Harewood House has been harbouring a secret for 200 years. MATT CLARK meets the man who revealed it.

CLIMBING steeply towards Harewood, you notice a ruined castle, nestling among trees behind a Yorkshire stone wall. The family seat before Edwin Lascelles built one of the finest country houses in England surely?

Not exactly. Lascelles bought the estate in 1739 and with it came a large medieval manor house called Gawthorpe Hall. But for a family that had made its fortune in the colonies it was considered too dowdy.

So to show his wealth to the world, Lascelles commissioned Harewood House and lived at Gawthorpe while it was being built.

When the new home was finished, the hall was considered a blot on the impressive landscape and Lascelles ordered it to be razed to the ground, filled with rubble and covered in turf.

Not a trace was left.

Well, almost. A print by William Von Hagen made in the 1720s gives an impression of what the hall looked like, albeit with artistic licence. But for Jonathan Finch, archaeology lecturer at the University of York , it was the foundation of a dream come true.

“Having seen some aerial photographs it was very clear that there was something in that area,” he says. “It’s not often you get the opportunity to see both sides of the shift up from a medieval manor house to an 18th century mansion.”

Weeks spent comparing the real landscape with Von Hagen’s interpretation paid dividends and Dr Finch’s team of students began digging.

A humble flagstone produced the Eureka moment; the lost Gawthorpe Hall had been found.

Today the unearthed foundations can be seen from the terrace after being hidden for two centuries. And because it was so suddenly levelled and turfed, the site provided rich pickings.

“There was much more material than we expected and to an archaeologist there’s a lot more that we get excited about such as imported glass and stoneware rather than the coins that people think we get excited about.”

Dr Finch says some of his team’s findings paint a picture of how an elite family would dress their dining table and they even discovered a rare glass bird feeder. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” he says.

Interestingly, there is some valuable Chinese porcelain as well, which begs the question, did Edwin Lascelles intend to eradicate everything about the Hall? Certainly the demolition job in 1773 was total and abrupt. Was it a case of out with the old, in with the new?

“I think in part it was and a number of pieces were left deliberately. There seems to have been the thought ‘we’re going to kit this house out from new’ using Chippendale Adam and all the people on the rise. It was a similar process for the porcelain.”

Despite the treasures, for the York team their dig is all about the hall’s inhabitants and the items unearthed weave an unparalleled tapestry of aristocratic life especially during the 17th and 18th centuries.

“As archaeologists our main interest is how people lived in the past. The glassware, pottery and the building itself are just a way of getting at that. It’s a people story.”

And for a place that was meant to vanish without trace there are a surprising number of clues about them.

Gawthorpe was home to 13 generations of the Gascoigne family and some are depicted as alabaster effigies on their graves. One of them is Margaret Percy, who married Sir William Gascoigne and lived at Gawthorpe during the 15th century.

A silver sweetheart ring was found during the excavations and although it’s probably later, you can’t help wondering if it could have been hers. The University of York discoveries are now on display in the Terrace Gallery at Harewood, alongside panels telling the estate’s story and some astonishing prints by Diane Howse, the Countess of Harewood, who has photographed and digitally reconstructed faces from the alabaster tombs which originally would have been painted.

Dr Finch’s excavations are part of a larger research project to understand the transition period from the middle ages to the Lascelles family’s move up the hill.

The story begins with Sir William de Aldeburgh, who was granted “a license to crenellate” (fortify) in 1366 and built Harewood Castle as a balance between security and comfort; more of a fortified tower house.

It has a dramatic setting, with commanding views up and down Wharfedale, which gave an easy early sighting of approaching trouble. But the domineering position was also designed to impress the neighbours.

The Harewood and Gawthorpe estates later combined and were passed by marriage to the Wentworth family. But when Sir Thomas Wentworth was executed by Charles I for treason, his family fortunes went into steep decline and the estates were sold to Sir John Cutler a self-made London merchant.

The Lascelles family took over in 1738 and wrote the next chapter by building their grand Palladian mansion.

“Through archaeological evidence we can now understand more about the people who lived at Harewood before the 18th century setting we are familiar with today,” says Grace Hailstone, the collections and exhibitions officer. “It is quite amazing, that in the space of a few short miles visitors can experience several hundred years of history.”

• Medieval Harewood is open until September 30 and reopens between October 27 and November 4. Harewood Castle is open for a guided tour on October 14.