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The North East

Making History in the North East
North East England has many archaeological and historical sites of national and international significance, including the World Heritage Sites of Hadrian’s Wall and Durham Cathedral and Castle. For over four hundred years Antiquaries have concentrated their efforts on the region’s Roman remains and great religious sites. It was not until the 19th century that they began to study and preserve the remains of local historical sites more generally.

Essentially an atlas, first published by John Speed in 1611, the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain contains 67 maps, mostly of English and Welsh counties with a few of Scotland and Ireland. No roads were shown but some important buildings were depicted. Here County Durham is shown along with a plan of the city. To the side of the map Speed included a brief history of the city's origins.

'Bishoprick & Citie of Durham' from the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain
Discovering the Romans

Through industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries new discoveries were made. The construction of new roads and mines and the rapid expansion of urban centres uncovered many artefacts and Roman ruins. By the 1870s antiquaries were excavating sites such as the Roman forts at South Shields and Wallsend before they were lost under housing developments

This hypocaust was discovered near the Roman fort of Condercum at Benwell, on Hadrian's Wall, when the Newcastle to Carlisle road (now the A69) was being built from 1751-1752. It was surveyed and drawn by the landowner, Robert Shafto, a relative of the subject of the popular song 'Bonny Bobby Shafto'. He made a detailed study of the bathhouse, which was later communicated to the Society of Antiquaries.

Plan of Bathhouse at Benwell Roman Fort
The Corbridge Lanx

The silver Roman lanx, or tray, was discovered in 1735 by a nine year old girl in the bank of the River Tyne, near Corbridge, a Roman garrison town. It dates from the 4th century AD. The tray depicts several Roman deities including Apollo and Diana.

The original drawing was exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in 1735. The lanx itself has recently been purchased by the British Museum.

This drawing commissioned by Lord Mulgrave, Fellow of the Society, records a contemporary view of Tynemouth a year after discovery of the altars. The Society sent several antiquaries and artists to record the site and the finds. The artist provides a key and description of all the altars found, as well as transcriptions of the dedications carved on them.

View of the Priory and Castle of Tynemouth
Benwell Altar

This is one of several altars found on the site of the Roman fort at Benwell, on Hadrian's Wall, in 1751-52. The altar's inscription, meaning 'to the three witches', is believed to be a unique dedication and an example of Roman soldiers adopting local religious beliefs. The altar was chosen by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne to feature on their seal.

During refortification work on Tynemouth Castle in 1783, several Roman altars were uncovered and the Society of Antiquaries was notified. Fellows deduced that these altars were re-used as foundation stones for an early church on the site. This altar was dedicated by a Roman Prefect, Aelius Rufus, to the Roman God Jupiter. All altars found at Tynemouth were subsequently presented to the Society.

Jupiter Altar
The double granary, South Shields Roman Fort

A small number of photographs recorded the 1875 excavations were commissioned by the landowners and were reproduced and sold to the public.
The collection of photographs of the site over the years is a useful resource to show the development and change of the site compared to today.

After excavations were completed in 1875 local antiquaries continued to record the site and often bought artefacts uncovered during building works, or dug up by men Robert Blair described as 'prospectors'.

One letter describes the discovery of the Regina tombstone, one of the most important from the site. The landowner donated the tombstone to the local museum, now known as South Shields Museum & Art Gallery. The other letter contains sketches of jet and stone objects found by prospectors, which later turned out to be forgeries.

Letters recording excavations at the Roman Fort, South Shields
Recording the North East

Antiquaries have taken great interest in the churches and monuments of the region, including Durham Cathedral, Lindisfarne and Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery, recording these buildings and the tombs within. By the 19th century learned societies sprang up in many towns and cities, bringing together antiquaries to discuss their work and findings. The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, the oldest English antiquarian society outside London, was established in 1813 with 68 members and the Sunderland Natural History and Antiquarian society was founded in 1836. Some items from the Sunderland Society’s collection are still on display at the Museum & Winter Gardens today

This view shows some of the last surviving medieval frescos in Durham Cathedral. They had been defaced during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and only revealed after removal of later whitewashing. The artist has recorded the chapel during one of its phases of restoration in the mid 19th century. The chapel itself was saved by John Carter FSA in the 1790s, when the Dean and Chapter considered demolishing it.

Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral
Map of Tyne and Wear Collieries

Aware of the impact made on the landscape by increasing industrialisation, antiquaries collected topographical prints showing new developments alongside historic sites and monuments. This map, based on Gibson's surveys at the time when deep shaft mining was developing in the region, illustrates both the depth of mines and routes for coal transportation. The header on the top left has an early depiction of industrial mining.

This locally engraved double shroud brass of c.1500 from Sedgefield, County Durham, commemorates an unknown couple. It shows two corpses in an advanced state of decay, partly wrapped in shrouds with customary knots at the top and bottom. Yet even in death, the couple turn to each other with deathly grins.

Man and Woman as skeletons in shrouds
Durham Cathedral, Section from East to West

The Society's Cathedral Series, published from 1795 to 1813, was the first attempt to provide accurate, detailed and measured illustrations of religious houses in England. John Carter, who was responsible for most, proved outstanding as a draughtsman and vigorously campaigned for the preservation of the buildings. Durham was chosen as 'the most magnificent' construction in the Norman style, and Carter's cross-section was the largest of his drawings to be engraved.

Antiquaries were keen to collect contemporary views of changing landscapes. This engraving shows the first bridge across the River Wear at Sunderland, which was opened in 1796. It was the longest single-span cast-iron bridge in the world. The County Durham MP Rowland Burdon paid £30,000 to build the bridge and also contributed to its design. Wooden scaffolding, shown in this view, supported the structure during construction.

East View of the Construction of the Wear Bridge
An Eye Plan of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth from the South

John Rain's map of Sunderland provides a rare view of the city in the late 18th century. Although the topography was altered and the river re-aligned to suit the format used by Rain, it reproduces buildings in astonishing detail with names of landowners and businesses. He has also included small details such as people going about their daily lives.
There are no known original copies of the map; the reproduction was made from an original copy sometime between the late 19th and early 20th century.

This view of Sunderland overlooks Monkwearmouth and shows a busy industrial port at the beginning of what became the boom period for Sunderland's economic growth in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fortunes were made, and occasionally lost, by local business men profiting from the coal trade and support industries such as ships chandleries. To the right, smoke can be seen rising above salt works and glasshouses. From a population of about 3,000 in 1700, Sunderland's population grew to 20,000 by 1800.

The Perspective and Ichnography of the Town of Sunderland in ye Bishopric of Durham
The South view of Jarrow Monastery in the Bishopric of Durham

Samuel and Nathaniel Buck travelled the length of England and Wales during the 18th century, creating visual records of ancient monuments. 'Bucks Views', as they were known, consist of 428 views of the ruins of abbeys and castles plus 83 views of cities and towns, and four great houses. Their work provides an invaluable record of many buildings which have since been destroyed or altered.

Unearthing Local History

The development of modern archaeological techniques has allowed more extensive excavations to take place on sites previously investigated by antiquaries, such as Wallsend and South Shields. Interest has also grown in other sites affected by modern building work, such as rural prehistoric settlements or urban medieval sites. Excavations continue on a daily basis, each one writing a little more of the history of the area.

These objects come from the 1875 excavations or from later building works during the construction of the houses. While precise locations for most of the finds were not recorded, the importance of precise recording was beginning to be understood. These early finds helped build a picture about life in the Roman fort.

Finds from the Roman Fort, South Shields
St Peter's Church Monkwearmouth

St Peter's church was the mother church for the twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, and was the birth place of the Venerable Bede, the first English historian, about 672 AD.
This collection of photographs and engravings shows how the site has developed and changed over a century. The latest picture in 1962 illustrates how photography had been harnessed to record in situ archaeological features before they were destroyed forever and helped to interpret the site.

Modern excavation techniques meant that delicate items such as this fine gold foil, originally twisted round a fibre core, could be recovered safely.

Gold thread
Site notebook and finds from Wearmouth

By the time of the 1974 excavations at Wearmouth, improved techniques included the detailed recording of finds to help with the later interpretation of the site. Number and letter codes were used to identify the finds, which were all kept for study. The entry in the site notebook for 30th March 1974 lists the finds recovered on that day, along with their identification codes to make it easy to find them again.

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Introduction | The Discovery of Britain 
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