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Unique collection of treasures retrieved from riverbed go on show
Updated 11:02am Friday 6th June 2014 in News
NEW EXHIBITION: Fireman and amateur archaeologist Gary Bankhead whose collection is on display in the new exhibition at the Palace Green Library in Durham. Picture: DAVID WOOD
TREASURES fished out of a river by an amateur underwater archaeologist have gone on display.
Thousands of artefacts buried in the silt of the River Wear in Durham have been retrieved from the riverbed over the last seven years by scuba diver Gary Bankhead.
Now several of the most important pieces – around three per cent of his collection – have gone on display at Durham University’s Palace Green Library.
Along with brooches, rings and countless coins, the haul contains some extremely personal possessions dropped, dumped or deliberately concealed in the river over the centuries.
Remarkably, almost the entire collection of 5,000 artefacts was unearthed in just a few square yards of riverbed beneath Elvet Bridge.
The 49-year-old, a watch manager at Durham Fire Station, developed his diving skills in the North Sea off the Farne Islands. In April 2007, when bad weather forced a trip to be cancelled, his wife suggested he and brother Trevor try the river.
Despite just one-metre visibility, they quickly made their first significant find, a ceremonial silver trowel which belonged to a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mr Bankhead said: “It was totally out of context – we hadn’t expected to find anything like that. It really was a ‘Wow’ moment. If it hadn’t have been for that chance discovery we would never have gone back”.
They returned again and again, making repeated fingertip searches through the murky waters.
The exhibition includes one or two modern finds, a Blackberry mobile phone and a Porsche car badge, but also curious insights into everyday life.
There is a fearsome 17th Century urethral syringe used in the treatment of venereal disease, a pair of late Victorian rubber dentures, almost certainly dropped as their owner looked over the edge of the bridge and Medieval dice, suggesting the bridge was once a gambling venue.
His own favourite is a tiny, pewter cross in the distinctive shape of the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert and a unique survivor from the days when pilgrims made the journey to Durham to honour the saint.
Among the most personal of exhibits is a gold mourning ring, inscribed in memory of Durham resident Ann Stuart who died in 1775 at the age of 35. Held between the 20-carat gold ring and its ivory backing is a lock of Ann’s red hair kept as a keepsake by her loved one until, one day, it slipped from the finger and fell into the waters beneath Elvet Bridge.
“The objects themselves represent the people who lived, worked and died in Durham,” said Mr Bankhead.
“Working with the researchers at the university we have been able to build up a wonderful picture of life in Durham over the last 800 years”.
Diving Into Durham runs at Palace Green Library until September 7.
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