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#AskAnArch 2022

Every year the Palace takes part in the Festival of Archaeology’s #AskAnArch day.

It’s a day where visitors, volunteers, staff and anyone else can send in their deep buried archaeology questions. This year there were a number of submissions with topics ranging from tools to why the Palace even has an archaeologist.

1. What room is the most haunted?

Alexis says: Not one for ghost stories me, but people love a spooky tale! Steve Bevan, our site manager during the last restoration project was convinced that he saw an apparition in room one (the old Porter’s Lodge and now the museum entrance) and afterwards experienced a fishy smell in the room. A few other staff members have also experienced this smell. Again I was skeptical until I actually smelt it myself one morning in the museum shop! I’m still not convinced though. Archaeology has a scientific basis and I’m into rational explanations. I’ve yet to find a scary room in the Palace and I love walking around it on my own. If walls could talk the Palace would have so much to say for itself!

2. What is the most expensive archaeology tool you’ve used?

Alexis says: Almost always going to be a 360 degree mechanical excavator – in other words a digger or ‘the big yellow trowel’! They’re certainly not cheap (although archaeologists don’t generally drive them – they just direct the machine operators)

3. What tool do you use the most?

Alexis says: Well, archaeologists usually have a fairly extensive toolkit. I’ve seen everything from spoons to toothpicks. But you’re generally not going to get very far without your trowel, mattock and shovel. I personally used to prefer shovelling to mattocking, although my back is unlikely to ever forgive me for this. Trowels become very personal items as they shape based on your technique. Archaeologists usually use the four inch WHS pointing trowel, although Marshalltowns are popular too. WHS is traditionally known to stand for Work Hard and Starve.

4. I saw on an archaeology show that people think King Arthur was real, is that true?

Alexis says: That’s an interesting question, and one that I’m in no way qualified to answer! The monks Gildas (6th century) and Nennius (9th century) record that an individual led a Welsh or west-country localised resistance to West Saxon expansion. This is sort of believable in the sense that Romanitas (or Roman culture) appears to have lasted for longer in the west country than it did further to the east where the Saxons arrived and where Germanic culture had become established by the end of the 5th century. I certainly like the idea of a Romano British population holding out against the expanding Saxon kingdoms, but most importantly I’d need to see some solid archaeological evidence to support this.

5. I also saw on an archaeology show that there are secret tunnels running underneath Wales, is that true too?

Alexis says: Not a clue about that I’m afraid, but everybody loves a tunnel story! We even have one here and I regularly get asked if it’s true that Bishop Bonner built a tunnel between the Palace and the Golden Lion pub. Now we have no evidence for this tunnel, and the only odd thing that has happened involved a machine falling into a void in the walled garden in the 1960’s. I have to point out though that if you were going to build a tunnel from the Palace to the Golden Lion it wouldn’t go underneath the walled garden. Plus this idea of Bonner needing to hide to go for a swift ale is bonkers. I’m blaming the Victorians and the temperance movement for this. During Bonner’s time you didn’t drink the water as it was foul, so you had beer, small beer and table beer. He even had his own brewery at the Palace, so the idea of him needing to build a tunnel to go unrecognised for a cheeky pint is a bit silly. His own mum stayed at the Golden Lion anyway, so I think he was probably pretty well known in there!

6. What is the archaeology community doing in regards to repatriation; do archaeologists care that items they find end up in the wrong country?

Alexis says: I would very much so say yes, they care a great deal. Archaeology is actually a relatively young academic subject and has changed hugely in regards of professionalization and technique over the last 50 years. Anybody who has studied the subject and subsequently practices it has to be very passionate about what they’re doing – essentially uncovering the past, recording it and learning about past societies. I personally have never excavated abroad, but many of my colleagues have, and this is usually in association with local archaeologists and museums. Archaeologists aren’t treasure hunters and an assemblage of pottery can be just as significant a find as a magnificent brooch. Finds should present and available for indigenous societies to learn about their past and the history of the land they inhabit. We should all be custodians of our past and the vast majority of archaeologists would agree that excavated material should remain in the place in which it was discovered. I’d hate nothing more than to see an artefact I’d excavated sold off to a private collector. That would be tragic, and fortunately is not something I have ever experienced.

