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Image showing site of archaeological dig

Earlier this year Professor Sarah Semple, Head of our Department of Archaeology, was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 series 'This Union: The Ghost Kingdoms of England', which explores four great Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England and traces of their legacy today. Here, Sarah tells us how she got involved in the programme, how it links to the work of the Archaeology department and what Archaeology can tell us about the history of the North East of England.

Q. How did you become involved in the BBC Radio 4 programme?

 A. My research interests are in early medieval communities and the challenges they faced. I’m currently working on a research project called People and Place, which is looking at early medieval graves and funerary remains in the North of England, to shine more light on how communities lived at that time.

The BBC approached me and asked me to take part in the radio programme they were producing, in particular an episode focusing on Northumbria.

Q. What was involved in taking part in the programme?

A. I had preliminary discussions with the BBC research team and then met with them at Durham Cathedral, along with programme presenter Ian Hislop, for a recorded question and answer session. We focused on how the People and Place project is contributing to our understanding of early medieval communities and societies in northern England and southern Scotland.

Q. What do you find most fascinating about this area of study?

A. I grew up in North West England and during my archaeological training there was a disproportionate focus on datasets from the midlands and south of England, so from an early stage I wanted to try and rebalance the story.

Joining Durham University and following in the footsteps of people like Professor Dame Rosemary Cramp, I wanted to help develop a greater understanding of northern Britain through our rich, but sometimes neglected, material culture.

I believe the archaeology, heritage and the rich medieval material culture of northern Britain can be a testing ground for research of global relevance on the emergence of more complex societies and the impacts of elite culture and decision-making on ordinary people and everyday life. These are processes that continue to have significant relevance to many places, at many different times, right up to the present day.

Q. Tell us about your project People and Place – what are you hoping to discover?

A. People and Place: The Making of the Kingdom of Northumbria AD 300-800 is using social and scientific archaeological techniques to learn even more from the burial records about every day lives in the time period in which Roman presence and military authority diminished and the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria developed.

We’re studying over 5000 burial events and our aim is to create a record of this period which, unlike what has gone before, is not reliant on written documents as a framework, but is grounded in scientific findings that can challenge and enhance our understanding of everyday lives.

We want to find out more about the stories of these people and their communities – their health, identity, lifestyle and wealth. We’re looking at everything from the location of cemeteries to the structure of the graves and the objects and dress items included with people at the funerary, as well as using bioarchaeology to see what we can learn from the skeletal remains.

What we are finding is that the small, local rural communities inhabiting the late prehistoric and post-Roman landscape of northern England faced significant pressures in terms of health in these turbulent centuries, but were resilient and adapted to immense pressures. As more complex social, hierarchical and political structures emerged, burial became especially relevant to place-making and creating a sense of identity and connection with the landscape. This need to connect and belong is just as relevant today in terms of empowering local communities to develop new inclusive narratives of connection to heritage, landscape and place.

Q. How can Archaeology shed new light on such ancient communities, civilisations and kingdoms?

A. Archaeology is rooted in investigation and discovery – the drive to find out more about what has gone before. A really important insight from this project is around how we think about the emergence of identity in England.

Kingdoms like Northumbria are viewed as the building blocks of modern day England but what archaeology can show is that these regions were very diverse, with distinct identities and dialects and a multi-culturalism created by regional and more long-distance mobility and movement of families and individuals. The resilience of these communities and their identity were shaped by connecting with their localities and landscapes and by using objects, burial and other forms of material culture to create new, shared sense of identity and place.

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