Recording the roof: archaeology at The Vyne

Archaeologist inspecting timbers on the rooftop at The Vyne, Hampshire

Our project to repair the roof at The Vyne is essential to secure the future of the building and its collections. It’s also given us exciting opportunities to learn more about this complex 500 year old mansion. Gary Marshall, an archaeologist with the National Trust for 30 years, is leading the project to view and record the roof structure for the first time in living memory.

Our project at The Vyne is focused on the renewal of the roof. It had been leaking and hadn’t had any recovering or repair for the best part of a hundred years. Of key concern were the chimneys which were on the verge of collapse. To remedy this we’re making a completely new watertight roof, repairing timbers, dismantling and rebuilding the chimneys and insulating with 21st century materials to improve environmental performance. 

Opportunities for archaeology

Because all the roof tiles are being stripped we have an opportunity to see, for the first time in living memory, the complete structure of the roof. We’re able to look at how it’s been put together. We can also look at the sequence of construction in areas where the roof may have been altered.  

Our contract archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology are undertaking a thorough survey of the roof. We’ll be recording the positioning of all those timbers and carrying out detailed drawings of particular joints and carpentry. 

A measured sample exposing the pattern of growth rings
A magnified oak dendrchronology sample shows annual rings

We want to get specific dates for when the roofs were built so we’re using dendrochronology dating with help from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory. We take pencil sized samples from selected timbers which are measured under a microscope exposing the pattern of growth rings. Given 50 or more growth rings we can measure and compare the pattern to timbers with known dates. With the last growth ring with a bark edge you can find the year when the tree was felled giving us a date for construction of the roof. 

Uncovering more of the original Vyne

We’ve discovered that the south range roof is made completely from reused timbers belonging to a dismantled building. The timber was felled between 1516 and 1548 which matches with when The Vyne was first built. So, we think that they’re likely to be from a demolished building in the north forecourt.

Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory taking samples from the roof
Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory taking samples from the roof at The Vyne

On the site of what’s now the north lawn there was once a substantial group of buildings. They likely comprised domestic buildings such as stables, laundry, kitchens and accommodation for lesser status servants when King Henry VIII came to visit. These buildings extended from the current house almost to the lake edge, which suggests that the original structure of The Vyne was almost twice the size that it is now. 

We’re excited to have discovered a physical link between the existing house and this lost north forecourt. To develop our understanding further, we’ve just completed a week-long geophysics survey to assess what survives below the ground. 

Discoveries in the rafters

One of these reused timbers features a witch marking in the form of a circle with a pattern of flower petals in the middle. It was believed in the 16th and 17th centuries that these marks could keep bad spirits and witches familiars out of buildings. People were much more superstitious about their environment and believed that by applying these sorts of charms they could protect the building from malicious influences. 

A mark to keep at bay bad spirits, witches and their familiars
A daisywheel ritual or witchmark found in the roof at The Vyne Hampshire

We’ve been asking our roofing contractors to examine the backs of every tile they remove. So far we’ve found 13 tiles with animal prints in them and one inscribed with a date of 1737 and the initials WC. This is indicative of when the tile was made. It’s most likely that the tile was made specifically for the building, so this date implies there was roofing work in the 18th century. The letters WC are likely to belong to the worker in the brickyard making the tiles.

We’ve found cut grass in the Oak Gallery, which they used as an insulation material under the tiles. Also husks from grain to insulate between the ceiling joists. We’ve taken some of that material away to be analysed. We’ll be able to tell what type of cereals the husks come from and the types of weeds in amongst the grass. 

An animal paw print on one of the 71,000 tiles removed from the roof
Close up of dog paw print on a tile at The Vyne, Hampshire

Sharing our finds

It’s the first project I’ve worked on of this size where visitors can view the works whilst they’re in progress. As we make these discoveries and observations we’re constantly updating the information on the roof walkway so that it’s all there for our visitors. Volunteer roof guides are updated daily so they’re able to explain our archaeological findings as people see them. 

The role of the archaeologist is partly curatorial in the sense that we’re looking after archaeology. A lot of our work can be used practically for restoration work but also has a story to tell. We’re able to reach out to visitors and the wider community, and that makes this type of work extremely satisfying.