’. Rosemary's attendance at the University had come to the attention of archaeologist Margerie Venables Taylor who had written a large number of articles for archaeological journals, had edited the 'Journal of Roman Studies' and contributed material on Roman Britain to the 'Victoria County Histories'. (link)
Rosemary recalled : "I thought, ‘Now, I am an archaeologist.’ Miss Taylor had been assistant to F.J. Haverfield, and was now an elderly woman. When I went to see her, I saw to my slight embarrassment the Market Harborough Advertiser spread in front of her, with this picture of me leaning on a spade and the caption: ‘SHE IS GOING TO OXFORD’ Miss Taylor said, "You think you have found a Roman villa. What makes you think it is a villa?’" I didn’t know there was anything except Roman villas, so she destroyed that thought. She asked if I had been taught to survey? "No". Could I draw sections? "No". She went through everything an archaeologist ought to be able to do, and then said, "I think you had better be trained".
As a result, while still studying for her English Language Lit. Degree, Rosemary attended the archaeological field school held at Corbridge, Northumberland and was an active member of the Oxford University Archaeological Society which she said was : "A brilliant Society at that time, with many people involved in it going on to be professional archaeologists".
At this stage, for Rosemary, archaeology was not the main focus of her studies, as she said : "I hadn’t known whether to read History or English at Oxford – I liked both – and in the end had plumped for English. At the end of my first year, I was taught by Dorothy Whitelock. She told me I should specialise in ‘Course II’, which ranged from primitive Germanic to Spenser".
By this time she had embarked on her career in academia as tutor in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford and said of herself : "When I was 21, I turned from being a disorganised undergraduate to being a disorganised young don, teaching Anglo-Saxon at St Anne’s College, Oxford ".
From Oxford, Rosemary moved to Durham University and recalled : "A rather strange job came up in Durham. It required you to be able to teach History, English and a fledgling Archaeology group. On Christopher Hawkes’s advice, I applied rather half-heartedly, got it, and a bit reluctantly came north. After a few years, we started an Archaeology course on its own, and then broadened that into what became, I’d like to think, a great Archaeology department". Rosemary recalled, with the Anglo Saxons in mind : "When I first came to the North I was pointed out by the Romanists and Prehistorians as "The girl coming to study the paper cup culture, because there was nothing there".(link)
In fact, it was in 1956, that with Eric Birley, the Hadrian's Wall expert, she set up the Archaeology Department at Durham. It would be where she would spend the rest of her teaching career, first as lecturer and then from 1971, at the age of forty-two, as Professor Cramp and, as the first female professor in the history of the university, she helped build the department into one the best in Britain.
At Durham, geographically, she had found herself in an area rich in Anglo Saxon possibilities. The Venerable Bede, imagined in this 12th-century illustration in a copy of his 'Life of St Cuthbert', was the eight century English monk, whose 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' earned him the title of 'Father of English History'. And Bede once lived and worked only 20 miles north at the monastery of St Paul at Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey in Tyne and Wear in the Angle Kingdom of Northumbria. Rosemary admitted : "It was certainly a great thrill living so near to where Bede was, and Durham itself is a town that is steeped in Anglo-Saxon history. I have stayed and been very happy here".
She told James Rivington in 2019 : "I was extremely lucky to have fall into my lap the excavations at both sites of the double monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. Although at both Monkwearmouth and Jarrow there are still the churches that date, in part, anyway, from the 7th century, there is nothing left of the monastic buildings on either site. Indeed, no one knew where they were. We know a certain amount from Bede about the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monastic community, and people used to say to me : "It must be nice for you digging a site that Bede has talked about"; but he tells you nothing about how it was laid out".
She recalled : "At Monkwearmouth, when I worked on the south side of the church, the houses were still occupied, and I was digging in people’s backyards; it was sometimes difficult to get access to them, but eventually you were nobody unless you had a trench in your yard". To police the site, Rosemary employed the kind of down-to-earth practical solution you would expect from a farmer's daughter and said :"We recruited small children to look after the trenches at night. As a reward they were allowed to trowel through the barrows of excavated soil to see if any bit of pot had been missed and tipped in with it; sometimes they found them. And when they had done three years of that, I had a special trench in which they could learn how to trowel properly. I have always involved the local communities in my digs. You can show them the past and make them enthused about it, part of it and willing to protect it, all of which is important".
