Archaeological Curator, Worthing Museum & Art Gallery
James Sainsbury is the Archaeological Curator at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery. Since before he can remember his father has been taking him up onto The Downs to explore ancient earthworks, ivy-clad ruins and sweeping vistas (and he still does!). His influence undoubtedly shaped James' interest in archaeology, history and nature that continues to this day.
He studied Medieval History at the University of Winchester before continuing his studies with an MA in Local History & Archaeology at the same university.
He started working at the museum over three years ago and has since been working on updating the display of its archaeological collections, launching new ways to engage the public, and putting Worthing on the heritage map of Britain!
See also: Worthing Museum & Art Gallery website
You can read James' current blog posts on this page below:
We are very lucky in Worthing Museum & Art Gallery to hold one of the finest Roman & early Anglo-Saxon glass collections in Southeast England.
The vast majority of this unique group of artefacts are from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Highdown Hill, and were buried as grave goods for these 5th/6th century pagan settlers.
Photo: The Highdown Goblet
As with most things that are excavated from the ground, with the particular exception of flint, items like glass, metals and organic material begin to degrade when in contact with oxygen. Some of the iron tools from Highdown rusted in the soil over centuries, and its a difficult task to keep them stable when on display or in storage. Some metals do better than others - for example bronze will take on a green patina when in the ground, and can be relatively easy to maintain as long as moisture is kept at a distance. With ancient glassware there is a similar process of degradation, most obviously seen in the flaking of the interior and iridescent colouring on the surface itself.
In addition to natural processes, these very delicate glass vessels were mainly found in fragments in the 1890s, and were glued back together around the same time. Last year we noticed that much of this adhesive was failing, not only leading to fragments of glass coming away from the objects, but also dark streaks where the glue had re-liquified over the last century or more.
We were therefore extremely grateful to conservators from West Dean College of Arts & Conservation who visited us last year with a view to repairing and restoring damaged items from this nationally important collection. The conservation work was carried out under supervision by PHD students given the opportunity to work on rare and genuine archaeological finds. One item in particular - a much fragmented quatrefoil bowl - has been restored to a greater whole than it has been in over 1,500 years!
Photo: West Dean Conservation Students
The famous Highdown Goblet has also been at West Dean and has had weaknesses in its original repair fixed, in addition to having the interior lightly cleaned using specialist chemicals. We hope to have all of these conserved pieces back on display in the coming months!
This collaborative work with West Dean has been a real boon for the museum, saving on substantial costs whilst building strong connections with one of the premier conservation institutions in Britain. We hope to continue with this work, particularly with a view to cleaning the metalwork from Highdown Hill so that it continues to dazzle visitors with its beauty and delicacy for many many years to come.
I want to thank Lorna Calcutt (Programme Leader) and Katie Viney (Historic Objects Officer) for their generosity in offering to help Worthing Museum & Art Gallery, and of course the talented students who have worked hard restoring these rare glass pieces to their former glory.
I mentioned in my first blog or two that I'm very keen on letting visitors get 'hands on' with our archaeology and social history collections.
Only two weeks ago we restarted the ever-popular object handling sessions in the public galleries on Saturdays. These run from 10:00am to 12:00 noon and 1:00pm to 3:00pm and are perfectly suited to children and adults alike!
We had a great response when asking for volunteers to run these sessions - 15 people signed up, so if you come in regularly you'll probably be greeted with a new face every time! Our volunteers have various levels of knowledge about our object handling artefacts but all are very enthusiastic about what they are doing.
There is a real pleasure in seeing people's faces light up at the thought they're holding a 400,000 year-old-hand axe, or a Roman coin or even Anglo-Saxon burial goods! In addition to the genuinely ancient objects we also have a few replica helmets from the Roman, Saxon and Medieval periods, which are always fun to try on, and are a great photo opportunity for visitors! (photo right - Neolithic chipped axe from Worthing, 3000 BC).
The museum relies on volunteers to deliver the best experience we can to visitors - most of the people you see on the front desk (and most behind the scenes!) are volunteers who give up their time to help their local museum thrive. Without them we'd struggle to put on events, conduct research and change the displays so often. We're very lucky that some of our volunteers are passionate about rather niche areas and have the skills to help take our collections forward.
