Dig Diary 1, Rustic Cottage at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Mark Newman, Archaeological Consultant Mark Newman Archaeological Consultant
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Published : 10 Sep 2016 Last update : 17 Apr 2020

I’ve been walking past the site of Rustic Cottage for some 28 years now. I can’t recall if I knew where it was right from the start, but it certainly wouldn’t have been long into my National Trust career when I first noticed it on the inter-war Ordnance Survey maps. Ever since then I’ve thought "one day we’ll have a go at digging there". And today was the day.

Day One, Rustic Cottage Dig Diary

Why haven’t we dug before? Well, there are certainly been a lot of other sites and projects to take on at Fountains which, for one reason or another were a higher priority. There was also the fact that the site was entirely safe, and the it being just inside the Scheduled area at Fountains was something of an inhibiting factor. But now we are keen to learn still more about the Aislabies’ gardens, and are exploring the potential to recapture some of its lost features – of which Rustic Cottage is a prime example.

The $64k question was would there actually be any archaeology there to find. On several previous digs in the gardens we’ve found Victorian workmen were very thorough when they demolished something, leaving relatively little behind for us to find.  Finding just eight bricks of the Bathing House left in place was a particularly memorable disappointment!

I needn’t have worried. It would seem that the workmen of the 1930s, when the cottage was demolished, were a lot less thorough than their predecessors, thank goodness. It was immediately apparently that substantial depths of demolition rubble were still in place along with significant structural remains.

We have opened three intersecting trenches; one along the long axis of the building, and two transversely across it. In the latter we have found the footing of the front wall of the building, right under the feet of our spectators on the viewing platform. We also have a wall on the north side of the building in both trenches but, due to the slopes adjoining, its going to be tricky to be 100% certain that this is the back wall, and that there’s not another room beyond. I’m not sure we’re going to be able solve that riddle this year. The longitudinal trench has found the west wall of the cottage (the east one survived above ground before we started) so we have the length of the building. An added bonus was Nicky finding an area of rather nice cobbling outside the wall – so the cottage’s resident wouldn’t have had to squelch through the mud on the way to and from their outhouses.

The interior of the cottage is presenting us with some great new details too. There are at least two internal walls dividing the building: one appears to form an entrance passage behind the front door, separating the entry from the inner rooms. The second has one of the day’s major surprises – a well-built and complex fireplace, towards the north side of the cottage. Before we started I’d assumed the fireplace would be in the south wall – It may well still be there and this is a later secondary one, but only further excavation will reveal the whole story.

At the west end of the trench we’re cleared down to floor level – or rather the underlying layer revealed by the removal of the floor when the building was demolished. There’re more flooring surviving in front of the fireplace, but it’s not clear if that was specifically for a hearth.  Further east we have more rubble to excavate to get to the floor level – which is tomorrow’s main target.

There was some interesting finds too – but they can wait for tomorrow’s instalment!