What does an NT Archaeologist do? My brilliant but sometimes strange job.

I think, that quite possibly, I might have one of the nicest but sometimes strangest jobs in archaeology (I used to share an office with a curator with a fondness for taxidermy and who I once heard on the phone discussing exorcism with a priest).  I am one of the National Trust (NT) Archaeologists, my patch being the East Midlands, although for NT marketing reasons I work in the eastern part of the Midlands. Yes, indeed, a little confusing, but one of the lovely quirks of the NT. I have worked for the National Trust for a little over eight years, having previously worked for a commercial unit for a little over eight years. When I saw the post of NT archaeologist advertised, I remember thinking that sounds like the most perfect job in the world, short of winning the lottery and becoming a philanthropist and spending my money on lovely heritage projects. To this day, I still very clearly remember my interview at Clumber Park as though it were yesterday. I was greeted at the door by a tall and elegant lady who wore a pearl necklace and had her hair neatly tucked back behind a velvet Alice band. I was led up to the interview room, via what seemed like a maze of corridors and staircases, where I was met by three very jolly gentlemen in tweed. Yes, honestly. Fortunately, after my interview, where I gave a presentation entitled ‘My career in Ruins’ (yes I know…) I became the then newest NT archaeologist.

Anyway that was over eight years ago. I think that it would be fair to say, that even in my eight years with the Trust that the organisation has greatly changed. There may be a little less tweed,  but the passion and enthusiasm that the NT team have is just as strong as ever, if not even more so.

I find it really difficult to describe what I do, as my job is so very varied.  I am some kind of hybrid of archaeological curator, conservationist, researcher and practitioner, project manager, facilitator, advisor and community archaeologist. I have worked on some amazing sites and projects with the NT and have learnt a huge amount along the way. I have learnt things that I can honestly say I would not have learnt if I did not work for the NT; as such my knowledge is a little eclectic, perhaps like the National Trust itself.  For example my understanding of the wider conservation issues, beyond the world of archaeology, is now much broader, so I now approach projects thinking in a much more holistic and collaborative way. I know much more about moorland vegetation, bats (there is more than one type!), visitor segments, sewerage etc. than I ever imagined I would. Equally though, I like to think that I have helped my colleagues to understand and even love archaeology, in all its many and varied forms. There had been a tendency, amongst some, to think that archaeology was just the stuff that you dug up or the ruins that you saw on holiday or TV, but now my colleagues know that it is much more than that!

It is a bit of a cliché, but no one working day is the same for me. Don’t get me wrong, there is an awful lot of paperwork, reports to read, writing to do and filling in of forms.  I also tend to do a lot of project juggling, working on many things at any one time.  Although sometimes frustrating, I love the variety and the challenge of my job, the places I work at and the people I work with.

To help explain my job a little better, I thought that I might describe what I got up to this Wednesday (I have a day off today), which was a fairly typical day in my not so typical job.

My day starts bright and early with a quick catch up on emails at home. The emails that have landed in my inbox this morning include a message from one of our Building Surveyors letting me know that the masons repairing the haha at Kedleston have discovered a ‘new’ old wall. I also have a request from one of our gardeners for some information relating to an ice-house.  ‘Why’, he asks, ‘is the ice-house at Sudbury located three miles away from the Hall? Where did the ice come from? There is not a lake or pond in sight’.  Surely, I must know the answer to this. I am an archaeologist after all. After replying to these emails I add some information about archaeology and participation into a Round One HLF bid for one of our sites and then provide some details to Historic England for an extension request to our existing scheduled monument request for a children’s sandpit over at Tattershall Castle.

It is then over to Belton House for the rest of the day. For those of you who do not know Belton House and Park, it is near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Belton is, in my opinion, picture perfect. I don’t think that I will ever tire of visiting Belton or seeing the House (late C17th) which is built in golden Ancaster stone gleaming in the sun, or seeing the fallow deer grazing the cricket oval. It is a sight that always brings a smile to my face. Belton also has some pretty fabulous archaeology and we are still making new and exciting discoveries on the estate.

Belton House

Only just this morning I tweeted an image from a recent geophysical survey at Belton. The survey had been undertaken to help us assess and scope out the feasibility for a potential Ground Source Heat Pump. The results of the survey were better than we could have imagined and very exciting. The parkland survey was in an area that has changed over time, and what the survey has shown is that the early 18th century layout of the garden survives below the turf.  The image below is just a little teaser of what was revealed during the recent survey. There is more, much more.

