Palace of Westminster

Probing, Plans, and Palaces – Archaeology in Archival Research

Last year was the first time I took part in Day of Archaeology. I was three weeks into my new position at English Heritage. Although I hadn’t fully learned the ins and outs of what I was going to be doing, I was so excited to have managed to not only to bag a job within the historic environment sector, but with English Heritage! Fast-forward a year and my enthusiasm still hasn’t waived – I still love doing research, learning new things about the history of England, and vastly improving my knowledge of the Geography of Great Britain. Furthermore, I still feel immensely pleased with myself for managing to not only get a job in the field I studied, but a one I enjoy doing.

I still however, get told that it “must be a shame not to do a job in what you studied – but at least you got such a good job…” much to my annoyance. So here I am, one year on, doing Day of Archaeology to tell everyone what I do, and convince them that while I may not get muddy, survey buildings, or go out in the field, my role is just as relevant in archaeology.

English Heritage Archive N060669

Figure 1: In the archival holdings (© English Heritage)

I work in the archive, and undertake research for the public and am the first point of contact. Our archive holds information on historic buildings and archaeological sites throughout England. We have over 12 million items in our special archival facility in Swindon, ranging from architectural, aerial and archaeological photographic collections to our historic plans and measured drawings.

Wharram Percy Medieval Village N070612

Figure 2: One of the many aerial photographs in the archive – Wharram Percy (© English Heritage)

My day starts like any other day in an office – checking and responding to emails, turning on the phones for the morning (as we deal with members of the public), and getting our public search room ready for visitors. A big part of my day is undertaking research of our archival holdings for a range of clients, ranging members of the public or heritage professionals to people from the media. Whether searching for someone’s house, searching for plans of a particular English Heritage property, or searching for vast cathedrals or public buildings, one day is always different from another.

Today for example, I am looking for photographs of the Palace of Westminster. These are the type of enquiries I enjoy, as we tend to have quite a lot of material and as a result is something I can get my teeth into. I also love looking at sites like this because of the large collection of 19th century photographs we hold in the archive. I love looking at old photographs, as they are like snapshots frozen in time. So much history has been lost, and to have so much of it captured in a single picture never ceases to amaze me. As we continue to make a photographic record of the historic environment, I enjoy looking at the record of the past as well as capturing new ones because we can learn so much.

BL05552 Westminster Hall, 1885

Figure 3: One of the reasons I love historical photographs – Palace of Westminster c.1885 (Reproduced by Permission of English Heritage).

My day in archaeology does not end at simply researching in my position at English Heritage – I am also Secretary for the Institute for Archaeology’s Buildings Archaeology Group, which I volunteered for to keep up my knowledge of Buildings Archaeology (which is what I studied for my postgraduate). During my tea and lunch breaks, and on my daily commute I spend my time tweeting from the BAG twitter feed and organising the committee. Usually I am organising the meetings by typing minutes or agendas, but today I am helping to coordinate training events and our session for the next IfA conference. I am also trawling the internet for buildings archaeology in the news, ready for our upcoming newsletter.

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


(Note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organizations mentioned in this post.)