All posts by Jonathan Jones

Archaeological passions

JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.

Bamburgh is as solid as a rock but it's 99% nothing: Photo, David Simpson
Northumberland is a county rich in history and archaeology

There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.

Chris Burgess
Chris Burgess

Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.

“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.

In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.

More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.

Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.

“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.

“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.

“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”

The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg
The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg in Russia

Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.

Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”

But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.

He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.

“It’s a matter of personal obsession.

“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”

He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”

“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.

“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.

“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.

“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.

“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”

The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.

 

Listen to Chris Burgess being interviewed in 2014 on a Radio 4 feature about the Battle of Flodden bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mj1y4

More about the Battle of Flodden englandsnortheast.co.uk/Flodden.html

Momentum Skills’ North East (Brain Injury Rehabilitation) momentumskills.org.uk/our-services/service/north-east-england-vocational-rehabilitation based in Newcastle, offers vocational rehabilitation services for people with an acquired brain injury and or neurological condition aged 16 years old and over.

BuzzCloud takes the sting out of beekeeping

Honey Bees: Photo BuzzCloud
Honey Bees: Photo BuzzCloud

Bees play a critical role in plant pollination, making them a crucially important part of our ecosystem. JONATHAN JONES visits a County Durham business that could make beekeepers of us all with the help of 21st century technology.

A COUNTY Durham environmental business hopes to take the sting out of beekeeping, and encourage more people to become beekeepers, with a 21st century bee hive, monitored through a smart phone app.

Long seen as a specialist industry, traditional beekeeping requires sometimes expensive equipment, can be time consuming, and land intensive.

But new business BuzzCloud buzzcloud.global, in Tantobie, County Durham, hopes to change all that, with the development of a bee hive, linked to the ‘internet-of-things’, which will enable anybody to become a beekeeper, and more importantly protect a species that is fundamental to life on this planet.

The ‘internet of things’ is a development of the world wide web, which gives everyday objects, such as vehicles and buildings, Internet connectivity, by embedding them with electronics, such as sensors and actuators, which can be monitored using a mobile phone.

Roger Lewis, director of BuzzCloud, and his colleague, Fraser Lindsley, are seeking funding to manufacture the first hives for public testing. They already have a number of hives at beta test sites across the UK, including locations on North Tyneside and in Leicestershire.

A BuzzCloud Hive: Photo BuzzCloud
A BuzzCloud Hive: Photo BuzzCloud

And they’re hoping to use crowdfunding, against bank lending or venture capital, to fund the production of the first hives available to the general public.

Crowdfunding works by asking thousands of people, not necessarily in the UK, for small amounts of money to fund the projects they are interested in.

BuzzCloud is seeking an initial $20,000 (approximately £15,500) on the Indiegogo site www.indiegogo.com, one of the largest crowdfunding sites in the world. The official launch takes place on July 15.

Mr Lewis explains: “We chose crowdfunding as it allows us to raise the relatively small amount of money required for the initial project, through people who have an interest in helping bees. We chose Indiegogo as it’s one of the largest crowdfunding sites in the world.

“If this initial crowdfunding phase raises the money required for the test hives, we’ll then look at future crowdfunding when we are ready to go into production of hives that will be available to the general public. Starting small like this also provides real market validation.”

The public launch will follow analysis of the initial information collected from ten beta test hives.

Mr Lewis, originally from South Africa, and who also lived in Malawi (in central Africa), plus other parts of Europe, before settling in Tantobie, is an electronics and IT professional who wants to put his skills to good use protecting bees.

He believes there is no other beehive around that can monitor the life of the bees within it so effectively, although hives have been developed in Australia to make the process of harvesting the honey easier.

As well as being able to monitor the hive remotely, using the BuzzCloud mobile phone app, users will also be able to change settings, such as raising the temperature of the hive, in particularly cold periods, or to help deal with pest infections, such as the Varroa Destructor mite, which can destroy entire hive populations, typically 40,000 – 60,000 bees.

BuzzCloud will use 3D printing and cutting technology to create the hives, using sources of recycled cellulose.

Once further funding is secured, it is hoped the first bee hives available to the public will be produced in a specialist, automated industrial unit, in County Durham.

And hives will be produced in a variety of sizes to meet the requirements of the urban beekeeper.

Mr Lewis said: “We’ll be looking to develop smaller hives, which can be put on a balcony, or in a confined space, in urban locations.

“Larger hives will be capable of producing 25kg or more of honey, with the smaller hives, half that amount.”

And as for those people put off beekeeping by the prospect of being stung, Mr Lewis said: “Perhaps the best thing about this new approach to beekeeping is that you don’t have to be a beekeeper!

“It’s no longer necessary to get suited up in a clumsy beekeeping suit and gloves just to monitor your beehive – we make it possible to do almost all the monitoring needed using your mobile phone or tablet. This does not mean that remote monitoring can eliminate all manual inspections, it does however sharply reduce the number of times the hives need to be manually inspected.”

 

Visit the BuzzCloud website buzzcloud.global

 

Find out more about Jonathan Jones and our England’s North East bloggers here