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Students dig into the history of much-loved naturalist

Published on: 23 September 2022

Newcastle University students are uncovering more about the life of one of the nation’s most loved artists and naturalists as they take part in the next series of the Great British Dig.

Thomas Bewick

The six students, who are all currently studying archaeology at undergraduate or postgraduate level, are part of the excavation team working at Cherryburn, in Northumberland.

Now a National Trust property, Cherryburn was the birthplace of Thomas Bewick, who in the 18th century, revolutionised the technique of woodcut engraving. By using blocks of wood which had been cut across the grain rather than along it, Bewick was able to create intricate, finely-detailed wood engravings depicting a variety of rural scenes and the natural world.

He became highly-regarded both for his engraving skills and his art, and his book ‘A General History of Quadrupeds’ was a Georgian bestseller with eight editions in his lifetime.

He followed this by publishing ‘A History of British Birds’, another best seller which provided accurate illustrations of dozens of native species. The book also became known for the small, sharply observed, and often humorous ‘tail-pieces’ that Bewick included at the end of each description. Still in print today, the detail Bewick captured is considered by many as his finest work and is widely regarded the forerunner of all modern field guides.

Bewick’s love of nature began when he was a child, when he spent most of his early life playing outside and watching the wildlife around Mickley and Ovingham, and also on his parents’ farm at Cherryburn.

Students outside Cherryburn with the Great British Dig team
The students with the Great British Dig team

Inspire and educate

The excavation, which will feature in the third series of the Great British Dig, aims to explore the area next to the house where Bewick and his family lived to find the part of the original building which was later demolished. They also hope to find evidence of where the farm’s orchard and market garden were.

Dr Chloe Duckworth, Reader in Archaeological Science, Newcastle University and one of the presenters of the Great British Dig, said: “Thomas Bewick’s fondness for the natural world came from the time he spent at Cherryburn as a child, growing up surrounded by the beauty of the Tyne Valley. He was in many ways the David Attenborough of the 18th Century, who used his skill and talent for woodcut engraving to inspire and educate the wider public about wildlife.

“It’s really fun to be back filming with the crew of the Great British Dig, and even better to have some of our students involved. They are not only helping us to get a better understanding of the life of one of our finest artists and naturalists, but they are also developing important skills that are in-demand and will help them in their future careers, as well as ensuring we can continue to protect the history that is all around us.”

On the first couple of days of excavating, the project team have already found the remains of an interior wall – part of which still had the original 18th century wall plaster  attached – as well as lots of small finds, including a small glass bottle which still contained some of its original contents, a type of strong alcoholic drink. 

Great opportunity

One of the students taking part in the excavation is 21-year-old Rhys McConville, from Sunderland. The Stage 3 student already has some experience of excavations from his course but working on a dig for television was something completely different. “Because we know we’re only on site for a short period of time, it’s a lot faster paced,” he said. “This has been a great opportunity to work with professional archaeologists in the field – including Newcastle University archaeology alumni. It’s really given me an insight into commercial archaeology and what to expect after I graduate.”

It is the second time the show has worked with the National Trust, and third episode will be filmed at another National Trust site in Yorkshire later this month.

Audrey Neil, Series Producer of the Great British Dig for Strawberry Blond Productions, said: “We’ve really enjoyed working with the National Trust, the volunteers at Cherryburn and the students from Newcastle University. It’s always amazing how much history is right under our feet, and we’re really grateful for the chance to film here and learn more about how Bewick and his family lived.”

As part of the Cherryburn programme, the team is also working with experts from the Great North Museum: Hancock to research Bewick material from the Natural History Society of Northumbria archive, held in the museum’s library.


Photograph courtesy of Chloe Duckworth/Newcastle University/Strawberry Blond


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