For example we have one new volunteer who is very skilled with woodworking and is helping us build and decorate a unique doll's house from the 1960s that was never completed at the time. Another volunteer has a background in art conservation and has been very helpful in repairing some of the gilded ornate frames in our art collection. We've even had whole groups volunteering together - over the last couple of years members of Worthing Archaeological Society (photo below) have spent weeks sorting through material from the 14th century Binsted kilns. This has been extremely useful work as not only are we nearly at the point where reports on the kilns and their importance can be written - we've also saved a few shelves of space for future acquisitions!
As thanks for all the thousands of volunteer hours we host a special annual event to celebrate our volunteers - which involves lots of nibbles and cake. This year will be the busiest yet, so we'll need to ensure we get enough biscuits in!
Do pop in one Saturday in the near future and grasp the opportunity to handle objects from Worthing and the surrounding area. These sessions will be ongoing throughout the year and we plan to expand the boxes used for this so look out for new items as the weeks and months go by. Fun for all ages and, as always, totally free!
We left John and his team of archaeological volunteers at Cissbury last week. His discoveries at Shaft 27, just outside the southern entrance to the hill fort, were of huge importance for our understanding of the Neolithic in Britain. Evidence for a possible human sacrifice, along with the roasted remains of an ox and carvings of animals into the chalk, were some of the first discoveries of their kind in Britain.
By the late 1950s John had retired from the post office and began working as a bank security guard at the new Lloyd’s branch in Durrington. One morning in 1960 he opened up the building and after grabbing a cup of tea turned towards the entrance to find a young man pointing a shotgun in his face. Unfortunately the young man, a local criminal called Victor Terry, pulled the trigger and John was killed instantly.
His murder caused shockwaves in Worthing and also much further afield. Terry was eventually arrested in Scotland, and was then brought back to London to be hanged. He was one of the last people to face capital punishment in Britain.
This tragedy meant that John was never able to finish his beloved work on the Worthing Downland and much of his unfinished paperwork and artefacts came to Worthing Museum where it lay for a number of years. John’s will stipulated that he wanted his finds to come to Worthing but on the proviso they were used as educational tools, which is something we continue to do today.
Eventually, work by local man Antony Brook and Professor of Archaeology at Bournemouth University, Miles Russell, lead to his beautifully drawn maps, plans and notes being published in the book “Rough Quarries, Rocks and Hills” in 2001. John’s geological work on the formation of flint is still yet to be published, though we plan to put something together in the coming years.
John’s fascinating story of class struggle, self-education, hard-work and tragedy caught the attention of Channel 4’s Time Team programme, with Tony Robinson and the team coming down to Worthing in 2005. It was decided that his first site, Blackpatch, would be their target, and much of the 3-day excavation was geared towards checking whether his theories stood the test of time. Naturally they did, with members of the team, such as landscape archaeologist Stuart Ainsworth, commenting on how accurate and professional his plans were, despite John only being 23 years old when he was at Blackpatch.
One of the really wonderful parts of Time Team’s visit was the chance for Beryl Heryet, John’s daughter, to spend time at the excavation. She visited her father’s excavations back in her childhood, and for her to be there when Time Team toasted his fantastic work was a special moment.
Photo: John Pull & Daughter Beryl at Church Hill in the 1940s
If you want to find out more about John Pull and his work, or the Neolithic flint mines of Worthing, then please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just pop in to the museum where we have a permanent display dedicated to John’s work and his life. You can also find the Time Team episode on YouTube, titled “Sussex Ups and Downs”.
Last week I started telling the story of John Henry Pull, a local archaeological hero. Here is chapter two of his fascinating story ...
John had finished his work on the Neolithic flint mining complex at Blackpatch by 1932. His next target was a similar site just across the Long Furlong road, at the summit of Church Hill.
The Church Hill flint mines consisted of around 36 mine shafts, making it the smallest of the four complexes above Worthing (Blackpatch, Cissbury and Harrow being the other three) John spent many evenings and weekends at Church Hill before the war, only being halted by military restrictions on the Downs from 1939 onward.
Once again John discovered a huge quantity of flint tools, red deer antlers, scapulae and even a beautiful flint knife set within an antler handle.
Radiocarbon dating has since shown that Church Hill was probably the oldest flint mine complex in Britain, dating back to at least 3500 BC. This could have been the site that provided the tools to clear the first areas of forest during the very earliest period of farming in this country.
It was during this post-war period that John was persuaded to re-join the Worthing Archaeological Society, a group of which he eventually became President - a demonstration of how far general society and the archaeological community had changed during the 30s and 40s.
