Project background

The Festival of Archaeology forms an annual celebration of archaeology in July and provides an ideal opportunity to promote archaeology to the general public. 

‘Phil’s Dig’, the excavation at the museum in 2019, marked the fourth consecutive year that Wessex Archaeology has delivered this activity in partnership with Salisbury Museum, allowing an opportunity for both public engagement and also a genuine research project into the story of the King’s House, which houses the museum and its collections.  

By taking part in the festival, our aim is to demonstrate the less well-known processes of excavation, observation, recording and interpretation as a means of telling the story of a site. The test pit methodology, within an area 1 m sq, began as part of the Festival at Salisbury in 2016 and allows us to communicate this wider process; the textures, colours, sounds and character of layers, the information that they contain and the way in which this information is analysed to build up a picture of the past.

This approach, offering ‘instant’ archaeology to the people, the use of test pit excavations to demonstrate the techniques and the idea that interesting archaeology is contained within locations that most people can relate to, defers to the ideas that were championed by the late Mick Aston and trialled by Channel 4’s Time Team.

The Festival of Archaeology with Phil Harding and Lorraine Mepham The Festival of Archaeology at the Salisbury Museum

The King’s House

The King’s House is a Grade 1 Listed Building and acquired its name following visits by King James I of England in 1610 and 1613. The initial building, constructed in the 13th or 14th century, formed the Prebendal residence of the Abbot of Sherborne, although the current building dates from the 15th century.

Following the Reformation, the property passed to a number of wealthy tenants including Thomas Sadler, Registrar to Bishops of Sarum, who entertained James I. Sadler made some stone and brick upgrades to the building to coincide with the visits of the monarch. 

The tenancy then passed to Sadler’s son, also Thomas Sadler, in 1634, who occupied the premises until his death in 1658.

The Festival of Archaeology with Phil Harding and Lorraine Mepham

Previous finding


A previous project in the museum’s back gardens the by the Avon Valley Archaeological Group in 2010 found a sequence of garden soils dating from the 17th century and a garden path, but did not go down to the natural gravel layer. 

Wessex Archaeology’s subsequent Festival of Archaeology Test Pit in 2016 remedied this by extending the pit down to the natural terrace gravel. The basal deposits included 13th-/14th-century make-up layers, above which the succession of 17th- and 18th-century garden soils was repeated and overlain by more recent landscaping. 



The success of the 2016 project led to the second stage in 2017, to relocate a long-lost gate house at the front of the King’s House. 

We conducted a magnetic survey and a supplementary ground penetrating survey (GPS) across an area of 0.08 ha, which showed a series of anomalies which determined the position of our 1 m sq test pit on the front lawn. 

The results confirmed the location and appearance of the gate house as well as indicating that it was constructed in the mid-17th century.



Excavations continued in 2018 to maintain public involvement and focussed attention on the wall foundations of the former extension to the north range depicted by John Buckler in 1804. 

The excavation indicated that the foundations were probably constructed of flint in the 16th-17th centuries. Reinterpretation of geophysical data made it possible to trace the line of these foundations to the eastern edge of the museum gardens, but sadly the results were unable to confirm the 15th century construction date of the range.

The Festival of Archaeology with Phil Harding and Lorraine Mepham Phil Hardings Dig - The Festival of Archaeology at the Salisbury Museum

Phil’s Dig 2019

The 2019 project aimed to build upon the results of the 2018 investigation into the northern extent of the building, focusing on the wall foundations of what is now the museum café. 

The area selected for the test pit was along the outer wall of the museum café, adjacent to a blocked doorway which was thought likely to offer information on the construction of the range.

Advanced publicity reached over 30,000 people on social media, with 600 visitors witnessing excavation of the test pit and 300 school children attending on the following day. 

The test pit produced a small assemblage of finds, ranging in date from medieval to post-medieval. The finds belong to types which occur commonly across the city, but this assemblage is overwhelmingly dominated by building materials, almost to the exclusion of domestic refuse or any other category of finds. 

The test pit successfully established the construction and depth of the wall foundations but could not confirm the date of construction as 15th century or establish whether they may have formed the foundations of an earlier structure. 

You can watch the results of the dig in our video below: