The archaeologists’ tale from Clandon Park

Catherine Edwards, Archaeologist, AOC Archaeology Group Catherine Edwards Archaeologist, AOC Archaeology Group
Archaeologists at work at Clandon Park

Searching for items inside a Palladian country house is not an archaeologist’s everyday assignment. But actually, for the work at Clandon Park, archaeologists who are used to salvaging historic information from the ground are a perfect fit. We’ve been on site for 6 months and despite seemingly insurmountable challenges we’re now clearing rooms and still making wonderful discoveries.

An impossible task

We’d never visited Clandon before starting work here and had little idea of what to expect. Walking up to the Saloon steps on our first day we were able to see just how much debris there was. Daunting is an understatement – it seemed like an impossible, endless task. 
" Daunting is an understatement – it seemed like an impossible, endless task."
- Catherine Edwards, AOC Archaeology Group

We began right there on the Saloon steps, just four figures huddled in the doorway of this giant house. We couldn’t get any further into the building because of the scale of the debris inside. We went very slowly and incredibly carefully, unsure of what we might find. Within a couple of hours we began to uncover fragments of porcelain and pieces of plasterwork and with each find we better understood what was required.

A painstaking process

Because the fragments we’re searching for are so small we’re using a very strict methodology to make sure we uncover every needle in the haystack. Starting with the archaeologist’s tool of choice we begin trowelling through the debris looking for artefacts. We then brush the debris onto a hand shovel giving us the first opportunity for a visual check. The soil is dropped into a bucket so that we’re able to see it fall through the air and perform a second check. Lastly the deposit goes into our rubble sacks allowing us a third and final opportunity to ensure that we haven’t missed anything. 
Troweling through the debris with a strict method
Archaeologists at work at Clandon Park
Troweling through the debris with a strict method

Clandon’s very different from the average archaeological site – for a start we’re in a building, which doesn’t happen very often. Normally on an excavation we don’t know what we’re going to find or even if there’s anything there to be found. In this case we’re certain that there’re objects just waiting to be saved so it’s a very different mindset. The basic techniques are the same but this is an unusual style of archaeology and we’re learning a massive amount.
The National Trust team provided us with a plan of where objects were on display in the house. We hoped that this would give us an idea of where those items might have fallen during the fire but because of the way the floors collapsed, all bets are off. Some objects have travelled the entire length of a room and down one or two levels.

Tough times and triumphs

It’s hard and heavy work. We’ve been on site throughout the winter in all kinds of weather and some very cold days. There’s a lot of brick and masonry amongst the debris all of which has to be sorted and carried out of the building one sack at a time. Our whole team has worked tirelessly and we’ll all be leaving with bigger muscles than when we arrived.
Heavy lifting in the basement
Archaeologists at work at Clandon Park
Heavy lifting in the basement

The basement has proved a particular challenge. In some areas the debris field reached up to 1.5 metres high, the result of 4 floors crashing down into this one section of the house. It’s remarkable that we’re finding anything in here at all. 
Despite the tough conditions it’s been hugely rewarding. We might go for days without finding anything but suddenly we’ll discover a beautiful fragment of plaster or a complete piece of porcelain. Faces from the ceilings appear unexpectedly underneath your brush or carefully crafted pieces of timber that show you how the building fits together poke out from the debris.
We’re really hopeful given the amount of pieces that we’ve found, that a lot of it will be able to go back on display one day. Each piece, regardless of its condition, gives an interesting insight into Clandon’s story.

A herculean task

Our archaeologists have achieved an almost impossible goal in clearing the house of debris and discovering priceless treasures hidden in the ash. Hear more from AOC Archaeology Group’s Catherine Edwards about her team’s extraordinary work at Clandon.