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Project probes religious belief in the north-east

21 June 2019


Dr David Petts, associate professor of archaeology at Durham University, holds an 1800-year-old carved stone head, thought to be of a Geordie Roman god

Dr David Petts, associate professor of archaeology at Durham University, holds an 1800-year-old carved stone head, thought to be of a Geordie Roman go...

HUNDREDS of volunteers are being recruited to work on a two-year study of the heritage of religion in the north-east of England.

The project, Belief in the North-East, is led by archaeologists from Durham University, and will focus on four main subjects from Neolithic rock art to the medieval monastic period, but will also look at faith up to the present day. It has been awarded a £180,000 grant by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Part of the work will involve training volunteers in modern technology to examine the past.

The project leader, Dr David Petts, associate professor of archaeology at Durham University, whose research includes nine years excavating a Roman fort at Binchester, near Bishop Auckland, said: “Religion runs through the history of the north-east.

“During our Roman investigations, we found the head of a god and an early Christian ring. And there is a legacy in the north-east going back to the early Anglo-Saxon Church, Lindisfarne and the Gospels, which is high in the local consciousness. We also have an amazing resource of local pre-history which people here are really aware of. There is a sense that religion is something that can be looked at from almost any period.”

The results of the project will be presented at a conference in 2021, and in a schools education pack posted online.

Dr Petts said that the project was based on the desire to take a more co-operative approach with the community. Its theme emerged after consultation with a variety of groups and organisations. “The feedback we got was that people were particularly interested in religion and belief. And they were keen that we didn’t just run the project for them — they wanted us to skill people up to using some of the technical sides of archaeology.

“Ten years ago, a lot of that technology was restricted to universities and people with expensive computers. Today, you can do 3D photographic modelling on a laptop using a normal camera and free software you can download; you can do computer mapping; you can use Google Earth. Hopefully, they will take the skills they learn and get their own research projects up and running in the future.

“We also want to reach out to people who may never have thought of getting involved: young people, traditional communities.”

One example is the residents of a tower block at Low Grange, Teesside, who want to investigate the site of a medieval monastic building that is nearly on their doorstep. “That’s a great example of a community which isn’t necessarily involved in archaeology, but they are keen to know more” Dr Petts said.

“The north-east has got very early synagogues, one of the first mosques in the country, and early gudwaras; so we can work with those communities, too, and get people to look at these buildings which are historic parts of the landscape in their own right.

“While many people have studied particular aspects or places, such as Lindisfarne or Durham Cathedral, no project has ever tried to capture an overview, right from prehistory to the present. That’s the task we’ve set ourselves for Belief in the North-East. While academic staff and students from Durham University will be closely involved, community engagement with the project will be vital if it is to succeed.”

For more information, visit www.beliefne.net.

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