Catherine Downes’ excavation of Roman Warminster, 1786

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Catherine Downes’ excavation of Roman Warminster, 1786

October 21 @ 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm



‘I took a man over & began to dig’: Catherine Downes’ excavation of Roman Warminster, 1786

by Dr Madeleine Pelling          

In 1786, Catherine Downes was travelling through Warminster when she heard about the discovery of an ornate Roman mosaic in a nearby field. Employing a local man, she set off to excavate it, later writing up her findings which, together with detailed sketches of the site, she afterwards sent to the Society of Antiquaries in London. This paper explores the opportunities open to women engaging in early archaeological practice and asks how we might recover their oft-invisible contributions to otherwise all-male institutions of knowledge.

Very little is known of Catherine Downes, although a letter written by her to the Society, read aloud by its vice-president Daines Barrington and subsequently copied into its minutes, provides some insight into a genteel woman with a keen interest in and knowledge of history. Her account of the Warminster excavation appeared first in the society’s journal, Archaeologia, before, along with the sketches mentioned by Warner and now lost from the historical record, forming the basis of Plate 43 and its accompanying commentary published in the Society’s multi-volume series Vetusta Monumenta in 1788. Downes was part of a local network of antiquarians and when ‘a Gentleman of Warminster requested her to permit a Drawing of her’s to be sent to the Antiquarian Society; but […] neglected to send it,’ she took it upon herself to communicate her findings from the site at Pitt Meadow, or Pitt Mead as it was locally known, in what remains a rare example of a woman’s contribution to the eighteenth-century institution.

Building on a forthcoming essay written for the Society’s new scholarly edition of Vetusta Monumenta (, this lecture will feature material from the Society’s archive and elsewhere to explore the implications of Downes’ work and what it might tell us more broadly about women antiquarians in this period.

This event will be both in person at Burlington House and online. Please select the appropriate ticket below.

Attendance at Burlington House:

  • Open to anyone to join, Fellows and Non-Fellows.
  • Places in person will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • The event will begin at 17.00 BST. Please arrive in plenty of time.
  • Tea/Coffee for Fellows is served from 16.30 BST
  • Registration is essential for non-Fellows but we encourage Fellows to register as well.
  • Fellows must ensure they sign the guest book and sign their guests in.
  • All attendees should scan the NHS QR code available at the entrance. For further details on the Government guidelines regarding COVID-19 and track and trace please visit their website here.

The schedule for the evening if attending in person:

  • Refreshments are served from 16.30 BST in the council room.
  • The meeting begins at 17.00 BST with the lecture starting at approximately 17.10 BST.
  • Lectures run for approximately 45min and are followed by a short Q&A.
  • Sherry is served in the Foyer following the lecture.

Attendance by Live Stream:

  • Open to anyone to join, Fellows and Non-Fellows.
  • The event will be live-streamed to YouTube here
  • The event will begin at 17.00 BST.
  • You will receive an email reminder with the link to join the day before the lecture.

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If you have any questions, please contact us on [email protected]


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October 21
5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
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Society of Antiquaries of London
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London, W1J 0BE United Kingdom
020 7479 7080