John's next target was Cissbury Ring - the second largest hill fort in Britain that also contains one of the largest flint mining complexes in the country. To put the timescales into perspective, the Iron Age ramparts were built around 300 BC, so we're actually closer to that construction event than the Iron Age builders were to the Neolithic flint mining that came over 3,000 years before them!
Work began in May 1952 and photographs show a larger volunteer team than in previous digs - a testament to Pull's popularity with the people of Worthing. The main focus of his work was 'Shaft 27', which sits just outside the south-western entrance to the hill fort itself. The shaft had a depth of 5.5m, and was full of chalk rubble in which was found the intact remains of an ox, with evidence of burning - perhaps a feast took place on the site after the mining had ceased?
Photo: John Henry Pull in excavations at Cissbury Ring
However, the biggest find was the remains of a young woman, who seems to have either fallen or had been thrown down into the mine shaft when it was still clear. She was found laying across one of the galleries, with her head resting on a chalk block. Many questions remain as to how she ended up in that position - though recent radiocarbon analysis by the University of Manchester shows she died around 3500 BC.
Photo: The Cissbury Lady in the excavations at Cissbury Ring
Further discoveries were made by schoolchildren excavating deep within the chalk tunnels - no health & safety back then! Carvings had been made in the chalk, showing a red deer and more importantly a short-horned bull with a halter around its neck - potentially the earliest artistic impression of a domesticated animal in the whole of the British Isles.
Next week I'll be looking back on John's discoveries and his legacy both in Worthing and further afield.
This week, I thought I'd change things up and write a short biographical story of one of Worthing's most beloved archaeologists, whose discoveries changed the way we see the later Stone Age in Sussex. His story will be split over the next two (or maybe even three) blog posts ...
Mr John Henry Pull was born in Arundel in 1899. His father was the head foreman in charge of repairs and restoration at Arundel Castle. John grew up in South Farm Road, Worthing, and spent much of his youth studying the local wildlife and exploring the Downs. One of the most beautiful passages he wrote talks of the plethora of flora and fauna in the fields and meadows immediately north of Worthing station - an area that was lost to development shortly after his writing.
John joined the Rifle Brigade in 1916, aged only 17. He was offered a promotion but refused, stating that he wouldn't send men to their deaths. Much of the time he spent on the Western Front is unknown, although we do know that he was gassed and captured by the Germans at some point (probably in 1917). Shortly after, he managed to escape and was hidden and cared for by nuns from the Ursuline Convent in Mons, Belgium. He kept in touch with the convent for the rest of his life.
John eventually returned to England, and ran a gramophone business in Worthing. His lungs had been damaged during the war, and he was often on the Downs north of Worthing, making the most of the clean air (despite being a heavy pipe smoker!)
It was during one of these trips in 1922 that he noticed an interesting set of 'lumps and bumps' at Blackpatch Hill, north of Clapham village. He received permission to excavate from the Duke of Norfolk and proceeded to uncover the first of four Neolithic flint mining complexes, dating back to over 5,000 years ago. He found hundreds of flint tools, red deer antler used as picks by the ancient miners, and even human remains.
Being working class, John's discovery wasn't gratefully received by the rather elitist archaeological community at the time, and in the end much of his work at Blackpatch was plagiarised by those who denigrated him. However, John was a determined man and continued to excavate at Blackpatch for another decade, eventually publishing 'The Flint Miners of Blackpatch' in 1932.
It's worth bearing in mind that John excavated these flint mine shafts by hand, with just a few friends, in his spare time. A typical mine shaft (which would have been filled with chalk rubble for thousands of years) contained tonnes of material that needed to be removed (and recorded) The dedication shown by both John and his helpers over years of work has to be admired.
I'll continue John's story in next week's blog - when he'll be digging at Church Hill and Cissbury Ring!
Photos: John Pull at the Blackpatch Hill excavations, shaft 1, in 1922
Every autumn I run an extensive lecture programme at the museum on Thursday evenings which I'm delighted to say are very popular.
The programme is usually done in eight separate talks that cover the history of Worthing, and Sussex, from the Palaeolithic hominids who hunted at Boxgrove some 500,000 years ago, to the final lecture which invariably looks at the photographic history of Worthing up to the 1980s!
As you can imagine there is a huge amount of information I have to remember (or learn for the first time) to ensure we cover all aspects of the subject at hand. For example, for the talk on Roman Sussex I had to not only research the villas, roads, settlements and cemeteries, but also all the finds made locally in the last few years, on top of getting up to date with new literature on the period. Thankfully I enjoy this kind of work and am passionate about our local heritage so it's not quite as painful as it might seem!
