The Illustrated Talks

Here’s a brief outline of my talks (see here for workshops).  Please contact me for more details.

1. Cess pits, cemeteries and sewers: being an archaeologist!

The excitement of discovering new information about our past has led me into palaces and the homes of people of the distant past, and into their cess pits, cemeteries and sewers. One site even revealed a possible murder! I have had clashes with treasure hunters plundering the remains of our heritage; and have campaigned for laws to protect sites, and even founded the Shipwreck Museum at Hastings in which to preserve and display historic maritime treasures that would otherwise be lost.

Roman cups, 1st century AD; Medieval jug; Plate & spoon, 17/18 century.

2. Who sank the Mary Rose in 1545? The Devon connection

Over four hundred men died, including Exeter based Vice-Admiral Sir George Carew, when King Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose sank off Portsmouth on 19 July 1545. In 1982 the ship was raised, enabling archaeologists and historians to find out how and why she sank. I have walked on her decks, and recently, with others, found clues to who was responsible for the disaster.

Henry VIII and Analysis of the Mary Rose, published 2009.  

3. London and Exeter: a tale of two Roman and Saxon cities

London and Exeter are two important cities on opposite corners of southern Britain. Both were founded by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, one as the capital of the Roman province of Britain, and the other the tribal capital of the regional native British Dumnonii. Archaeological exploration shows that they shared much, but had important differences. Both were deserted at the end of Roman times soon after AD 400, and both were re-established by the Saxons – possibly in different ways. After having discovered much in Roman London, I recently moved to near Exeter and have been able to compare the first thousand years of the history of the two cities with fascinating results.

Imported pottery from Gaul, coins, and a cooking pot reflect a sophisticated lifestyle in Roman Britain. 

4. Treasure ships of the past: their real story

Examples of treasure, including Pieces-of-Eight and Ducatons, from historic shipwrecks of the 17th and 18th centuries illustrate the beginnings of global trade, with bullion carried from Europe to the Far East to trade for precious spices, silks and porcelain. The human tragedy of historic piracy and shipwreck is brought to life by discoveries on the seabed, as is the rivalry between archaeologists and modern treasure hunters.

Silver Pieces-of-Eight and a silver ingot from Dutch trading ships sunk off Britain in 1742 & 1739. The(replica) silver medallion (centre) was cast soon after 1577 to commemorate Drake’s voyage around the world during which he raided Spanish ports in America and seized gold, silver and jewels. 

5. Discovering Roman London

This is the story of the discovery of how London began nearly 2000 years ago, and of the quest to find its palaces, forts, defences, temples, baths, houses and traces of its people – and the burnt debris from the destruction by the rebelling Iceni tribesmen led by their British Queen Boudica in AD 60-61.

A cooking pot from a house burnt by Iceni in AD 60-61. A dice and gaming counters. And a kitchen mixing bowl made by the potter SOLINUS. All from London. 

6. Digging up Britain’s oldest shipwrecks

In 1962 I unexpectedly discovered in London the oldest seagoing sailing ship yet found in northern Europe, sunk about 150 AD. Also, it happened to be the first identified example of shipbuilding by the native Celtic people of NW Europe and was probably like those used by the native Dumnonii in SW England. Since then I have worked on some of the oldest plank built boats yet found anywhere, from nearly 4000 years ago – vessels older than the time of Moses, and with a bizarre construction (to our eyes).

Clues to the history of ancient ships: ship nail from a Roman wreck in London of about 150 AD, and Roman coins depicting warships.

7. Shall we remember them: War grave history on trial

In 2000 the Ministry of Defence declared that merchant ships carrying war supplies in both World Wars could not be protected as they were ‘not in military service’, and that their Navy gunners were ‘passengers’. Seven of us challenged the MOD in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal – and won, in spite of a rollercoaster ride of a case peppered with misinformation. This adventure led to finding a survivor of SS Storaa, torpedoed in 1943 in the Channel with the loss of 21 lives, and to diving into the wreck to photograph its military cargo. Today Storaa is the only protected British wartime merchant ship.

SS. Storaa

8. Family history and archaeology

Historic documents are traditionally used to discover family history. Nowadays, archaeology and DNA have so widened that scope of knowledge that everyone find their roots. Descended from a medieval Lancashire family I believed that my roots were amongst the ancient Britons. Historical and archaeological research led to my finding the remains of homes used by my farming ancestors. But when my DNA was tested, doubt was cast doubt on the reliability of some historic documents. Also, it suggested that my family was amongst the Vikings who settled in Lancashire during the 10th century; and it cast light on the likely movement of much earlier ancestral migration out of Africa 80,000 years ago. We all share in this epic ‘out of Africa’ human saga.

Archaeology and DNA have opened up new avenues of research into family history. By studying tree-rings we can reconstruct ancient weather patterns; and DNA enables us to understand our links to the related, but extinct, Stone Age peoples who made these flint axes in Europe roughly 250,000 years ago – long before our ancestors arrived here. 

9. Living with Rossetti: exploring a house with a romantic Pre-Raphaelite history

My wife, Jenny Ridd, and I lived in the house in old Hastings that for several weeks in 1854 was home to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his future wife Elizabeth Siddal. As their romance blossomed Rossetti completed some of his finest pictures of Lizzie in her room.

By delving into historical records and pictures in art galleries, and under the floorboards and into walls of the house, and even archaeologically excavating the garden, we discovered a wealth of previously unknown history, and surprising links with murder, ghosts and smuggling.

Discovering the story of 5 High Street, Hastings.


10. Artists and Archaeologists: working together to reconstruct the past

Artists have been reconstructing the past in paintings for many centuries, but only in the past two centuries have they been working with archaeologists, such as myself, to create much more accurate views of the past and the people. By combining our skills of imagination and investigation our ancestors and historical events are brought to life in exciting way that everyone can appreciate.

The Mary Rose (1545), the Roman Governor’s palace and the Roman Forum in London.