Post Medieval

Research in Archaeology – A Day in the Archives

This time last year I was finishing writing up my postgraduate degree thesis whilst panicking amongst books, AutoCAD and copious amounts of tea. As I procrastinated on twitter (after doing lots of work, of course) I avidly followed last years Day of Archaeology, wondering to myself if I’d be in a position to post anything for the next event.

Fast forward a year and here I am telling you all my day in archaeology. I’m Cath Poucher and I’ve just started my new job as Archives Services Officer for English Heritage in their archives:

This job is perfect for me as it combines my love of research, archaeology and working with the public. Although I’m very new (I only started this month) I am thoroughly enjoying it and am learning something new every day, and this for me is the most important part of any career or volunteer project. My daily life does not directly involve working in a “traditional” archaeological setting; I do not excavate or deal with physical remains on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I assist both heritage professionals and members of the public alike to carry out a variety of projects by helping them to undertake documentary research, and this is a very important part of archaeology.

My day started with the usual morning check of emails and answering requests from previous enquiries I have already carried out and undertaken. A big part of my day involves carrying out research of our archival holdings on behalf of the public, whether on their house or searching for plans of a particular English Heritage property. This means that I often have to search and handle a variety of archives ranging from measured drawings and 18th and 19th century building sales catalogues to photographs. These photographs can range in date from present day to the 19th century.

Today was no different to this; I have been completing research about small listed houses in Gloucestershire and searching plans and elevations of Osbourne House, Isle of Wight and Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire. Each day is different in that I never know what I am going be doing one day to the next, and this is what makes me so passionate about what I do. In the afternoon, I contacted customers and sent out the information I had found, and answered queries about our archives. I’m still learning my job but am enjoying every minute- especially learning about different areas of England I didn’t know anything about. At the end of the day I organised visits to the archive for customers and started new enquiries, ordering some archives from our cold store. Much of our holdings is fragile and is stored in climate controlled conditions and has to be acclimatised to room temperature before it can be viewed. As this takes 24 hours, ordering in advance is essential.

So this is my day in archaeology; probably not as muddy as others, but equally fascinating and I’m looking forward to many more…

(Note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)


Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen

Lea and Birgitte use trowel and total station to document Copenhagen’s former western gateway.

Its another typical day for the crew at Rådhuspladsen (Town Hall Square) in Copenhagen, where the Museum of Copenhagen ( has been conducting a major excavation since January 2011. Soon to be completed, the excavation – conducted in advance of the construction of a new Metro station – has seen remains of perhaps the earliest urban activity in this area, from the 1100s, as well as fragments of the city’s medieval and post-medieval western gates, city moat, bridge remains and a host of later archaeological structures including a seventeenth century mill building and even some World War 2 bomb shelters. Amazing organic preservation is one of the key features of the site, with textiles, leather shoes, book covers and a host of other everyday items from the late medieval and post-medieval periods surviving in excellent condition, particularly in the waterlogged moat deposits.

With barrow and shovel.

This site is one of four major excavations being carried out by the Museum of Copenhagen as part of the advance works of the new Metro City-Ring Project. The others included Kongens Nytorv (The Kings New Square) where the city’s eastern defences and former gate structures were revealed, Assistens Kirkegard cemetery excavation, and the ongoing excavation at Gammel Strand (Old Beach) where part of the citys old harbour area is being uncovered.

Break Time

The crew enjoying a well earned morning coffee at 9 – work starts at 7 a.m.

With a crew of c.40, this is one of the largest archaeological excavation projects carried out in Denmark to date, and has seen the Museum of Copenhagen expand its archaeology section greatly, with the assembly of an international crew including English, Swedish, Norwegians, Polish and Irish members to compliment the Danish core. By the time all of the excavations have been completed in 2013, a wealth of new knowledge about the birth and growth of Copenhagen will have been gained. In the meantime, information about the ongoing excavations are being shared with the public on a regular basis on the museum’s interactive website

Digging at a Cliff Top Palace

This year we are now in the fourth season of excavation at the Bishop’s Palace at Downhill, on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Many people will know this site from the iconic Mussenden Temple. Over the past three seasons, we have cleared out and uncovered many of the domestic buildings of the amazing building, showing us what life was like for some of those who worked in the big house. The Palace was built in the 1770s by the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry.  During construction, the Earl Bishop was often on the continent and continually sent back instructions for alterations to the house.  This has created a convoluted house that has been considerably altered; now a team of archaeologists are now attempting to understand these structures and conserve them for the future.  The Palace and much of the demesne is owned by the National Trust and the whole excavation has been run by the NT archaeologist for Northern Ireland, Malachy Conway, and a team of dedicated volunteers (some professional archaeologists and some interested amateurs)

This season we have been beset by bad weather and a small volunteer workforce.  Our aim this year is to prepare the West Yard for public access and to finish clearing the northern part of the East Yard.  I have spent a few weeks refilling the gas holder that we spent the past two seasons excavating, it’s approximately 7m wide and 3m deep.  On the Day of Archaeology, we were all digging in the East Yard, working on the entrance to an animal enclosure.  Across the area, there is a scatter of sherds of white ceramic, probably plates used by the RAF when they were stationed here.  This season has not yet provided any interesting finds; unlike previous seasons, which have revealed Roman statue fragments and a Bronze Age bowl.  Much of our excavation has been assisted by a digger and mini-dumper, moving spoil and masonry around the site.  We now have two weeks left to finish clearing the yard.


As well as volunteering with the National Trust on the Downhill Project, I’m doing a part-time PhD in medieval archaeology.  My research is looking at 14th-Century manors in England, recreating the buildings through an analysis of the annual manorial accounts.  Many of these sites have been lost or drastically altered, so documents are one of the few ways of studying them.  I’m looking at the types of buildings that were on the manor, the choice of building materials and their maintenance.  So far, I have only looked at a small number of manors, but there are already patterns emerging of high status buildings being constructed from very different materials to the agricultural ones.

On Day of Archaeology, I was translating accounts from the manor of Oldington in Worcestershire.  Once you get an understanding of medieval Latin, medieval accounts are not that hard to read – they follow standard formulae and have a limited vocabulary.  But they are quite fun to read, as they describe the daily life on the manor, often naming the people doing the work and describing what they are doing, you can create a vivid picture of the bustling manor and its inhabitants.  This is a really interesting research project and will create a new understanding of medieval manorial buildings and their construction and repair.