A MAJOR new television series features the expertise of a North-East firefighter and academic helping to search the country’s waterways for historically important artefacts.

River Hunters follows the adventures of river detectorists as they explore underwater locations synonymous with British history.

In the eight-part series, starting on the History channel this month, presenter and wild swimmer Rick Edwards teams up with American YouTuber and expert river searcher Beau Ouimette, to delve into UK waterways for archaeological treasures.

The Northern Echo:

Producers Hello Halo TV wanted someone with an academic background to help evaluate the finds – so they turned to North-East underwater archaeologist Gary Bankhead.

Mr Bankhead, a watch manager at Durham Fire Station, first began searching the River Wear under Durham’s Elvet Bridge in 2009. Since then he has recovered nearly 12,000 medieval artefacts, forming a unique national resource known as The Durham River Wear Assemblage.

His interest led him into academia and he is now an honourary research associate at the Department of Archaeology in Durham University.

When Hello Halo first approached Mr Bankhead with the concept for the series, producers told him “think Time Team, but in rivers’ – which immediately captured his imagination.

And last year, the 53-year-old spent “an incredible summer” filming at locations around the country.

“It was a terrific adventure and great fun,” said Mr Bankhead. “I’m the archaeology advisor, the guy they turn to to find out what the small finds are. But it turns out I’m better at finding things than they are, so I join in the fun and go into the rivers using a whole raft of techniques.”

He added: “I was able to call on my knowledge of small finds, particularly the late medieval objects, and I was able to identify many of them.

“I sound really knowledgeable on screen, but it was just pure luck – a combination of the fact that I’ve been looking at these kind of things through my research at Durham University and that we came across small objects during the filming.”

Mr Bankhead, from Pity Me near Durham, features in five of the eight episodes – prior commitments prevented him from appearing in more. Two are based in the North-East – episode six (scheduled for broadcast on Monday, April 22) is in Barnard Castle and the following week’s show (April 29) is from Durham.

His first appearance is in episode two, based around the River Avon. It includes one of his favourite finds of the series – a collection of objects the team jokingly called the ‘Tewkesbury Hoard’, thought to date to the colonial period and possibly brought back to the UK by an English army officer.

Other series highlights include an object recovered from the River Tees in Barnard Castle which initially caused much excitement as it was thought to be a Roman period coin. It took two days to free from the bedrock – but turned out to be an 18th century ‘dandy’ button.

Fragments of a late-medieval bread oven were uncovered in the same episode. It is thought the castle baker may have thrown the damaged oven over the castle walls into the River Tees below.

Mr Bankhead said the find helped to better understand the everyday activities of the medieval Barnard Castle.

“When the penny dropped and we realised what it was and the significance of the find site, it was a wonderful moment,” he said

Mr Bankhead’s participation in the series hinged on the fact that a series of safeguards were in place to ensure the investigations were conducted according to the highest possible academic standards.

He said: “Each and every object that we found had to be conserved, where possible. They had to be recorded in situ and each and every object had to be researched by an expert.

“Importantly, these objects that we found were returned to the place of discovery. I was quite insistent that they had these processes in place, or else I couldn’t get involved. This is not about treasure hunting.”

Mr Bankhead enjoyed the filming process so much, he is hoping there will be similar opportunities for him in the future.

“It was an incredible experience for me, a wonderful opportunity to branch out into TV,” he said.

“It’s really daunting to stand in front of a camera alongside someone like Rick Edwards, who’s been doing it for years.

“He’s a consummate professional and there’s me, new to it. But I rose to the challenge and really enjoyed it.”

lRiver Hunters starts on Monday, March 18 at 9pm on the History UK channel.