Treasures found in the murky River Wear have sparked a new academic career for a firefighter from the North East.
Father-of-three Gary Bankhead has been diving in the river at Durham since 2007, after swapping it for the North Sea.
The 48-year-old from Pity Me, in County Durham, has been a sub aqua diver for 25 years, and has found a number of treasures and other items of historical importance in the river.
His collection of religious relics has become part of a research project for students at Durham University, and will also be shown in a major exhibition next year.
Now Gary, who is a Green Watch fire fighter with Durham Fire Brigade, is himself studying for a masters in archaeology at Durham.
He said: “I used to dive off the North East coast and the Farne islands, then my wife Angela suggested I give the River Wear a go. I just laughed it off and remember thinking what a horrible colour the water looked.
“It was a muddy brown but it’s only a few minutes from my house, and my brother Trevor decided to join me on a bit of a crazy mission really.”
The brothers were not disappointed after discovering gold, silver, and an ornate silver trowel, which was given to a previous Archbishop of Canterbury.
The hoard of religious relics and coins belonged to Michael Ramsey, who was Bishop of Durham for four years during the 1950s.
Ramsey lived not far from Prebends Bridge where the gold was found and used to walk by the river every day during his retirement.
With a licence granted by Durham Cathedral, which own parts of the river bank, Gary went on to discover a pilgrim’s badge dating back to the 14th Century. He said: “Me and Trevor were a bit shocked to find all this gold belonging to the archbishop, but the badge in the shape of the pectoral cross is my favourite.”
There are several theories as to how the items ended up on the riverbed, but Gary believes Ramsey may have thrown them into the water himself.
“Some people believe there was a burglary, and others believe Ramsey had no idea what to do with so many gifts so he offered them to the city he loved,” he said.
Gary has unearthed 273 lead “cloth” seals from the medieval period after diving around Elvet Bridge, which dates back to the 12th Century. Gary said: “The cloth seals are fascinating because they reveal what Durham used to be like when we had cloth traders and merchants who all had their own individual stamp.”
Gary can spend hours sifting through debris, in water he believes is colder than the North East Sea.
“It’s freezing, I’ve worn out so many wet suits and then you have to watch out for boats which can mow you down pretty easily but it’s worth it when I find something brilliant.”