How does a firefighter and diver become the country's leading authority on items used centuries ago in England's textile industry. Andrew White found out

A CHANCE remark made in a Durham City cafe was to set Gary Bankhead on a path that was to change his life. Gary, a firefighter and dive leader with the British Sub Aqua Club, was sitting in Esquires coffee shop, just off Framwellgate Bridge, with his wife Angela.

He told her that poor diving conditions meant it would be some months until he could make the next of his regular trips to the Farne Islands in the North Sea. “Why don’t you go diving in there?” said Angela, pointing towards the River Wear. “You’re sure to find something old.”

Gary, a father-of-four from Pity Me, near Durham, dismissed the suggestion, reasoning that poor visibility and freezing conditions would make finding anything highly unlikely. But the idea stuck and in April 2007 he convinced his brother, Trevor, to join him in an exploratory dive.

“It was a horrible dive,” says Gary. “It was cold, dark and I didn’t enjoy it at all. Then right at the very end, Trevor found a trowel.”

Closer inspection uncovered an inscription, revealing it to be a ceremonial trowel which had laid the foundation stone of a church in India in 1961 – and it persuaded the brothers to make another dive the following day,

Further objects uncovered at the same site, under the city’s Prebends Bridge, also appeared to have a religious theme, so they declared their finds to the landowner – Durham Cathedral – which gave them a licence to to undertake a survey of the riverbed. Over the next two years, the brothers found 32 objects associated with Bishop Michael Ramsey – Bishop of Durham from 1952-56, who went on to become the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. How those objects came to be in the river is a matter for debate to this day.

Those finds were important and interesting, but it was hard work, with objects being found only once every eight dives or so. So Gary decided to look elsewhere and in 2009 he made his first exploratory dive around the bend of the river under Elvet Bridge.

And it proved an inspired decision, because on that very first dive, Gary struck gold – or more accurately silver. He found a coin dated 1638, minted in Durham from the time of Henry VIII – only the second one of its kind ever found. Over the next eight years diving Elvet on his own, he discovered an incredible 11,400 small finds – now known collectively as the Durham River Wear Assemblage and probably the largest collection of late and post-medieval objects in the north of England.

The vast majority of the objects are dress accessories, mostly unused, having probably fallen from medieval market stalls on the bridge. There are also a large number of tools associated with the textile craft and objects relating to pilgrimage.

But it is the fourth key category – the 304 cloth seals found on the riverbed – which set Gary on an unexpected academic journey. The significance of the objects – lead seals attached to cloth to verify its quality – was realised early on by academics.

Geoff Egan, cloth seals ‘guru’ at the British Museum began researching the seals, but after he died, Gary decided to take on the analysis himself.

Dr Chris Caple, a senior lecturer in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology who recognised the importance of the assemblage and Gary’s passion, persuaded him to return to education. Over seven years, Gary obtained an archaeology degree and went on to study for a Masters, which was ultimately upgraded to a postgraduate MPhil degree. His thesis “A cultural, scientific and technical study of the Durham lead cloth seal assemblage” is to be given the rare honour of being published in a research paper by the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland later this year.

“That transition to academia has been the steepest learning curve you can imagine,” says Gary. As a result of his research, he is now the country’s leading expert on cloth seals and is is the go to man whenever a collection of seals found in London, or elsewhere, requires analysis. “It’s incredible,” says Gary. “ I’ve become the expert in cloth seals, I’m suddenly doing research for objects found hundreds of miles away in the capital. I could never have envisaged this career in academia, being a career fire officer.”

Gary still sees himself “first and foremost” as a firefighter, a career he has had for 28 years and which he has maintained throughout his studies.

But he plans to retire in two years, after which he will immerse himself fully in academia, with medieval buttons the next subject for his researches.

“It’s something I would recommend anybody has a go at,” he says. “You’ve got to have a belief that it can happen.

“I’m absolutely proud of what I’ve been able to achieve. I’d never have dreamed that was going to happen. How often does a firefighter get to record history?”