Medieval Buildings

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.