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Newcastle Society of Antiquaries celebrates 200th anniversary

By Kristie Kinghorn
BBC News Online

image captionA store room in the Black Gate was used to house the artefacts

A meeting in a pub in Newcastle upon Tyne may have helped preserve heritage sites in the north of England.

In 1813, bookseller John Bell wanted to "adopt the best measures" of promoting the region's antiquities so gathered his friends in the Turk's Head Inn to discuss forming a history society.

The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne was formed with just 17 members and it was thought to be the only institution in the north of England to collect archaeological artefacts.

Historians say what they found provides a "significant proportion" of the archives in the north-east of England's museums today.

Lindsay Allason-Jones is president of the society as it is today, with a membership of 800.

She said: "Without us, the Keep, Black Gate and Tynemouth Priory and sections of Hadrian's Wall would have all been knocked down.

"A lot of our standing heritage people take for granted and it would not have survived without the society."

An international protest by the society, along with several other groups, helped saved Hadrian's Wall and led to the 1931 Ancient Monuments Act

'Vociferous campaigner'

Humphrey Welfare, chairman of the Hadrian's Wall World Heritage Site management plan committee, said: "The society was the eyes and ears for protecting heritage in Newcastle and Northumberland at a time when legislation wasn't as strong as it is now.

image captionSir John Swinburne was the first president of the society

"It was an active and vociferous campaigner, especially in the 1930s, when it saved the Wall from quarrying at Corfield and acted as an effective pre-cursor for the heritage protection we have today."

In 1850, the group campaigned for better protection of Tynemouth Priory after the army had altered the buildings when it occupied it guarding the mouth of the River Tyne.

The first president of the society, Sir John Swinburne, began a long association between the group and the Castle Keep in Newcastle, which became a meeting place for the group and also the collections' home.

As their collection of artefacts and books grew, they were stored in the Black Gate where it remained for 70 years.

In 1953, the archaeological collections moved to a new museum which then became Newcastle University, before finally being moved to the Great North Museum: Hancock in 2009.

During the 19th Century, members had to be careful when searching for artefacts or on field trips in places like woodland, in case they were caught in animal or man traps, as there were "dangers all over the place".

'Looking forward'

The society's artefacts not only come from Palaeolithic to the present day from across Newcastle and Northumberland, but also from as far as Egypt, Greece and Peru from travellers collecting objects on their journeys.

It has about 30,000 volumes of books and more than 100 sets of Northumbrian bagpipes.

One of its most precious finds is The Eltringham Flint, found in 1994.

image captionThe ring of Aemilia ring is thought to be one of the earliest Christian artefacts found in Roman Britain

It is known to be about 10,000 years old, the oldest man made object in the region, and proves man was living in the North East in 8000BC.

They also have a rare Napoleonic animal model guillotine carved by French prisoners of war, a handwritten note by Abraham Lincoln and one of the largest collections of Anglo-Saxon statues in the north of England.

The society is holding an exhibition at the Great North Museum until 30 April to celebrate its anniversary, along with a special programme of talks and events through the year.

Ms Allason-Jones said: "It will give people the chance to see sections of what we've done over 200 years and draw attention to the things people aren't aware of.

"Without the antiquaries and their efforts, there wouldn't be as much heritage saved in the North East.

"We continue to use this material for research and teaching - it's not just about looking back, it's also about looking forward."

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