We've established an itinerary for the talks which seems to work well whereby the actual lecture is around an hour and a half long, followed by an object handling session in another gallery.
I think this works particularly well because many of the objects in our collections are directly referenced in the lecture, and then those attending can actually hold the artefact just a short time afterwards. This, of course, includes everything from Prehistoric flint tools to Luftwaffe spy-plane photographs of Worthing and much more!
One of the great advantages of object handling in the museum, as opposed to on our walk programme (see my last blog) is that I can get dozens of items out of the display cases that might otherwise be too delicate to take on a hike. This is especially true of our Bronze Age funerary pots and our Anglo-Saxon grave goods from Highdown Hill.
Looking at the future, with the proposed redevelopment of the museum in the next few years we should increase the capacity in our new education room to 100+ people. This will give us the opportunity to host archaeology and history conferences for locals and visitors alike, with well-respected academics and perhaps even the odd famous 'TV historian' or two thrown in for good measure.
I will be running a modified talk programme this coming autumn, and though it seems a long way off, I know from experience that I better start researching as soon as possible!
Details of the 2019 talk programme will be available in our autumn What's On Guide on the Worthing Museum & Art Gallery website and on our social media platforms. Admission is £7.50/talk and includes a glass of wine and tea/coffee - book all eight talks and get two free!
This will be our third year of running archaeological walks onto the beautiful Downs around Worthing and I'm really looking forward to it. Last year was a great success, with all of the walks fully booked by an audience of all ages plus a few friendly dogs thrown in!
One of the big draws for these walks is the opportunity to handle genuine artefacts from our collections on the sites where they were originally found - for example a number of beautiful Anglo-Saxon grave goods returned to that site with us last summer. Similarly on our walk around Cissbury Ring I carried some (very heavy) flint axes to the top of the actual flint mine shafts they were originally obtained from. There's no doubt that there is something very tangible about having artefacts to handle that came from the places - you can easily imagine them being placed into graves or accidentally lost hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
Due to the popularity of the walks last year I've expanded the programme for this summer, with nine walks in total - five on Saturday daytime and four on Thursday evenings. I'm hoping this gives people a chance to come along who otherwise wouldn't be able to due to other commitments.
The walks are graded by difficulty - the nature of the Downs means there is usually at least some climbing involved, though of course this depends on the route and the site we're visiting. The walk around Burpham is harder than most at 5 miles length with some significant ascents, though the views are undoubtedly worth it once you reach the heights above the beautiful Arun valley. The easiest walk is to Highdown Hill and I've ensured there is a Thursday and a Saturday slot for this site so that as many people as possible can attend.
We are all extremely lucky to live in an area that not only has outstanding natural beauty, but also outstanding archaeological remains. I hope during these walks I can communicate and share my passion for these ancient places and the peoples who once lived, walked, loved and died within the landscapes we have inherited today.
Information about this year's walk programme will be available on our website, social media platforms and in the museum foyer from late March - be sure to book as soon as possible as we had quite a waiting list last time. Friendly dogs are more than welcome on a lead, and I highly recommend bringing along water and a packed lunch for the Saturday sessions.
Photos: An archaeological walk and talk on the South Downs
Photo: One of the artefacts mentioned in the talk
Photographic credit: Robin Bennett
One of the projects I've been working on for the last few years is building an accessible database of all the archaeological finds and sites in Sussex. To make this as user-friendly as possible we've colour-coded sites by era and have a hierarchical system to show what finds are on display in Worthing Museum, or in storage or held elsewhere. By clicking on a coloured dot, information on the find or site appears. So for example by clicking on the white dot at Cissbury you will find out more about the Neolithic flint mines there.
We had four tablet computers installed in our archaeology galleries last year which let visitors explore this extensive resource. One of the most popular things to do is look for the archaeological find nearest to where you live!
As you can imagine this is still an ongoing project what with the sheer amount of archaeology in the two counties, though West Sussex has nearly been completed.
In addition to the database we also have some superb drone footage of our local sites, kindly gifted to us by Alembic TV. These short videos include sites like Cissbury Ring, Chanctonbury Ring, Harrow Hill and more - with some lovely views of our countryside thrown in as standard!
As part of the museum's redevelopment in the coming years, I plan to introduce a new element to our digital displays - virtual reality! The idea is to have a VR station where visitors can don the equipment and be transported into re-creations of the Iron Age hill fort of Cissbury, or the Roman temples at Chanctonbury, among other local landmarks. Imagine an immersive experience where you can walk through the Saxon village of Worthing (now probably buried under Little High Street - though more on this another time) or wander through primal forest with our hunter-gatherer ancestors whilst hunting wild aurochs!
