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Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology

History of the Museum

William Proctor

The Old Fulling Mill, formerly a mill operating as part of the Cathedral estates, now houses the Museum of Archaeology. The museum was founded in 1833, the year after the University of Durham, and was the second university museum in England to be opened to the public.

The museum was a typical Victorian collection of natural history specimens, foreign curios and antiquities. Its first keeper, William Proctor, was appointed "to the charge of the Birds in the Museum" in 1834 at a stipend of £25. Proctor (1798 - 1877) was a carpenter's apprentice who turned to natural history and specialised in taxidermy. His best-known exploit was a trip to Iceland in search of unknown species. Exhibits in the museum included a Great Auk, a polar bear's foot and a stuffed lion. Other exhibits included botanical and geological specimens and curiosities such as an admission card to Nelson's funeral, a pair of Chinese slippers, a silver trophy won at the 1835 regatta, hair balls from a cow's stomach, and a Chinaman's pigtail!

Antiquities such as fragments of St. Cuthbert's coffin, prehistoric flints, coins from Hadrian's Wall, a bone skate from York, and miscellaneous objects from Rome, Carthage, Jerusalem and Memphis, were supplemented in 1880 by material excavated from the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester (near Bishop Auckland). This formed the basis of the archaeological collection.

By this time, the expanding museum had moved to Bishop Cosin's Almshouses on Palace Green under the guardianship of Proctor's successor, Joseph Cullingford. Although less damp than the Mill, the collections were little better off owing to serious overcrowding. A visitor in 1892 had "no hesitation in saying that their museum reflects no credit on the University of Durham". By 1917, the University had decided to disperse much of the natural history collection. The rest of the collections were stored in adjacent lecture rooms.

In 1931, when Eric Birley was appointed to the University as the first lecturer in archaeology, the archaeological collections assumed new importance with the addition of material from his excavations on Hadrian's Wall. In 1956, the Fulling Mill was once more leased to the University to house the Department of Archaeology. When the Department moved to even larger premises in 1975, it re-instated archaeology at the Mill.

The current permanent exhibition was opened in 1986. It concentrates on material from Durham, though this is set in an international context.

The Museum continues to contribute to the wide-ranging teaching and research programmes in the Department of Archaeology but also works with other departments right across Durham University. It is also an important educational and enjoyable resource for local schools, families and visitors to Durham.

The University has currently working on a multi-million pound refurbishment of Palace Green Library, situated between Durham Castle and Cathedral at the heart of the World Heritage Site. This has created an opportunity to create a new, larger, archaeology gallery in a location that will be far more accessible for visitors than the current old mill building.

No-one would disagree that the location of the Museum of Archaeology within the Old Fulling Mill is beautiful. However, museums and rivers don’t mix well and the Old Fulling Mill has proved vulnerable to flooding, potentially endangering the collections. The new gallery will provide a much safer environment for the museum’s objects and at the same time offer a greatly enhanced experience for visitors with better facilities, improved access and increased space for events and activities.

In their new home, the collections will sit alongside other artefacts from the University’s collections. This will allow us to set Durham, its people and its University in a broader historical and cultural setting.

The transfer of the collections will allow us to reinterpret our artefacts and to work with both archaeologists and education specialists to ensure that the new displays are both up-to-date and family-friendly. For the first time, the displays will also be fully accessible to wheelchair users. 

New public archaeology displays will open to the public in early 2014, beginning a new chapter in the history of the museum.


Fulling Diagram

What is a Fulling Mill?

A fulling mill is one which undertakes the process of fulling. Fulling is the beating and cleaning of cloth in water. The process shrank the loose fibres of the cloth, making it a denser fabric. Superior cloth was usually fulled, dyed, brushed with teasels to raise the pile, and finally trimmed of loose threads to produce a finished surface of great quality.

To begin with, fullers or "walkers" trampled the cloth with their feet in atrough of water. The widespread adoption of fulling mills in the 1300's eventually took the fulling industry away from towns to heads of water in the countryside. Greater quantities of cloth could be processed more quickly.

The cloth was placed in the fulling stocks with fuller's earth (a soapy clay) and pumped in water. Here it was pounded with wooden hammers, themselves driven by a tappet wheel turned by the water wheel.