Using archaeology to promote the study of STEM subjects

My Day of Archaeology is a bit different to previous years. Back in 2012 and 2013 I was doing lab work (for Feeding Stonehenge and Paisley Caves respectively) and in 2014 I was doing teaching preparation and looking at microscope slides. This year I am technically not doing archaeology at all, though I have been using archaeology. Let me explain – I am a geoarchaeologist, which means I use methods and approaches from geoscience to address questions about the human past. In my current job, which I just started this month, a large part of my role is trying to increase the numbers of students (and women in particular) studying Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University. Like archaeology with the popular image of adventure and Indiana Jones, civil engineering has it’s own public image (bridges, buildings! machinery!) and if you say geoscience, the first thing most people think of is rocks. Compared to the image of archaeology which has a broad appeal, it can be much harder to convince people that civil engineering is something they would enjoy. Likewise, there is much more to geoscience than rocks (though personally I am quite a fan of rocks…). This is where the archaeology comes in.

For my Day of Archaeology, I have been putting together outreach events for schools and families, to try and broaden the appeal of geosciences, and to convey the diversity and breadth of the subject. One of the talks I am doing is on Geoscience and Archaeology, using case studies from archaeology to show how we can apply geoscience methods in ways people might not have thought about. I am also working with the Great North Museum: Hancock, to develop geoscience inspired activities for Earth Science Week in October. In a similar vein, I have been writing a blog post (not yet published), on the links between civil engineering and heritage. Back to the bridges stereotype, many famous bridges (or civil engineering structures in general), have become part of the cultural heritage of a place, and it could be argued that their symbolic function is equally as important as their practical one. The Golden Gate, Millau Viaduct, London’s Tower Bridge – all have become iconic symbols of a region or city. In Scotland, the Forth Bridge was recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. And of course anyone with an interest in Roman archaeology knows the importance of bridges as material culture. Newcastle itself was known as Pons Aelius (Hadrian’s Bridge) to the Romans! Archaeology is everywhere, even where you may least expect it.


Bridges: iconic landmarks and heritage symbols (images from Wikipedia)

Medieval & Post Medieval artefacts from the River Wear, Durham City

Shakespeare’s  famous line; ‘Once more unto the breach‘ taken from Henry V, Act III, 1598 captures my #dayofarch 2011 quite nicely! For my breach is also associated with a gap in a high city wall or perhaps more accurately a 850 year gap that still to this day forms the main  thoroughfare in to the heart of a historical medieval city.

I  am actually talking about Elvet a medieval bridge built around 1160 by Bishop Hugh Du Puiset; once guarded by gate and tower protecting the historic City of Durham. Why once more? Simply because it has been a three year exploration by me of the River Wear as it flows under Elvet Bridge and around the stunning peninsular that forms the World Heritage Site. The sole purpose of the explorations many often undertaken in extremely challenging conditions using sub-aqua diving equipment is to recover medieval and post medieval artefacts  from the river bed.

My #dayofarch should have actually been much different but for a late cancellation I was due to be some 270 miles south in the study rooms of the British Museum in London researching their collection of lead cloth seals. As it happened Friday 29th July started quite early enough as I had to take my daughter Sarah to Newcastle airport to catch an 8 a.m.  flight. Then followed a 74 mile drive south for a hastily re-arranged family day out in another historic city this time York. Fortunately my detour from archaeology was not terminal as I was kindly  allocated 60 precious minutes to take in the Roman and medieval splendours of the Yorkshire Museum.

Arriving back in Durham City where I live at 6.p.m. was actually quite good timing as it meant that the bulk of the river traffic – tourists on hired rowing boats, Durham University peeps with their torpedo like super fast 8s and the dreaded Prince Bishops river cruise boat with its huge propeller should have pretty much vacated the stretch of river I am currently excavating.

Strangely for this time of year I had not actually dived for the best part of three weeks. My previous dive was done with TV cameras following my every move both above and under the water not to mention spending much of the day discussing medieval river artefact’s with the delightful historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes! And so as any diver will tell you pulling a diving drysuit on after a prolonged spell of inactivity is no easy nor pleasant task.

My usual entry point in to the river this late in to the summer was now heavily overgrown; Himalayan balsam seed pods exploded violently all around me as I picked out a path through the now giant plants down the steep bank to the water’s edge. My usual (just submerged) rock clearly visible through the clear water was still in situ, as indeed it  has been for the last three years; it’s partially flattened upper surface proving an ideal platform to sit and put my fins and dive mask on.

The last thing a diver needs at this point is to realise that their cylinder first stage valve is not open. However, complacency is a real danger and a full kit check had been carried out back at the car park – my demand valve fed me cool air. I spat in to my dive mask and gave it a rub before rinsing it in the river water and shaking it dry and in less than 18 minutes from leaving home I slipped under the water – again!