In addition to this, you'll be able to access the database mentioned above in an all-encompassing 360° bird's eye view of Sussex through the virtual reality headset. It will feel as it you are flying over Sussex looking down on all the archaeological sites. Within the find spots you'll be able to access videos, photographs and text relating to the sites, and we would also be able to update or add to them more easily than traditional display cabinets allow.
The next few years are an exciting time for technological innovation at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery, including plans for a 3D photography machine for the new Costume Research Centre. Keep an eye out for more news on these developments!
We regularly have visitors come into the museum to bring us finds from their gardens or the beach. With a long history of human habitation in the area this is always very exciting for me as an archaeologist. The vast majority of the time these finds are fragments of flint tools - left behind by hunter-gatherers who travelled across the coastal plain - or from the first farmers who cleared the great forests and spread their settlements across the landscape.
However, occasionally I'm brought something really special, which happened twice within a week in December.
The first find was from Goring and like many of these chance finds was discovered whilst digging flower beds! The finder noticed a layer of old broken flowerpots, pebbles and flints beneath her rose bed, almost certainly from the greenhouses which once occupied the site around a century ago. Then, just a few inches further down in the natural brickearth soil emerged a superbly preserved Anglo-Saxon spearhead, dated to the Migratory Period (450-600 AD) What is particularly exciting about this is that spearheads of this time are usually found in association with burials. The owners have since kindly given permission for the museum and the Worthing Archaeological Society to excavate a small trench in the garden to see if we can find evidence of a grave - keep an eye on social media for updates in spring!
The second find was brought in by Mr Albert Neal a few days later when he visited as part of a group. Having been called down by reception I was happily surprised to see what Mr Neal had in his hand - a beautiful Roman statuette of Venus in bronze. Though worn and with the odd missing limb, the piece is well preserved and was evidently part of a Roman resident's connection with their Gods. It was discovered in a garden of Mardale Road in Salvington - an area where there is plenty of evidence of dense Roman occupation. This piece was kindly donated by Mr Neal and is now on display in the Roman Religion cabinet at the museum.
The point of all this is that I highly encourage every local resident to keep a sharp eye on their gardens as we move into spring. Only a century ago, most of Worthing and Adur was open fields, and many of these estates were built without the current laws in place to check the land for archaeological remains. This means plenty of sites have been missed, and beautiful finds turn up in what seems to be the most unlikely places. I'm always more than happy for residents to bring in any archaeological finds they have, just ask for me at the front desk!
Just think of the gentleman who grubbed up a tree down in Mulberry Close back in the 1960s - he found a 50,000 year old Neanderthal hand axe - now that really is something!
We're all very lucky to live in an area with such a rich heritage. You would be surprised at just how much archaeology we have in our lovely museum - some of which is currently on display, though much remains in store due to a lack of display space (we hope to rectify this with our re-development plans soon).
The collection covers everything from flint tools used by our distant hominid ancestor Homo Heidelbergensis some 500,000 years ago, Bronze Age hoards of weapons, Roman coin hoards, Saxon grave goods and Norman arrowheads from Bramber castle. Over 95% of our archaeological collection comes from sites excavated within a few miles of Worthing, with the odd artefact finding its way here from much further afield (think Egyptian mummy wrapping - more on this another time).
Just in the last few months we've had a lovely Roman bronze statuette of Venus donated to us (found in a garden at Salvington) and our attention has been drawn to a well-preserved Saxon spearhead discovered whilst digging a rose bed in Goring, where we hope to run an excavation later this spring. It's certainly worth keeping a sharp eye in the flower beds as spring slowly returns.
One thing I'm particularly keen on is giving visitors the chance to really connect with our past by taking away the traditional barriers seen in museums. People can have the wrong impression that museums are somehow “stuffy”, and the imposing external architecture of Worthing Museum can compound this. As a counter to this I love to, on the spur of the moment, open up the display cases and give visitors the opportunity to handle items from thousands of years ago - the reaction from that first touch is always worth it!
Over the next few weeks I hope to give you all a sense of what I do at the museum: the artefacts I'm privileged to look after, and the kind of activities we run as part of our public-engagement work (think tours of the Downs on a summer's afternoon with genuine Saxon gold jewellery available to handle!).
Photo: Two coins from a Roman hoard of coins
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Page last updated: 12 May 2020