Meet archaeology volunteer Jim Parker

Volunteers serching under the floorboards at Knole

A volunteer at Knole for around six years, Jim Parker is an experienced member of our Premises team. More recently, with a major building project underway, Jim has had the opportunity to turn his long-term interest in archaeology into hands-on practical experience.

When my wife and I retired, we were looking for an activity that we could do together and volunteering for the National Trust seemed like a great way to spend our time. Knole is our local National Trust place; we’ve lived just 15 miles down the road for 36 years now. We’d often been here for a walk around the deer park but hadn’t ever visited the house.

I started volunteering in 2010, beginning as a Room Guide but switched to the Premises team. We’re responsible for helping with the maintenance of the house and grounds over a huge range of activities, from painting and signage to leaf blowing and litter picking. I really enjoy the variety and it’s very different to my previous working life.

The Inspired by Knole project

In 2012 the National Trust began an enormous project at Knole. Much needed repairs to various parts of the house have been undertaken so that it was better equipped to conserve the collection and more spaces could be opened. In 2018, when the project is complete, Knole will have opened a number of previously closed areas as well as a brand new café, conservation studio and learning centre. This building work has also allowed our team of archaeology volunteers to access previously out of reach spaces.

Archaeological opportunities

About three years ago I signed up to a week-long course run by Nathalie Cohen, one of the National Trust’s archaeologists. Open to volunteers, the aim was to give us the skills to carry out archaeology in those areas of the house made newly accessible to us.

My interest in archaeology was inspired by holidays to ancient sites such as the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and Syria’s Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra, all incredible world heritage sites. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the subject but Nathalie’s course was the first time I’d ever been able to gain any practical experience. I’ve been on the archaeology team at Knole ever since.

Building work has allowed our archaeology teams into the attic spaces at Knole
Archaeology volunteers at work at Knole

Most people’s idea of archaeology is kneeling in a muddy trench, searching for items using a trowel and brush. But actually it’s about discovering what people did in the past by studying what they’ve left behind. In this case much of what we’re doing is excavating underneath the floorboards in the house and so it’s opened up an area of archaeology I wasn’t aware of. 

It can be both frustrating and exhilarating; it depends entirely on what we’ve got done. Even on frustrating days it’s the hope, excitement and expectation of what I might find the next time that keeps me coming back.

Finding pieces of history

I’ve mainly worked in the half of the house consisting of the Ball Room, Reynolds Room, the Cartoon Gallery and the Kings Room which was prepared for James I (although he never visited). We’ve been sorting through the dust and rubble beneath the floorboards in the attics that run above the galleries, known as the South Barracks and the Retainers Gallery. Both have given up interesting finds.

There’s quite a lot of graffiti up there, some quite early, including complaints from servants about clearing snow off the roof. We find lots of nails, anything from early handmade nails through to modern ones. We find roof tiles, peg tiles mostly – with a hole built in for a wooden peg to fix through. Pieces of rush matting that date from the time the galleries were in use in the 17th century have been discovered, the biggest piece is probably around a foot square. The conditions under the floor are dry with little humidity, allowing this type of organic material to survive surprisingly well.

Time well spent

My time at Knole has been rewarding in many different ways. I spend my days with like-minded people and I get a real sense of satisfaction after each job is done. My stint as a room guide still comes in handy; there’ve been opportunities for visitors to go on guided tours of the project and lots of people stop to ask questions – it’s nice to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained. 

" To be involved in real archaeology, actually hands-on rather than just reading about it, has been a great opportunity."
- Jim Parker

To be involved in real archaeology, actually hands-on rather than just reading about it, has been a great opportunity. As a result of developing my interest through volunteering, I’ve also become involved with the West Kent Archaeology Society and I’m furthering my knowledge by doing some work with them.

Volunteering has given me a better sense of this place, I feel attached to the house and its history, and I feel like I’m part of a team, part of something special. Most of all I feel I’m contributing to something worthwhile; I get to help preserve our nation’s heritage for future generations, and sometimes maybe even uncover a little more of it.