I am a part-time PhD student at Queen's University Belfast, researching fourteenth-century manorial buildings across England. I'm primarily focusing on documentary evidence, but also interested in standing buildings and excavations.

Medieval buildings & Medieval life

It seems that little has change in the last year of my life!  For Day of Archaeology 2012, I posted about my PhD research on medieval manorial accounts.  And here I am again, sitting in front of a microfilm reader in a windowless room of Queen’s University Belfast’s Library.  While some of my colleagues are away surveying buildings in the sun, I’m stuck inside trying to decipher medieval handwriting.


Despite the less glamorous nature of my research, it is just as exciting and interesting.  The manorial accounts record many aspects of the daily lives of people in the fourteenth century, letting us almost experience the medieval world.  My research is specifically looking at the buildings of the manorial courtyards and farmsteads (or curiae).  The accounts contain lots of details about the types of buildings and construction materials; with this information I can reconstruct the appearance of the buildings and the manorial complexes.  Many of the manorial buildings would have been much larger than the average peasant could ever own and were often constructed from expensive materials that had to be brought to the manor.  So far my research has shown that lords liked to spend more money on the buildings that they used (such as the hall, chamber and chapel) and to make these appear very different from the agricultural buildings that sat alongside them.  The accounts also show how luxurious some manors were.  The abbot of Bury-St-Edmunds constructed an extensive collection of buildings at Redgrave in Suffolk to let him enjoy hunting with dogs and hawks.


As well as my research, I’ve spent the week organising a conference session, thinking of a conference paper and finishing a chapter for a book.  So, even thought I am only halfway through my PhD (and doing it part-time means I’ve another 3 years), I’ve lots of work to develop my research and try to apply it to the wider field of medieval archaeology and not just have a pile of case studies in a box on my desk.  The exciting life that is academic research means that, although I’m stuck in a windowless box today looking at medieval parchment on a screen, I’ll soon get the opportunity to present my work to other archaeologists in exotic locations like Aberdeen and Leeds.  Maybe next year when I post “from the field”, I’ll actually be out surveying one of my manors.

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.

Day of Archaeology as a PhD student

Hi.  I’m a part time PhD student researching thirteenth-century manorial buildings using medieval documents.  I’m studying at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I spent most of Friday analysing information from manorial accounts for three manors in the south east of England.  Medieval documents are not the usual focus of an archaeological PhD, but I am interested in the information about buildings that they contain.  These accounts have lots of information about what the buildings were roofed with, what the walls were made of and the different types of buildings on the manor.  There is also interesting entries, like the mole catcher, who is employed to catch moles in the lord’s pasture, or the castrating of pigs.  Some times specific historical events are recorded, like the great storm of 1361-2.  The only problem is that the accounts are in medieval Latin, which I had no knowledge of until last September.  I’ve had to learn medieval palaeography to be able to decipher the hand writing and translate the Latin.

The most interesting outcome of my analysis was that there appears to be an increase in spending on the maintenance of buildings at the end of the 1330s.  Some of the manors spent more money on repairing the buildings and others rebuild some of their buildings.  I’m yet to understand why this change occurs and so far I have only identified it in four manors, but it is a pattern that I will look out for as I investigate more manors across England.  My goal is to advance our limited knowledge of what medieval manorial buildings looked like and what they were built from, as well as how much maintenance they required.

On Friday evening, I headed up to Northern Ireland’s north coast to visit a site that I have been excavating with the National Trust.  The site is the eighteenth-century palace of the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey [Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol].  This has been the third year of the project and we have now uncovered many structures in the two domestick yards to the rear of the house that have been hidden since the Second World War.  There have been loads of finds of ceramic, glass, bone and iron; we needed large plastic storage boxes for the finds, instead of the usual finds bags.  We are already planning to return next year to investigate further areas of the palace.  I’ve enjoyed the chance to do some practical archaeology, it makes a change from reading medieval documents.  While I was up this weekend, filming was taking place for the next season of ‘Game of Thrones’.

I also spent a bit of time working on stuff for the Ulster Archaeological Society Newsletter.  As Assistant Editor, I have to write up notes from the Society’s lectures and field-trips, as well as contributing other notes.  This is a great way to keep informed of what is going on in Irish archaeology – Twitter and Facebook is a great help in doing this.