Geophysics and the 1717 Garden Plan, Belton House

Geophysics and the 1717 Garden Plan, Belton House

My first meeting of the day is with the Belton volunteer research team. I am currently working with the group to discover as much as we can about RAF Belton and the formation of the RAF Regiment at Belton on the 1st February 1942, which means we have a 75th anniversary to plan for next year.  The research is proving to be trickier than we thought it might be however. Despite this, the team have forged some great links with the RAF Regiment Museum at Honnington and discovered some curious records relating to social housing following the depot’s relocation to RAF Catterick in 1946. After lots of enthusiastic discussion and updates from the team we make plans for holding a couple of drop-in mornings, where hopefully relatives and friends of those who were based at RAF Belton will drop by to share their stories.  We then move on to planning our Historic Graffiti Survey of the Stables.

It is then over to the Estate Office for some hot-desking.  At the Trust we are all pretty good at working in a flexible way and finding desks for quick catch ups. Hidden behind those doors marked ‘Private’ at our properties, offices are squirrelled away.  I always enjoy doing a bit of hot-desking at our properties as it is great opportunity to get the insider know on what is going on. It is also a brilliant reminder for me of the some of the challenges that my operational colleagues (those who manage and work at our sites) face. Today, being the third day of the school holidays and with Belton having a huge adventure playground, there are a lot of radio messages about lost children and lost parents. A wonderful description comes in from a three year old who describes his mother as ‘wearing a top with flowers and having round hair’. Five minutes later the young boy is reunited with his mum.

Whilst working from the Estate Office I catch up with Belton’s Project Manager on various projects. An architect’s first draft has been received for a new cricket pavilion that will replace the existing two wooden sheds that are long past their sell-by date, and it looks great! Inspiration has been drawn from the huts of the Kitchener Camp and later, the Machine Gun Corps Depot (MGC) that occupied Belton Park during the First World War (It is at this point that I must not get distracted and wax lyrically about the amazing First World War archaeology at Belton). The hut has been ‘prettied’ up, as we all thought that had Lord Brownlow utilised one of the WW1 huts as a cricket pavilion, he would have added a few flourishes. The proposed new building does however remain a simple building that reflects the spirit of the FWW huts.

We also catch up on the feasibility of a potential ground source heart pump, the upgraded fire detection system in the house, for which I am warned that I will need to prepare a Heritage Impact Statement fairly soon. The historic building recording of the Belton’s Stables is also discussed, with the report almost complete. The report, which will provide a Historic England Level IV record of the stables and a clear understanding of the significance of the building, will help to inform plans for the future use of the first floor, to which no access is currently available.

A Laser Scan Section through Belton's Stables (James Brennan Associates)

A Laser Scan Section through Belton’s Stables (James Brennan Associates)

It is then back to catching up on emails. I love the school holidays as I can always notice a slight drop off in the number of emails received.  It is then on to preparing some background information for a meeting next week where myself, our Curator and Building Surveyor will be reviewing the current provision and standard of the Historic Building Surveys for all the built structures at Clumber.  I’ve just discovered that there are 164 buildings at Clumber, so I suspect that next Wednesday is going to be a long day…

There is then a magical moment when a tray of savouries, cakes and scones topped with jam and cream arrives in the office. How very National Trust is that! It turns out that the treats are left over from a volunteer’s long service celebration.  They arrive at exactly the right moment; my afternoon sugar low is sorted.

Belton’s Property Curator arrives at the office, announcing ‘Rach I have some scraping about that I need you to do’.  He has just been on a garden presentation visit, where he, along with our Garden Advisor and Regional Curator have come up with all kinds of wonderful questions that archaeology might hold the answer to. After a quick chat about ground levels whilst gorging on cake it is then on to the final meeting of the day.

The last meeting of the day is all about Belton’s Boat Shelter. The Boat Shelter is in a sorry way, having been in a poor state of repairs long before the NT arrived at Belton. But good news, it has now reached the top of a long list of prioritised conservation projects at Belton.  Our meeting is to help the project team to set the brief. Should we conserve and stabilise the structure as it currently is, or should we restore it to its former glory? After some philosophical discussion a decision is made. What was that decision? Well you shall just have to visit Belton next summer to see for yourselves.