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The Durham River Wear Assemblage Project

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


(The 'Durham 13-20' Project)

The Durham River Wear Assemblage (DRWA) comprises over 11,353 small finds recovered using sub-aqua diving equipment from a submerged riverbed between 2008 and 2017. The find site, positioned just downstream of the twelfth century Elvet Bridge in Durham City, lies mid-way between two areas of late-medieval urban development: the Borough of New Elvet and the Bishop's Borough. This is an important historical location positioned adjacent to the eastern-boundary of the Durham World Heritage Site (WHS). The assemblage, which has been 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’, actively contributes to the rich archaeological record of the Durham WHS .

The late-medieval city of Durham comprised of five boroughs, the tenements located in the Bishop's Borough, positioned immediately to the west to the find site, were known as Saddlergate (now Saddler Street), while the tenements which abut the river to the east (in the Borough of New Elvet) were simply referred to as the western edge of New Elvet. Previous archaeological excavations in these New Elvet and Saddler Street locations (Carver 1974 and 1979) suggest that the property boundaries of these tenements survived until the late-twentieth century. The chronological period of study of the DRWA effectively mirrors the development of these two boroughs from the thirteenth through to the early-twentieth century (hence the project name 'Durham 13-20'). Although the majority of the objects can be dated to a period of use between the Tudor and Stuart periods, many can be ascribed to an earlier time which coincided with the main period of the urban development outside the peninsula's fortified walls following the construction of Elvet Bridge in the twelfth century. Initial dating has come from analysis of a selection of coins, and a few typologically distinct artefacts. An accurate picture of the range of material and its distribution over time must await detailed cataloguing and analysis. Comparable assemblages may be imagined to exist in the riverbed of every city with a major river in Europe. Egan (1998, 12) has shown that objects, excepting deliberately curated heirloom objects, are normally discarded within a generation of their manufacture, thus this continuous ‘random’ sample can also be explored as an assemblage describing the changing social tastes, methods of manufacture, interests and activities of the people of Durham across the period of the thirteenth to twentieth century, so providing a rare physically evidenced picture of the change for the medieval to modern world.

The discovery of these artefacts has created a unique evidential resource. Unlike traditional archaeological sites, where sporadic specific deposition events at a particular location and time lead to an absence or over representation, the river has been constantly sampling the material culture of Durham throughout its period of occupation. The biasing effects of the flow of the river, oxygenated water followed by deposition in anoxic silt have been constant throughout this time, everything which was washed, dropped, thrown or fell into the river was potentially sampled, providing an assemblage of the small heavy objects which fill people’s lives.

After its construction, Elvet Bridge soon became a vital link between the commercial centre of medieval Durham and the surrounding countryside, countless artisans, merchants, freemen, and pilgrims would have crossed the bridge on a daily basis; it was the potential for exploitation of this passing trade that encouraged pedlars and vendors, with Bishop's consent, to build various shops, booths and bothys on and off the bridge superstructure. Although several objects recovered from the find-spot can be linked to Durham's medieval agrarian-based communities located outside city walls, there are many examples of objects that link directly to the nineteen occupations mentioned in the Durham Priory deeds, account rolls and rentals that were in existence in Durham from the late-fifteenth century (Bonney, 1990). By far the largest quantities (by typology) of objects in the collection are dress accessories; there is textual evidence that these objects were once offered up for sale to the passing trade on Elvet Bridge. These typically small metal finds include objects such as, buttons, buckles, pins, decorative an figurative mounts, eyelets, strap ends, chapes (or aglets) and brooches. Objects associated with the evolution of trade and industry are also present, for example, lead trade weights and lead tokens, coin weights (for gold coins), seventeenth century copper trade tokens, jetton and hammered silver coins; while a substantial lead cloth seal collection (304), the largest available for analysis outside of London, reveals for the first time tantalising material evidence of the trade, industrial regulation and taxation of commercially produced cloth. Leather, wood and metal working tools are present together with various ingots and casting waste - perhaps evidence of local manufacture. Objects relating to the domestic household such as butchered animal bone, window came, toys, pewter spoons, knives, security equipment, floor tiles and medieval ceramics, including glazed ware reveal much of the day to day life in the lower echelons of society. Several types of round shot, made from lead, iron and stone, hint at periods of conflict throughout Durham's past. Evidence of late-medieval pilgrimage, for example, lead ampullae, pilgrim signs, including the first example of a pilgrim badge in the form of a small lead Cuthbert pectoral cross, medallions and other mounts symbolic of Christian pilgrimage are also included.

The Durham 13-20 project will record and research the objects using specialists with 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.

Various finds recovered from the River Wear such as a button, pin, coin and stamp

Published Results

Authored book

  • Caple, C. (2006). Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past. London: Routledge.


From the Department of Archaeology