From rat nests to ‘lost’ mines: exploring archaeological pathways in the National Trust

The National Trust cares for more than 250,000ha of land, encompassing historic sites and structures spanning prehistory to the present day – but what do the Trust’s archaeologists do? Joe Flatman highlights some of their diverse roles, recent research, and how routes into the profession are evolving.


‘So what do you do at the National Trust?’ is a question that I get asked a lot, by visitors and colleagues, family and friends. I’m Joe Flatman, and I’m what is known as a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust (NT). I’m also one of Current Archaeology’s monthly columnists, and ten years ago I wrote a book entitled Becoming an Archaeologist: a guide to professional pathways. The first edition won Current Archaeology’s ‘Book of the Year’ award in 2012, and ten years later the second, revised and updated, edition has just been published.

Becoming an Archaeologist examines the history of archaeology as a profession; the jobs and organisations that exist within this field and what life is like working among these communities; and the training required to get a career in the sector. It includes interviews with archaeologists working around the globe at every stage of their careers and in every specialism – from archaeobotany to zooarchaeology and plenty more besides – and some of the individuals featured are my colleagues at the NT. In celebration of meeting the milestone of a second edition, here I am going to explore some of the people and projects involved in archaeology across the organisation that I call home.

Archaeology volunteers learning how to photograph and record contexts at Ankerwycke Priory, Surrey, as part of the National Trust/National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Runnymede Explored Project. Image: Harry Farmer/The National Trust

As mentioned above, I am what is known as a Consultancy Manager (or ‘CM’, as we are referred to within the Trust). CMs lead the teams of specialists, including archaeologists, who care for our sites, and the NT’s Director-General Hilary McGrady calls us the glue that binds the charity together: sometimes deploying our leadership skills to help guide and support colleagues; other times acting as managers for the projects that we undertake; and on other occasions bringing our technical expertise and connections to bear – including, in my case, my background in archaeology. But I’m not paid to be an archaeologist, and 99% of the time I don’t ‘do’ archaeology, either in the popular sense of undertaking fieldwork or in the wider sense of deploying an archaeological mindset at our special places. The NT does, however, have a vibrant team of practising archaeologists who work across much of the UK (the organisation covers England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – the National Trust for Scotland is a separate, allied charity), alongside a much larger voluntary community.

NT archaeologist Martin Papworth working on a mosaic at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire. This decorative floor was dated using radiocarbon analysis to the 5th century AD, making it the youngest such mosaic yet discovered in Britain. Image: Stephen Haywood/The National Trust

We also work in partnership with the external archaeological world, from the specialists that we call in to advise us on more unusual or technical issues, to the organisations that we work with on strategic approaches to land management, the protection of scheduled monuments, and a diverse range of other matters. Volunteers in particular have always played a vital role in the wider archaeological community, and this is also true in the NT. While the most familiar of our volunteers are those who steward our mansions and care for our gardens, there is a growing ‘Heritage and Archaeology Ranger Team’ (HART) which undertakes field surveys and inputs and analyses this data on our heritage records database – you can find out more about them, and how to get involved, at

Volunteers from the Heritage and Archaeology Ranger Team (HART) learning how to identify archaeological features and assess monument conditions on site in Surrey with NT archaeologist Harry Farmer. Image: Harry Farmer/The National Trust

Digging the dirt

The starting point of this journey is – why does the NT do archaeology at all? To answer this, let’s begin with some impressive statistics: the charity cares for more than 780 miles of coastline; more than 250,000ha of land; more than 500 historic houses, castles, parks, and gardens; and nearly 1 million works of art. In terms of archaeological sites and structures, this includes everything from the Anglo-Saxon royal burial ground at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk (see, most recently, CA 381 and CA 383) to the 19th-century Levant Mine and Beam Engine, which is part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (see CA 216). The NT has more than 1,700 scheduled monuments on its land (many comprising more than one site) and more than 4,000 listed structures; it cares for 11 World Heritage Sites (see CA 379); and it lists around 94,000 sites on its Heritage Records Online system – the organisation’s equivalent to (and overlapping with) county Historic Environment Records, which you can explore at

Knole’s volunteer archaeology team at work in the South Barracks in 2016, during the ‘Inspired by Knole’ Project. Image: Nathalie Cohen/The National Trust

With so much archaeology to care for, the NT is, effectively, all things to all people: in some cases, acting as a landowner requiring archaeological advice in advance of development (for example, infrastructure works like water or sewage systems); in other cases, acting akin to local or central government, advising on and adapting to external impacts on the basis of its records and its expertise, often in partnership with other bodies (the balance of responsibilities faced within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site is the most intense example of this).

Complementing these responsibilities is a broader agenda linked to our charitable purpose. If the NT is, as it contends, ‘for everyone, for ever’, then it has a wide-ranging remit to research its places and to engage with people – be they members, visitors, volunteers, or tenants – about these histories, ultimately to do what archaeologists do best: tell the extraordinary story of the human past with passion and humility, honesty and humour. As the charity’s Senior National Archaeologist Hannah Fluck, one of the interviewees in my book, puts it: ‘archaeology roots us in place and time and gives a sense of belonging – of depth of time. And that is why archaeology is important to the Trust. We can display the evidence and tell stories of the habitation of these islands dating back thousands of years’.

