Church towers and dusty documents: researching as an MA Archaeology student

I’m Cait Scott and I’m a master’s student in the Archaeology department at Durham University. This is my first Day of Archaeology post, so I thought I would talk about my typical day as I learn about being a researcher, ready for a collaborative PhD placement with Historic England and the University of Sheffield that I am starting in October.

Unlike a lot of students, my days often start with early mornings. Now that I’ve finished lectures and am firmly in the thesis production stage of my MA, I have the freedom to structure my own time around researching, writing, and meeting my dissertation supervisor. I find it difficult that I don’t have a day-to-day routine, that my progress is mostly down to my own dedication to the topic, and that I could just stay in bed for the day if I wanted. To make this easier, I’ve made my own routines away from academia; I wake up at the usual time, do the usual work-out routine, and leave my house at the usual time ready to start the day. I find that setting my own boundaries of where and when I work on the thesis, and making myself feel like I have a day plan, is my best defence against the stress of setting my own independent research goals.

Heading up to St Mary the Virgin, Ovingham

My fieldwork this year usually starts with a bus trip out of Durham, bumping along past little towns and fields until I find the church that I want to explore. I’m looking at early medieval church towers in the area, so I’m primarily interested in the form and features of each one. I’ve never had training in buildings archaeology, but there are some great guidelines written by Historic England, BAJR, and experienced authors. At MA level, although there are lots of opportunities in classes, a lot of us are working independently on our skill sets, one of the reasons why I think that accessible online resources and guides are so important. I’m working on a descriptive record to gather data for my wider research question. Firstly, I take digital photographs of the external and internal features, then take measurements so that I can create a measured plan. I take notes about the different bits of the tower, including the windows, doors, blocked-up openings, areas where the masonry changes, and the structural relationships between the tower and the rest of the church. All this information comes back on the bus with me, to be written up as part of the thesis.

I’m also working on documentary research for each tower, looking at how the building and its churchyard has been developed, altered, or even destroyed over time. My first place to look is at Historic Environment Records and the Historic England Archive, then I look at the records held at Palace Green Library and the Northumberland Archives. This can include historic maps, pamphlets, written by local historians, and faculties, listing 20th century changes to ecclesiastical buildings; it can be photographs, architect plans, cemetery records, and even dusty copies of the notes written by antiquarians about the churches that they were researching. The aim of this is to construct a narrative of building; although my focus is on the early medieval, I need to understand how different concerns and events of the past have changed the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman fabric of the original space, so that I know the extent to which I can discuss the earlier functions of the building. I’m lucky that a lot of this has already been done by Peter Ryder as part of the Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Offices’ archaeological assessments, and that a lot of primary sources, like the writings of Symeon of Durham in the early 12th century, have already been translated. Learning how to be an academic means making use of the work of others and to research collaboratively to produce a meaningful piece of work.

St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth

After my research, the final step is to bring it all together. My typical day is transitioning away from fieldwork and into days in the library, writing and rewriting, reading and referencing, and creating my plans with drawing software. This is inevitably demanding; it needs focus, investment, and determination to get it done in time for my upcoming deadline. As an early career researcher, I often struggle with academic confidence. This is when I find it so useful to have a community, whether my fellow students at Durham who sit next to me in the library, the people I have met through conferences and events, and the online community through Twitter and elsewhere. Events like the Day of Archaeology remind me of the fact that I am one part of such an inclusive field of study, of the potential opportunities for me in my potential career, and that everyone may struggle with the challenges of their research but that together we are moving towards a better understanding of the past.

Cait Scott, MA Archaeology (Medieval and Post-Medieval), Durham University