The Earth Sciences building at Durham University is shaped like a capital letter ‘E’ with the distinctively cylindrical Calman Learning Centre sat between its two arms. It is tall, three floors high, and I am sure that the architects had geology in mind when they designed the two entrance points, unimposing doorways leading into cavernous spaces open to the roof. Staircases and lifts transport you up through the layers of geological time to the upper mezzanine from where you can peer down into the void.
My residency at the School of Engineering (go to Leverhulme Residency post) is based just next door and my work with soils and minerals has lead me quite naturally to consider geology in its broadest sense, and through the academics I have met, the more specialist areas of astrogeology, palaeobiology and geothermal energy.
I have been given the go-ahead to develop four 10 metre high drawings which will hang in the two entrance voids to the building. The piece is called “Auger” and will be made using coal dust and lead ore, the mineral bedrocks of the long industrial heritage of the region. An ‘auger’ is a device for creating a borehole in the earth to extract soil and rock samples. When spelt ‘augur’ the word switches to mean a person who is able to divine the past and predict the future. I am hoping that given the impressive drop the drawings will suggest the overwhelming expanse of deep geological time. The images of the screw twists which drill down through 4 metres of the design, have been adapted from examples I came across in an engineering drawing manual. It took me quite a while to work out their complex construction and I finally settled on a method using elliptical templates.
“Auger” studies and 5 metre drop preparatory drawing
August 2015 – A Parcel of Land
I am involved in a campaign to save a strip of open ground and mixed woodland to the rear of our house from possible housing development. Like many small communities around the country we are under threat from being swamped by the plague of house building forced upon rural county authorities by the Tory government, supposedly to fulfil a perceived shortage in housing stock and kick-start an ailing economy. This has resulted in ugly lego house estates springing up, often on greenfield sites, in areas where there is no demand for extra housing. Hopefully we can at least save this one small Parcel of Land for nature.
(note: as I write this the first skein of geese have flown overhead on their migration south – a beautiful sight and noise but this does seems very early in the season).
As well as making a photographic and filmic record of the site (in an attempt to persuade planners that it is worth preserving simply by dint of its intrinsic beauty) I have also been looking into what lies beneath the surface. The land slopes gently down towards the River Wear and, as I know from digging our veg plot, the top soil sits atop of a bed of thick and heavy boulder clay. In the 1960’s a school, now demolished, was built nearby which required part of the slope to be terraced. There were reports at the time of local people going onto the construction site in the evenings armed with buckets and shovels to dig for coal which had been exposed in the terrace banks. It is no surprise that there are coal measures beneath the plot as we are on the edge of the great Durham Coalfield, but is surprising that it should be so near to the surface.
There is evidence that coal has been extracted from around here since ancient times – archaeological excavations of Binchester Roman Fort just down the road have uncovered coal heaps and I have heard of ancient wooden shovels and sledges being found when an open cast mine was opened up at the bottom of the village during the 1950’s. Looking at shaft plans in the local mining museum of nearby Tudhoe Colliery (which was opened in 1864 and closed in 1935) there are coal seams down to a depth of 500 feet (150 metres), the shallowest being at a small 5 inch deposit at 67 feet (20 metres). This does seem a little too deep but it is possible that this is the seam exposed by the workmen digging the terraces. I intend to auger for samples to see if I can find this mystery deposit just beneath our feet.
The coal I have been using for the “Auger” drawings comes from Easington Colliery on the Durham coast. This is the pit made famous as the setting for the film and musical “Billy Elliot”. It was finally closed in 1993 and the three large lumps of coal I was given by a friend are the last to be brought to the surface.
The four huge drawings, two in coal and two in Weardale lead ore, are now drawn out and I have been dribbling coal and lead down each prior to painting. I estimate that it will take until January to finish them.
(note: one of the last deep coal mines in England at Hatfield, South Yorkshire, closed down yesterday with the loss of 430 jobs. The very last, Kellingley colliery in West Yorkshire, will close later this year. Once the shafts are capped, there is no prospect of them being reopened).
There has been a bit of a delay in seeing this project through to completion as the university’s fire officer decided that the hangings contravened fire regulations and couldn’t be hung. I suppose we should have checked first! Anyway, all was not lost as knew spaces were found and I agreed to cut and reform the drawings to fit – one of the advantages of working on paper.
This proved to be quite time consuming to do but the new horizontal formats work well. They are now installed in two of the teaching rooms in the Earth Sciences building and in the common room of the School of Engineering, spaces where profound concepts and great ideas will be taught and discussed.