NT archaeologist Jamie Lund and Ed Coghlan of the Derbyshire Caving Club in the recently explored cobalt mine at Alderley Edge, Cheshire. They are pictured with one of the timber props installed by miners in the 19th century. Image: Paul Harris/The National Trust

Recent coverage in the pages of Current Archaeology bears this view out – see, for example, the Trust’s role in researching and protecting the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset (CA 365 and CA 376); work at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, a site which continues to reveal new evidence of its occupants over a far longer time-period than previously understood (CA 373 and CA 393); and at Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire (CA 382), where archaeological geophysics has retold the story of remains hidden only centimetres beneath our feet.

Digital delving and attic antics

Other fieldwork is undertaken in more unconventional archaeological locations. The NT is, rightly, famous for (as well as proud of) its historic buildings, many of which are internationally significant sites and the cornerstone of the charity’s appeal to visitors. Investigations up in the attics, under the floorboards, and in other nooks and crannies of these structures regularly involve archaeologists, often working in partnership with other specialists in advance of repair or restoration work. A recent example that won acclaim (and a nomination for the 2021 CA Awards) was the Trust’s work at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk – there, NT team members worked with external specialist Matt Champion to document a fascinating array of finds spanning 500 years, from illuminated manuscripts and scraps of 16th-century music to fragments of Tudor textiles that only survived because an enterprising rat had incorporated them into its nest (CA 367). A similarly successful initiative was also carried out at Knole in Kent, where NT archaeologist (and regular CA contributor) Nathalie Cohen led works that yielded discoveries ranging from previously unknown architectural details to a host of historic graffiti, culminating in the publication of her book on the subject (CA 297 and CA 358).

In a similar vein of innovation, a stunning project of physical as well as digital exploration recently featured in CA 391, which reported on works beneath Alderley Edge in Cheshire, led by the NT and undertaken in partnership with the Derbyshire Caving Club. This project revealed a cobalt mine that preserved a time capsule of personal objects and equipment that its workers had left behind when the site was abandoned in the early 19th century – culminating in the entire site being scanned in 3D. This enabled the creation of an immersive digital fly-through, which you can see at

A cross-section of the mine’s 10m shaft and subterranean workings. Images: Christians Survey & Inspection Solutions/The National Trust

Such augmented- and virtual-reality surveys enable new insights into truly special places, as well as improving access for those who are unable to visit them in person. These outcomes are now a crucial element of the charity’s archaeological engagement – something that has really come to the fore since the COVID-19 pandemic. They use data from a wide array of sources, including 3D scanning, LiDAR, and drone imagery, in ever more inventive ways to connect with audiences in sometimes unexpected contexts. Did you know, for example, that you can explore a highly accurate digital model of Corfe Castle in Dorset, informed by the work of NT archaeologists, through the hugely popular online video game Minecraft ( Or that you can explore dozens of high-resolution 3D models of sites and structures, objects and oddities in the care of the NT online via Aerial-Cam’s work on Sketchfab (

Life on the edge: future challenges and opportunities

Having looked at the NT’s archaeological present, what can we say about its future? Our national strategy emphasises two priorities spanning all that we do: making everyone welcome, and taking action on climate change. These criteria speak strongly to, and through, archaeology. For the former, in recognition of its own ‘professional pathways’, the charity recently began a newly invigorated apprenticeship scheme, including in archaeology and wider historic environment skills. This is part of a larger, government-linked apprentices’ scheme running in similar environmental organisations (for example, some within, as well as coordinated by, Historic England).

Volunteers excavating at Ankerwycke Priory alongside the Surrey County Archaeological Unit and National Trust Archaeologists, as part of the Runnymede Explored Project. Image: Harry Farmer/The National Trust

One of these apprentices is Harry Farmer, who works alongside me and my colleagues in the NT’s London and South-east Region. The activities that apprentices like Harry undertake at sites such as Ankerwycke, as part of the Runnymede Explored Project (co-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund), reflect the range of connections that archaeology enables. Our apprentices often lead fieldwork in partnership with National Trust archaeologists, working as site supervisors and co-directors. (At Ankerwyke, Harry was working with NT Regional Archaeologist James Brown.) They also train volunteers in skills relating both to fieldwork and post-excavation tasks such as data-logging, and we frequently see them taking over our social-media channels.

As for what this particular project is doing, Runnymede Explored aims to transform the way in which visitors experience the historic meadows associated with the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, and involves NT staff and volunteers alongside partners from the Surrey County Archaeological Unit and the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club.

What about climate action? The NT’s archaeologists are regularly involved in managing mitigation and adaptation responses, especially along the long stretches of coastline that the charity cares for – from the wild and rocky western shores of Cornwall and Wales to the mudflats and marshlands of the east of England. The historic environment is integral to the NT’s management of its places in response to climate-related changes, embedded within the adaptation guidance that it uses on its own sites as well as in partnership with allied national trusts around the world through INTO – the International National Trusts Organisation. The future of archaeology in the NT on, under, and above its sites is thus assured, and as new technologies develop and new sites appear, the organisation will continue to evolve, as it has been doing for more than 125 years. With any luck, I will persuade my publisher to agree to a third, updated edition of Becoming an Archaeologist in 2032, reflecting on some of those changes.

Further reading
Joe Flatman, Becoming an Archaeologist (2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, £24.99, ISBN 978-1108797092).

Further information
To find out more about archaeology in the National Trust, see www. history-heritage/archaeology.

For further details of the NT Apprentices scheme, see and

For more on NT climate action, see