Buildings: we live and work in them, use them and ignore them. But are they wallpaper to you or are you fascinated by them, their design and their history? We can all enjoy buildings more with an archaeological approach and here are some tips on how to interpret, analyse and record them. You’ll soon know your crucks from your plinths…

Written by Lucy Jessop, Senior Investigator, Historic England.
Header Image: Avon Mills, Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

1. Investigation

Investigating Odda’s Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

We look closely at buildings to work out what was built and when. Changes in building materials can help you work out the age of each part: look out for different colours, sizes and patterns in brick and stone. In timber-framed buildings, the patterns of timbers, peg holes and empty mortices (the slots in which timbers were once inserted) will show you what has survived, been lost or added. You’ll sometimes see straight, vertical joints in walls which can indicate additions or blockings. Ragged joints – more random in form – can point to areas of substantial rebuilding.

As you observe and think, take notes and photographs to aid your memory. Walk around inside and out, thinking about the rooms, their relationship and use, and how people circulated around the building. Think about whether rooms or features you might expect to find are missing or might have been moved, and look for traces of their former use.

2. Measuring and drawing

Volunteers surveying the Guildhall, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.


Plans and drawings help our understanding of buildings, both because of the close observation needed to create the plans and because they show us differences in wall thicknesses, alignments and layouts which indicate different phases. Drawings are also a permanent record of the building which can then be made publicly available to improve everyone’s knowledge. You don’t need expensive technology: you can measure with a simple hand-tape and draw up the results by hand, although computerised packages are also available. Download our Understanding Historic Buildings guidance for all the recording conventions and tips for best practice.

3. Read all about it

The King’s Library at the British Library, Euston Road, London.

Understand the context and importance of buildings by reading about their specific style, building materials, locality and building type. General books on fixtures and fittings will help you learn how to date individual features, from the shape and design of windows to door hinges, wallpaper and panelling. Learn the names of parts of buildings from architectural dictionaries and read up about particular styles, techniques and architects.

Historical documents – maps, plans, wills, deeds, newspapers and photographs, amongst others – will help you find out more detail about the individual buildings and places in which you’re interested. You’ll often find them in your local studies library, archive and record office; most now have online catalogues, many of which are linked to the catalogue of the National Archives. There are many wonderful online historical resources out there for you to discover, too.

4. Write it down

Young girl writing, in a farmhouse kitchen in Mundenbury, Great Munden, Hertfordshire, 1961

Try to tell the story of your buildings. Make an illustrated narrative out of all the different features of each phase so that their history is presented chronologically and logically. Your written record will contain everything you know, with references to your sources so that they can be verified as well as your photographs and drawings. Give a copy to your local Historic Environment Record and any archive or library whose material you used.

5. Get involved

11 Strand Street, Sandwich, Kent. Detail of first floor blocked window.
Blocked medieval window, 11 Strand St, Sandwich, Kent.

Local, often county-based groups actively record and analyse buildings of interest; you will learn alongside fellow enthusiasts how to understand, measure, draw and publish. If your interest lies with traditional buildings, why not join the Vernacular Architecture Group? If you’re enjoying more formal buildings like country houses and churches, the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain may be for you. Both organisations host seminars, study days and conferences for members to explore the buildings of a particular type, date or place.

6. Take it further

Short courses – summer schools and weekend courses – are available at a number of universities and are open to everyone; some are run by Historic England. If you’re thinking about making your passion into your career, there are several degree courses in Buildings Archaeology and History of Architecture which could help you on your way.

7. Enjoy

3 Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Use your new detective skills to discover a world full of fascinating historic buildings: once you start, you’ll find it hard to stop!


The Festival of Archaeology 16- 31 July 2016 encourages everyone to explore archaeology in their local area, with events taking place across the country. People of all ages can get involved, and many events are free.

To celebrate the launch of the new Historic England Online Bookshop, recieve 20% off all orders until 31st July 2016. Use offer code CBA16 at the checkout. All proceeds from Historic England book sales are used to support our work of protecting the historic environment.


England’s most significant historic buildings and places are listed so they can be understood and protected. This List has almost 400,000 entries, from palaces and pigsties, to cathedrals, windmills and roller-coasters.

For the first time, we are opening up The List and asking people to share images, insights and secrets of these special places to capture them for future generations.

Perhaps you can share your findings about a listed building near you. Can you help us Enrich the List?


Further reading

Understanding Historic Buildings: A Guide to Good Recording Practice

Your Home

Top Archaeological Finds from the Air

1 comment on “How to do… Buildings Archaeology

  1. These are great tips and steps to get involved.Heritage tourism plays a huge role in the UK economy, attracting both international and domestic tourists and can provide a source of revenue to maintain historical sites. English Heritage, the organisation responsible for caring for over 400 historic places, and boasting more than 5,000 years of history.

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