Digging for history

The news that archaeologists have discovered what is believed to be the oldest house in Britain set me thinking about just how far back it is possible to go in discovering the history of a building. It’s a fair bet that back in 8500BC the occupiers of this house in North Yorkshire had more pressing matters to worry about than identifying who left the bones in the corner or indeed whether they were those of a former resident. The ice age was probably of greater concern than what alterations the previous occupier had carried out and whether they had lodged the plans with the village elders.

Old as the Yorkshire remains may be, they may not be as ancient as the cave on which a recent enquirer’s house had been built. I quickly had to point out that identifying the former occupiers of the cave might prove tricky unless of course they had very handily inscribed their names on the wall. So at what point do house and social history become archaeology and anthropology?

The answer, as with many questions, is that it depends. First and foremost of course is whether the property still stands or whether, in the Yorkshire case, it has been unearthed. Personally, I draw the line at having to dig to look at a client’s house. Also pertinent is the social class of former owners – the higher their status, the more likely they are to show up in the records. Ultimately though I would say that when centuries turn into millennia it’s time to call in the Time Team.

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