Last week, I visited English Heritage’s Archaeological Collections Store at Wrest Park to prepare to research one of the collections from Audley End House in Essex. The store is massive, with more than 160000 historical objects, organised into aisles that make you feel like you’re in Hangar 51 from the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. The boxes of finds from Audley End make up only one corner of one aisle, looking so compact that it’s easy to forget that they hold at least 5000 artefacts of various types and provenances. They have all been labelled and packaged by Wrest Park’s volunteer team, making my job a lot easier since my PhD research is based around these boxes. It’s really exciting to open them, as this is the first opportunity for anyone to devote serious time to understanding their contents.
On this day back in 1633, Galileo was being tried in Rome for thinking that the earth revolved around the sun, Charles I was preparing to be crowned in Scotland and, in a house off Fleet Street in London, Samuel Pepys was born. He became known for his diary, recording the lives of the middle classes in urban London throughout the 17th century. The diary was filled with his personal and political successes and failings. It detailed his daily life as both social butterfly and a naval administrator, which in itself left large quantities of documents to be explored. He was an incredibly active man, seemingly winding his never-ending way from plays to pubs to work and back again. Can we explore this life beyond the documentary record? Can we use archaeology, and what can this tell us about Pepys and about our discipline?
‘It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations’ – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Book 3, Chapter 2)
Church bells are one of my favourite sounds. There’s just something beautiful about hearing an echoing bell from a distance that places me back in the world around me. It’s a sound with nuances of meaning. To me, they mean a shared experience with people of the past who marked their time in the same way, and also a reminder the pleasure of being in the countryside where the sound is at its clearest. To medieval people, they acted as a mnemonic for complex messages around religion, rulership, and community.
I’ve spent the last couple of days at the National Archives in Kew, the UK government’s official archive that preserves some of our most important documents and encourages researchers to use them. I was there for the Postgraduate Archival Skills Training session based in the medieval and early modern collections, a 2-day course that explored the skills and methodologies needed to make the most of the archive. I really recommend taking part in the next one if you want to work with the collections, but if you can’t make it, here’s some of the highlights.
This weekend, I’m reflecting on October, one of the busiest, hardest, and most rewarding months of my life. I moved to a new house in a new city, had inductions and supervisor meetings, met the rest of my cohort, went to three conferences and numerous lectures, and read all the chapters and articles around my topic that I could find. Later blog posts will tell you more about my project, with some exciting news about how you can stay updated, but first I wanted to share my advice for how to make it through the first month of this process. This is entirely anecdotal, based on the specific experiences of myself and the other PhDs in my department, but some of it might apply to others discovering the same challenges in PhD Month One.
Today I wrote a Day of Archaeology blog post about my current MA research into early medieval church towers. Check it out and also have a look at the rest of the blog; there’s the most incredible entries, detailing the daily lives of archaeologists across the world, and the #dayofarch team did wonderful work organising the event.