about dive into durham

A research project of the Department of Archaeology, Durham University.
seal matrix Underwater explorations in the River Wear in Durham City, between April 2007 and September 2023, have revealed an important multi-period underwater archaeological site yielding a significant collection of everyday material culture totalling over 13,500 objects. They have been recovered from the submerged riverbed by underwater archaeologist Gary Bankhead through a systematic, self-funded, sub-aqua diving programme focussed in an area of the river close to the 12th century Elvet Bridge. This remarkable collection of typically small metal finds, known as the Durham River Wear Assemblage (DRWA), is already challenging the way in which we understand Durham's past. As ordinary and extraordinary objects they vividly illuminate the day-to-day lives of the countless citizens, artisans, merchants and pilgrims that would have crossed the bridge on a daily basis. This important assemblage, described as ‘A major research facility, probably the largest collection of late- and post-medieval finds in the North of England: a unique regional/national resource', has the potential to stimulate future interpretive research. It also provides valuable comparable material and an important reference resource for anyone studying similar material culture in published archaeological assemblages from other smaller towns and cities in Britain.

Although an initial chronological study of the objects suggests that their main period of use effectively mirrors Durham’s late- and post-medieval past – from the 13th through to the early-19th century – there appears a peak, in terms of object typologies and totals, to a period of use between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. However, many objects can be ascribed to an earlier time, a time that coincided with the original period of urban expansion which occurred outside of the peninsula's fortified walls during the 12th–15th centuries following the construction of the masonry arched Elvet Bridge. This ‘Elvet’ archaeological site, together with its important assemblage of finds, actively contributes to the rich archaeological record of the Durham World Heritage Site (Petts 2015). The archive has been deposited with the Museum of Archaeology, Durham University and allocated the Museum prefix DURMA.2024.1. (search online via: Search Our Collections - Durham University).

One of the key aims of our work is to record and research the objects using archaeology students along with specialists with more traditional archaeological skills from finds drawing to comparative analysis and developing typologies. It is envisaged that this material will be published in volumes of a popular archaeology monograph series, plus papers in academic journals. Once complete, permanent public and academic access to the identified objects of assemblage and their associated research will be achieved through placing object details on the Durham University Museum catalogue. Public attention will be focussed on the assemblage though local lectures, exhibiting in a number of local museum venues and through its connection to the present people of Durham by publishing a popular booklet in partnership with the Durham City Freemen.

The DRWA positively contributes to the North-East England Research Group's aim to explore the archaeology and historic environment of North-East England. One of the unique aspects of this group is that their research is underpinned by work carried out by academics, the commercial sector and in co-operation with community groups.

Dive into Durham
Dive into Durham
Dive into Durham


Although it is anticipated that the research of the objects will continue over the next three to five years, it is our aim to get as many of the small finds as possible on display in local museum galleries.

To date, hundreds of the artefacts have already appeared on display in exhibitions, including: 'Diving into Durham' (Palace Green Library - June-Sept 2014), 'Plots & Spangles: The Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour' (Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland - Oct-April 2016), the 'Living on the Hills, 10,000 Years of Durham exhibition at Palace Green Library (2016-present), and in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University (2015-present).

In June 2021, MA Museum and Artefact students from Durham University, working closely with Gary Bankhead, have curated an exciting the online exhibition: 'Hidden Stories from the River Wear - Exploring 1000 years of Durham History'. The exhibition exlores hundreds of objects revealing their hidden stories to dive deeper into Durham’s past.