This is going to be a bit different from other offerings in this series, in that I'm not actually employed by or studying at Durham University. I am an independent consultant operating my own consultancy, ORACLE Heritage Services. Through this, I am currently contacted to work with David Petts to help deliver the Belief in the North East (BitNE) project, focusing on the archaeology of religion throughout the north-east, by the end of 2022. Although this project will be my main work over the next 18 months, and detailed planning is now well underway, delays due mainly to covid mean that it is still to get properly up and running and realistically most project fieldwork is now likely to take place in 2022. I've been involved with BitNE from the early planning stages and I am very excited about the potential it has to deliver important results, though I am still slightly daunted as to how we will cope if all 1,400 registered volunteers decide they want to do the same thing at the same time!
Alongside BitNE, I also do lots of other things. I sometimes describe myself as an archaeological mercenary: if someone wants to pay me then I'll do it! Though increasingly, without the framework of a 'proper' job, I find myself spending far too much time on interesting things that I don't actually get paid anything for! But mustn't grumble. I seem of late to have become classified as a 'community archaeologist', though doing archaeology with local communities is something I've been doing since long before that term was invented. Through nearly three decades working for the Northumberland National Park Authority and the North Pennines AONB, I have had the good fortune to work with some brilliant professional archaeologists (including several based in Durham) and many hundreds of splendid local people to deliver numerous exciting projects. On the day I wrote this bumph, in July 2021, I have been dabbling in all of the following:
Excavations at St Botolph’s Chapel, Frosterley, in 2013/14 included the discovery of fragments of an 8th-century stone cross that go on public display in the Weardale Museum this week.
Altogether Archaeology and St Botolph's Chapel
Of all the projects I've ever worked on, I think Altogether Archaeology must be the most satisfying. It began life as a lottery-funded project based at the North Pennines AONB and has developed into an independent charity, led by a committee of committed volunteers, that continues to do excellent work, often in partnership with Durham University. Back in 2013 and 2014 we undertook excavations of the old chapel of St Botolph in Frosterley, finding, amongst many other fascinating things, an early 8th-century stone cross. These finds are now to be displayed in the Weardale Museum in Ireshopeburn and I'm currently working with museum staff on the new display. It is brilliant that the finds are to stay in Weardale, and made accessible to everyone. If you're in the area, why not pop to the museum and have a look? (But please note the opening times and admission policy shown on the website; these may change in the light of the covid situation so please ring to check before travelling any distance.)
Something else I've been working on today is a Lidar Landscapes survey of Ryedale, part of the lottery-funded Ryevitalise project based at the North Yorks Moors National Park. Lidar is an amazing way of recording archaeological landscapes. Over recent years I've worked with scores of volunteers to record extensive areas including Weardale, Teesdale and (most recently) Redesdale. It's been good work during lockdown, as most of it done by volunteers on home computers - all of whom seem to enjoy spending their evenings staring at fifty shades of grey. This year, four sites recorded during the Redesdale survey will be excavated. You can see my report on the Redesdale survey here.
Frosterley marble: natural exposure in bed of Bollihope Burn, and columns in Durham Cathedral
Another thing I've been working on during lockdown, which has become a bit of an obsession, is the story of Frosterley marble. As a resident of Frosterley, I've found myself increasingly drawn over recent months to the mystery of why this distinctive 'marble' (it isn't really marble, though it looks like it) found its way into so many medieval churches from Arbroath to Kent, in addition to its use in St Peter's Chapel at Auckland Castle and in Durham Cathedral's Chapel of the Nine Altars. Much later, after the railway arrived in the mid 19th century and the quarries around Frosterley were operated on a truly industrial scale, Frosterley marble found its way into numerous churches throughout Britain and even to India and Australia, and was also used to great effect in other public buildings and private houses. I've just returned form a walk round one of the old quarries where great blocks of Frosterley marble lie abandoned; we need to find a use for them! Back in medieval times, long before anyone understood the concept of fossils, the white corals within it must have had some kind of mystical explanation. Why else would Robert the Bruce have chosen it for his own tomb, necessitating the transport of a huge slab all the way to Dunfermline? And why was it, rather than some readily available local stone, used for the manufacture of a huge effigy of King William at Arbroath Abbey? I think perhaps I need to expand this venture from a personal obsession into a community project of some kind!
Above all else, my real archaeological passion is prehistoric rock art, in particular the 'cup-and-ring marks' of the north-east. My passion for rock art took me a few years ago to paradise: the stunningly beautiful island of La Palma in the Canaries. I have returned several times since, usually in November or February, when the North Pennines can be a tad damp and chilly. Best known for its telescopes, and little visited by Brits, it has some of the most stunning rock art to be seen anywhere. Earlier today I began working on a presentation for the 'Postcard from the Past' series currently being produced by Durham staff and students; it is about the rock art of La Palma, and how we might use it to develop some new ideas about our own fabulous rock art. I hope you enjoy it if you get to see it.
That's more than enough waffle for now - it was only meant to be 500 words! If anything here is of interest and you'd like to discuss it then please feel free to contact me via the Belief in the North East project website.