Simultaneously, Rosemary now took on the dig at the monastery at Jarrow where she found that the Ministry of Works had restored the existing buildings and made them safe and she now wanted to date them which was all she was asked to do. She started with a couple of trial trenches and then the next year, in 1965, dug inside a building and found, underneath the walls, another stone structure and one with an 'opus signinum floor', which she knew would be Anglo-Saxon. She said : "Nothing stopped me after that. I dropped the idea of just dating the standing buildings, and went for trying to find the plan of the monastery".(link)
Four years later, in 1969 she took the opportunity to explain the excavations at Jarrow to the Mayor of the town. No doubt she would have told him that Wearmouth–Jarrow was the creation of Northumbrian nobleman Benedict Biscop between 628 and 690 A.D. who had visited Rome and was inspired by the Christian life he saw there. In 674 he had approached King Ecgfrith of Northumbria to ask for a gift of land for a monastery and was first given a large estate to found St Peter’s, Wearmouth. Then in 681 he received land at Jarrow to found St Paul’s and the twin monastery probably once owned much of the land between the rivers Tyne and Wear. Biscop brought stonemasons and glaziers from France, who created some of the first stone buildings in Northumbria since the Roman period.
Rosemary's excavations revealed that the earliest monastery had two churches, lying parallel to two large buildings, with a guesthouse close to the river. She knew that it was not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon monasteries to have more than one church. The larger one may have served local people as well as the monk with the smaller church was perhaps reserved exclusively for monks, or may have been used as a funerary chapel. Of the two other large buildings, one had settings in the floor that might have supported seating and food debris such as fish bones was also found, suggesting that this was a refectory. The other building contained a large, finely decorated room, probably used as a communal hall with a central stone seat from which the abbot may have presided over meetings of the monks. Each building may have had an upper floor containing dormitories.
The guesthouse by the riverside was finely decorated with painted plaster and coloured glass windows. Craft and industrial activity such as metal- and glass-working also took place on the riverside and there was evidence for terraced gardens on the south-facing slope towards the river, where vegetables and herbs were likely to have been grown. Rosemary had been working at Jarrow for nearly a decade when she fell upon fragments of shattered glass during 1973-74, which she said were : “Like jewels lying on the ground". They remain the largest quantity found among comparable sites in Europe and the fragments were joined together by craftsmen in the 1980s to make a seven inch diameter window which was displayed in the surviving Anglo-Saxon chancel in St.Paul's Church, Jarrow.
The dig at Jarrow continued over a number of seasons, with the last dig when Rosemary was fifty-five in 1984. She said : "It was a large part of my life, and hundreds of students went through this experience". Apparently, students working on the site were given a ration of strawberries and ice cream during their breaks and when one student found his lunch topped up with tomatoes he was told by Rosemary : "I will not have scurvy on one of my digs". By this time Rosemary had a very clear view of what it meant to be an archaeologist. (link)
With her project partners, Rosemary took on the counties of Durham and Northumberland, Richard Bailey, Cumbria and Jim Lang on the East Riding of Yorkshire. By 2019 Rosemary reported : "To date we have recorded 3,528 stones from 1,101 sites – an extraordinary wealth of material". One of these was the 'Lichfield Angel' discovered in 2003 and now in Lichfield Cathedral and another found in Somerset was being used to mark the grave of a pet cat.(link)
In terms of methodology, Rosemary said : "We first look at written records, to see if we can find things that have been written up long ago and forgotten. Then there is fieldwork, which usually takes many years for each volume. In some areas, every medieval church has been looked at, to make absolutely certain nothing has been missed. It has been a remarkable effort by my colleagues, because they are only paid their travel expenses and they normally give up their holidays. Once the project is known, people do ring you up and ask, ‘Do you know about this?’ And this can be very helpful. We also answer a lot of queries from the curators of sculpture sites".
Rosemary lamented the way that Saxon sculpture had been neglected and said : "After the Norman Conquest, because the Normans, so miserably, I think, despised Anglo-Saxon architecture, pieces were built into walls and they have emerged later. At the Reformation, a lot were destroyed, as Popish monuments. So, many sculptures are shattered fragments. This contrasts with Ireland, where so many crosses are still standing in their place".