My first thoughts were wow how warm is the water and great the underwater visibility is superb! A thin deposit of silt no more than .5 cm deep lay like newly fallen snow on the river bed, its pale brown colour suggesting a peaty origin. Heavy rain fall two weeks earlier in the area of the Pennines near the source of the river was almost certainly the culprit. I remember not being too deterred by the silt deposit I had seen it many times before, a few fin strokes around the gully I had planned to continue searching would send it off downstream.

The flow of water at my dive site is unusually slow, the current held back by a series of weirs further downstream. Within 3 minutes of entering the water I  was positioned directly above the gully I was looking for. I call them gullies for an obvious reason as they are quite simply a series of narrow channels worn in the sandstone bedrock by centuries of water passing over it. Some gullies are wider, while some gullies are deeper than the others.

Conditions this evening 2 m underwater on the river bed were as good as they probably ever get. Although the visibility is really important much of the work I do  underwater recovering the artefact’s is very physical; imagine working intensely for an average of around 140 minutes in one single location. Concentration is  essential, meticulously picking through pebble after pebble looking for artefact’s that quite often can measure as little as 1 cm. You cannot simply drift off in a day dream thinking about what’s for supper when I get out or how  many goals will Sunderland put past Newcastle when they meet at the Stadium of Light in August. Forget nitrogen narcosis or the bends the one really dangerous threat to diving in the river is the possibility of being struck by the propeller of the Prince Bishops boat. However, if you maintain your concentration throughout the dive you will pick up the faint chuk chuk chuk the boats engine makes well before it gets anywhere close, giving you plenty of time to swim off to the safe shallow river edges.

So what medieval or post medieval artefact’s did I recover on #dayofarch Friday 29th July 2011 from a single gully formed in the sandstone riverbed? In short tonight’s haul was fantastic! predominately from a 16th century origin they were in the main made up of dress accessories, items linked to trade, industry and a few pieces of broken pottery. These ceramics are just as
important as they help date the artefact’s as they come out of the stratified layers.

The picture below shows tonight’s haul – yes from only one dive! I only just managed to capture enough of the setting sunlight to take the picture so apologies if it’s not the best. As you can see the haul is predominately made up of small finds. The first artefact that I picked up was nicely decorated 16th/17th century button which was quickly followed by a lovely small copper alloy coin weight with what appears to be 3 fleur-de-lys within a shield beneath a crown. Several pins quickly followed (twisted wire  head type) as is the norm for this area, then some nice decorated mounts. The mounts  are prolific and appear to be unused. Although the majority of mounts I find are copper alloy like the star shaped one pictured; several are actually lead and the two small lead mounts found this evening show a typical five pellets on  the top.

It’s my theory that the majority of the dress accessories I am finding are new or should I say have never been used. They almost certainly were items that were once offered for sale by a trader or local merchant very possibly located on Elvet Bridge itself.  A classic example of these ‘unsold’ artefacts are the many small ‘beaded’ mounts, the stems of which remain straight – had they been pushed through a leather strap for example the stems would have been bent at right angles to effectively hold them in place.

Only pausing to remove a small sliver of glass that embedded its self in my finger I continued to recover artefacts at a rate of approximately one per minute (I wonder if  anyone else in the world found more artefacts that me today?). The main focus for me on every dive is to try to find more lead cloth seals. The reason is simple as I now have a significant assemblage of medieval and post medieval cloth seals all recovered from the same stretch of the river. Two weeks ago I was at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum researching their collection of
177 lead cloth seals mainly recovered from the water channels that run through the medieval city. Prior to this evenings dive my total number of cloth seals stood at 171 – unbelievably I found seven tonight! Who’s the daddy now! Two of tonight’s cloth seals are really interesting, one seal features a standing man possibly holding a spear and a second seal appears to be a dragon or griffin rampant to the left. Hopefully I can find some parallels in Geoff Egan’s Occasional Paper 93!

I should point out that previous to my early discoveries of cloth seals only two others had been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database as being recovered north of Yorkshire and only one of those was in County Durham. Research to date indicates that the cloth seals in my collection appear to have arrived in Durham City from as early as the 15th century continuing right through until the 18th century. Arriving attached to cloth from locations across England and Europe for example Augsburg in Germany.

The seven cloth seals that I found this evening were clustered in a stratified layer which also contained a really strange lead alloy mount. I am only calling it a mount for  the time being as it has a bent stem or pin on the reverse. The front features a face of what could easily be described as a cherub; you may be able to see it third from the bottom right hand side of the picture, (I will add another picture of it tomorrow) any suggestions of what it could be would be appreciated.

Just below this stratified layer the finds as you would guess should be older and this may well be the case with the four or five circular form buckles (see Egan 2002, P.58 (28)) that I found. Although the central iron pins are missing many others similar in style yet complete buckles  have been found very near to this gulley and they are almost certainly dated from the early 15th Century. A lead spindle whorl was also found at the same depth as the buckles, this singular find bring the total of lead spindle whorls recovered to 32 most unlike this one most are decorated with  pellets.

