Meet The Team: Dr. Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser

This is the first in a series of blogs to help you get to know the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) team! These articles were first published in Treasure Hunting Magazine and are reproduced here with their kind permission.

First up we have Dr. Kevin Leahy who is part of our team of National Finds Advisers. Kevin is based in Lincolnshire where he was the archaeologist for the North Lincolnshire Museum, before joining the PAS in 2007. Here, Kevin tell us a bit about his background and what his archaeological interests are.

Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser

How and why did I get started in archaeology?

I spent my early childhood in a medieval/Tudor manor house surrounded by a moat and became aware of history as a presence that surrounded me. Inspired by archaeological TV programmes featuring such luminaries as Mortimer Wheeler I decided that this is what I wanted to do and, at the age of about eight, I carried out my first excavation digging out an old stone trough in the moat. The excavation, I regret to say, remains unpublished. Having failed the eleven-plus exam, I left school at 15 with no qualifications, but eventually got a job at a local foundry which sent me to Technical College where, slowly, I gained an education. Having completed my eight-year training as a foundry engineer, I used my qualifications to get me into university and, at last, become and archaeologist.

My first job was at Scunthorpe Museum where they allowed me to excavate, so there I stayed for 29 years during which I dug some large holes which mainly contained Anglo-Saxons. Concerned at the destruction of the Lincolnshire countryside by ploughing I started to record detector finds as a way of salvaging what I could from the wreckage. This eventually led to an involvement with the PAS for whom I now work.

What is my greatest achievement in archaeology?

I could be facetious and say ” getting a job” but it’s got to be the excavation and publication of the Cleatham Anglo-Saxon cemetery. This was England’s third largest cremation cemetery and over five seasons was fully excavated by volunteers under my guidance. It was their achievement as much as mine.

What period of the past most interests me?

It’s got to be the Early Medieval period, particularly the Anglo-Saxons. This period has everything – it starts out in the fifth century with the arrival of tribal groups but by the eleventh century we have a sophisticated society with amazing art. It is also true to say that, of all the periods of the past, detecting has had its greatest impact on the Early Medieval period.

Which objects most interest me?

Having trained as a metallurgist I’m interested in metals and how things were made; fortunately the PAS gives me plenty of things to look at. Every object has its story – its biography starting with the mining of the ore from which it was made, progressing through manufacture, to use and to final loss – all of which can be revealed in clues carried by the finds themselves. It’s a Sherlock Holmes approach which fascinates me.

Which of the finds I have recorded is my favourite?

This has got to be the Staffordshire Hoard for which my wife Diane and I prepared the first catalogue. It was amazing, opening bag after  bag of finds each full of unimagined things. To look at objects which no-one had seen for 1400 years was a great privilege which we both appreciated. I felt that, after a career looking at puddles, I’d finally seen the sea.

What is my favourite archaeological object?

Each time I go to the British Museum I go, Room 1. The Enlightenment Gallery. There, in one of the wall cabinets, is a pot bearing a massive label which reads:

Funeral urn
Supposed Anglo-Saxon
Containing burnt bones - found 1856
Near Kirton in Lindsey
Presented by Mr G Dalton,June 1858

This is a surviving urn from the first discovery of the Cleatham cemetery which I went on to excavate and where I met my wife (the Anglo-Saxons do try to take care of me). This pot means a lot to me.

What is my favourite historical monument or site?

It has to be Sinai Park Farm , the moated house where I became aware of time. It wasn’t as grand as it sounds – the house had fallen on hard times and had been divided into four cottages, but even then I knew it was a special place.

What are my other interests outside archaeology?

I walk and enjoy the countryside, kicking over molehills to see if they’ve turned up any archaeology. I’m interested in music of all sorts, from Renaissance to Heavy Metal. For relaxation I read military history but, sad to say, I spend rather a lot of time reading archaeology. I’m lucky enough to do for a living something that other people do as a hobby and feel that I need to stay on top of the subject. It still fascinates me.

How do I see the future?

Things are changing in archaeology – I am old enough to remember the second radiocarbon revolution when we found that everything was older than we thought. Now we are seeing the DNA revolution which is turning things on their head. For example, for the whole of my career the arrival of the Beakers in the mid-third millennium BC was seen not as a migration but as ‘cultural influence’. Now DNA work is showing that there was a massive change in population. The PAS gives a context for all of these changes, it’s never too late to revolutionise! 

Five finds from the PAS database and why I like them

NLM-C88CE1 – a copper alloy medallion found in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire

Copyright: North Lincolnshire Museum, License: CC BY-SA.

The PAS is only supposed to record things that are more than 300 years old which should rule out this medallion which is dated 1954. The German inscription reads: ‘GERHARD / BERSU / ZUM 65 GERBURSTAG / VON SEINEN / FREUDEN’. It was presented to Gerhard Bersu, the eminent German archaeologist, on his 65th brithday. Bersu (1889-1964) came to England in 1935, having been sacked by the Nazis. He carried out important excavations here but the war came he and his wife were interned on the Isle of Man. They didn’t waste their time there and spent the war excavating the island. While of recent date, it is clearly of archaeological interest – however did it get to Grimsby?

NLM-468D41 – a Pressblech die found in Fen Drayton, Cambridgeshire

(L) Copyright: North Lincolnshire Museum, (R) Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme. License for both: CC BY-SA

The man who found this object came up from Cambridgeshire just to show it to me; it was a worthwhile trip as it is a die for making Pressblech foils of the sort that were used on the Sutton Hoo helmet. This provided evidence that the helmet could have been made in England and need not have been an import from Sweden. I had an awful job drawing it – somehow I had to show that it was the original object that was crude, not my drawing!

Treasure 2002 T285 – a gold sword hilt found in the Market Rasen area, Lincolnshire

Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum.

I’ll never forget the detectorist bringing this Anglo-Saxon sword hilt into the Museum in Scunthorpe. Opening a plastic box he proceeded to extract, from what looked like a whole roll of toilet paper, piece after piece of Early Medieval gold – it was a star performance.

FAKL-FB5DF6 – a copper alloy axehead  found in Cadney, North Lincolnshire

Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC BY.

I was judging the NCMD’s (National Council for Metal Detecting) Yorkshire Region competition at their AGM when someone showed me this mind-blowing axehead – I had eyes for nothing else, it was truly the finest example of an Early Iron Age Sompting type bronze axehead I had ever seen. The finder was not at the meeting but I was able to contact him and found it came from Lincolnshire, only a few miles from where I live. It ended up in the collection of the North Lincolnshire Museum where everyone (particularly me) can enjoy it.

SWYOR-E54DB2 – a copper alloy handle found in Appleby, Lincolnshire

As we put this copper-alloy handle handle from a Roman vessel on the front cover of Finds Identified, I can’t ignore it. This object shows the haunting strangeness of the past. Photographing it was quite a job; after repeated attempts I took the whole of my photographic rig, camera, copying stand lights into the North Lincolnshire Museum where it is displayed and, after a lot of struggling, came up with something that captured its essence. 

Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, License: CC BY-SA.