7. Can archaeologists change anything?

Alexis says: Of course! Archaeology is all about discovery and every excavation can reveal unknown pieces of history. Perhaps a classic example is the fact that the Saxon centre of Lundenwic in Covent Garden wasn’t discovered until the late 1970’s / early 1980’s. New techniques, scientific advances and expanding knowledge bases are constantly providing us with new insights into the past and altering our perceptions of history. Over the last 50 years many archaeologists have worked incredibly hard to make the general public more aware of archaeology and how important it is to preserve and record our past. Archaeology is a finite resource and once it’s gone you won’t get it back. I’d say that the number of archaeology programmes on television proves that people appreciate archaeology as a subject and that all of that hard work has paid off. We may not be able to bring about world peace or save the economy, but we’ll always do our best to keep investigating and revealing our important discoveries.

8. Have you written any books?

Alexis says: I have written many journal articles and apart from the fact that I’m currently writing up the big book of Fulham Palace’s Archaeology, I’ve just had my first book published! Plenty more awaiting publication too! Tales from the Vaults and other Newington Horror Stories. Oh, and Fulham Palace is on the front cover of the London Archaeologist this summer too!

9. Do you give lectures?

Alexis says: I sure do! Both at the Palace and anywhere else really! I just gave one at the Winchester Club and one at the Wimbledon Guild. I even have one coming up in September, it will be all about the Bishops, the reformation and the split from Rome.

10. What’s the strangest thing you’ve found at the Palace?

Alexis says: I’d say the condom tin in the museum! It seems a rather unusual find for the home of the Bishop of London! It came from beneath the floorboards in what is now our museum store. This was formerly a toilet block however, and I think it was probably dropped by one of the soldiers when the Palace was used as a hospital during WWI.

11. Hasn’t everything been found already?

Alexis says: Ha! Of course not! If we took that attitude we’d never find that lovely mosaic just discovered at London Bridge, the 13th century shipwreck in Poole Bay, the Prittlewell Prince etc etc. There’s loads more archaeology out there still to be found, with scientific advances revealing even more information about our history!

12. Why does the Palace have an archaeologist?

Alexis says: Oh man, now I have to justify my job! Essentially the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. This means it has a lot of archaeology on it which needs protecting. So, any time the Palace wants to put in a new drain or a service, if it’s over 10cms in depth an archaeologist has to be present. They have 30cms to play with in the walled garden. So I suppose it helps having me around. I undertake a lot of research into the Palace’s history and this will all come to the fore in the archaeological publication.

13. Is there anything still being found?

Alexis says: At the Palace? Oh yes. I hardly feel we’ve scratched the surface. A lot of the excavations have been very limited in terms of depth and area. I’d love to dig up the 13th century chapel outside the café and put another slot across the riverside stretch of the moat. That’s just for starters!

14. My child is interested in archaeology, what can they do to encourage them?

Alexis says: A good place to start is to join the Young Archaeologists’ Club. We have one at the Palace! Getting onto excavations is a bit tricky these days, but we always involve our YAC group when we excavate here. One of my former YAC’s is now doing his A-Levels and has got onto a couple of excavations in Kent this summer, so it can be done!

15. Can archaeology be a hobby? How do you do it as a hobby?

Alexis says: It can, although it is difficult. The industry is very much so professionalised now, with archaeologists essentially forming part of the construction industry. I actually heard the other the day that archaeology is more significant economically than the British fishing industry. I have a great group of volunteers here, many of whom are members of local archaeology and history societies. That’s a great place to start, and quite a few of them run seasonal excavations which you can take part in. Here our volunteers are fully trained in house before they begin to excavate. They are a great group and the world of amateur archaeology in London is quite tight knit so they all know of upcoming projects they can take part in!

16. Do you have any more digs planned?

Alexis says: Not at the moment. Sian (our CEO) won’t let me do anything until I’ve finished the book! I guess I better get back to writing…

If you’d like to learn more about archaeology at the Palace, visit our archaeology page.