The only distraction to recovering tonight’s artefacts was the need to keep checking my air contents plus some crazy person throwing stones at the point of the river where my  exhaled air bubbles hit the surface. The stones make a loud plopping noise and  fall harmlessly to the river bed around me – I never surface to see who throws the stones for the fear of being hit on the head, strangely it is something that happens more often than not!

Many small pieces of waste lead were found, a few of which were window came, other finds include; tools (possibly for working with leather), a knife, twisted copper alloy loops, lead tokens – one with a nice anchor, a solid cast (bi-convex head) button Circ. 1650, a partial horse shoe, a copper alloy rivet, a circular lead alloy pan-weight, iron nails, a fragment of a jug handle and iron key. It will take me around two weeks to clean the artefacts, bag then record them.

There is a serious side to my endeavours in the river; it is not just a crazy dangerous hobby. For the last three years many artefacts have been loaned to Durham University Archaeology Department where their MA students have researched then as part of their studies. In addition and by working very  closely with my Finds Liaison Officer  Frances McIntosh to date 350  artefacts have been added to the PAS database. All being well in 2012 I am set to undertake an MA by Research in to the assemblage perhaps focusing on the considerable lead cloth seal collection.

The finds that have been recovered so far total over 2000 artefacts and will without doubt help to re-write the history books of Durham. If you are a small finds expert and would  like to help identify many of the unusual artefacts then please do get in touch plus you can follow news of the assemblage and indeed what
my latest discoveries are by following me at

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Day of Archaeology 2011!

River artefacts

Artefacts recovered on #dayofarch



Accessing Egyptian archaeology through a British Museum exhibition

As an Egyptologist, currently working at the British Museum, I’ve been involved in a number of archaeological digs, but most of my research life has been devoted to trying to make sense of what other people have dug up and trying to share it with a wider audience. And that’s what I’ve been busy doing today.

A lot more ancient material than people might imagine has been found and then relatively ignored in pursuit of new discoveries, and it’s not always shared with as many people as it could be. Part of the work of the curators at the British Museum, whom I have been lucky to join as part of the BM’s Future Curators programme, is trying to make sense of the archaeological legacy that has been left to us. Curators have many different responsibilities, including current fieldwork, but they also persevere in contributing research on the museum’s existing collections, which is made freely available to the public in an online database, online research catalogues, and online journals. Outside researchers are also gladly welcomed to work on the collections; there’s always more that can be learnt from the objects.

Most of what I’ve been working on today relates to a BM UK touring exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which I’ve been highly involved in, that opened recently in Newcastle before it tours the country. The exhibition explores the ideals and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt, and, as part of the BM’s Partnership UK programme, allows objects from the national collection to tour to museums outside of London.

I started today with further research into the objects that are currently part of Pharaoh. Exhibitions shed light on objects both literally and figuratively, bringing them out of storage to be shared with thousands of curious people, as well as being an excellent prompt to pursue further research into them. My hands on research, examining the details on objects up close, has sadly already passed, and now I’m chained to the computer and library books, fleshing out the context. Today I finally got round to working on one of my favourite objects from the exhibition, the massive wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I. It towers at about two metres high and through the conservation work done on it, we learned that it is surprising in its construction as it is made from native Egyptian sycamore wood rather than the imported cedar wood which was usually used for large objects. Making sense of the object also involves tracing its history back to its discovery by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817 and some subsequent misinterpretation in later publications!

Of course, as all archaeologists will understand, my research time didn’t last long, as administration, meetings, and other commitments took over. I worked on our slowly evolving project of making the Pharaoh website a better guide and online catalogue for the exhibition: today we added the exhibition themes to the website, which you can see here. Then we had a debriefing meeting to discuss what we learned during the installation of the exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock to help us better prepare for transporting and installing the objects in the subsequent venues around the UK. All sorts of things like scheduling, personnel, improved packing techniques, security, and providing contextual information and images were discussed.

Finally I also exchanged farewells with our visiting curators from Egypt and around the world, who were here for the past 6 weeks as part of the British Museum’s International Training Programme. I led a couple of sessions with the visiting Egyptian curators, as well as attending some of training sessions alongside the ITP participants, and I certainly learned as much from them as I was able to teach. On their last whole day here yesterday, they presented their ideas for future exhibitions based on some of the new approaches they’d learned from colleagues at the BM, partner museums, and each others. It was amazing to see presentations on exhibition concepts like the trade route between China & Europe or Somali wedding traditions, and given in partnerships such as Brazilian and Nigerian curators working together.

One can always learn more, whether from meeting new people or revisiting old objects, and continually asking questions is one of the most important tenets of archaeology.