Durham University hosts free archaeology festival

VISITORS are being invited to get down to the bare bones of history as part of a major archaeology festival.

Dr Anwen Caffell, from Durham University with a skull
Dr Anwen Caffell, from Durham University with a skull

VISITORS are being invited to get down to the bare bones of history as part of a major archaeology festival.

The Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology will feature a free public open day at Durham University.

The event, called Under the Butcher’s Knife, will investigate what bone finds can reveal about the diet of our ancestors, what wounds they suffered in fighting and what they had to endure in early surgery techniques.

A series of talks and hands-on workshops with bone and skeleton exhibits will run from 9.30am-4pm on July 28 at the university’s department of archaeology in the Dawson Building on South Road,

The day will be led by Dr Anwen Caffell, Dr Charlotte Henderson and Dr Tina Jakob. Dr Henderson said: “By understanding how butchery was practised and which animals were slaughtered, we can understand more about human-environment interaction in the past.

“The skills and tools developed for slaughtering animals were also put to good use in treating humans, and the day aims to explore this overlap between food and medicine.”

Surgery long before anaesthetics, painkillers and antibiotics will be examined and the evidence left on human bones from various techniques.

“If people suffered fractures and developed gangrene or other infections then there was often very little option other than amputation,” said Dr Caffell, a specialist in human bio-archaeology.

“Having an amputation without anaesthetic doesn’t bear thinking about.”

Another procedure was to remove a small section of bone from the skull to relieve headaches or treat mental problems.

Centuries ago people also suffered significantly from dental problems.

A coarse diet meant that teeth were worn down quickly and the arrival of sugar in the 18th Century accelerated decay.

“We have examples of early attempts at fillings with a rosary bead jammed in a tooth cavity,” said Dr Caffell.

“What is striking is the contrast between earlier times with worn teeth from the coarse diet and a few cavities and the 18th and 19th Centuries and a massive increase in sugar use, which caused a vast amount of cavities.

“On their 18th or 21st birthdays, young people were given the ‘present’ of having all their teeth extracted to save then problems later in life.

“Early dentures were mainly for appearance’s sake and were of little practical use in eating. You took out your teeth to have your dinner.”

Another area for investigation are the marks left on bones by knives and swords, and blows to the head in what were often violent times.

The discovery of animal bones in excavations shows what was being eaten and butchery marks the cuts which were taken and how parts were used for everything from hide tanning to boiling bones for glue.

The use of plants in medicine will also be highlighted, ranging from preparations applied to the skin to the use of bark as a cast for broken bones.

Examples include the extract of poppies used to treat fever and TB, flax flowers as a guard against sorcery and several uses for St John’s Wort.


MORE than 30 events are being staged in the North East as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, which starts on Saturday. They include:

Saturday and Sunday, 11am and 2pm, Binchester Roman fort, near Bishop Auckland. Re-enactments including Roman cavalry display.

July 21-22, noon-3pm, Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology, Durham. Make a Roman fort, find out what happened to Britain during the Black Death.

Guided tours of excavations at Bamburgh Castle, until July 28 at 11am and 2pm.

Wild walk in the northern part of the Wallington Estate, Saturday, July 14, 10am-2pm.

Saturday, July 14, 2pm, guided tour of the Bedlington Iron and Engine Works site.

July 15, 2pm, guided tour of historic Cresswell.

From July 21, medieval fun and games at Belsay Hall.

July 21-27, Time travellers event at Chesters Roman Fort.

July 25-26, from 11am, medieval death and disease at Warkworth Castle.

July 28-29, from 10am, living history with St Cuthbert’s land re-enactment group, Bamburgh Castle.

July 28-29, from 11am, gladiators at Chesters Roman Fort, Chollerford, near Hexham.

Saturday, July 14, 11am-3pm, Great North Museum, Newcastle. Explore the archaeology collection, and meet the curators.

July 23-29, from 11am, Digging the Dirt at Bede’s World, Jarrow.

July 24, from 11am, Segedunum world heritage day, Wallsend. Meet animals from around the world.


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