Over the years, our Archaeology Live! weekend excavations have become increasingly popular and always prove to be one of the highlights of the year. The 2015 August weekend dig saw a team made up of familiar faces and one or two people making their first steps into archaeology join us at All Saints.
Sharon and Julie’s weekend began in a small trench through the surface of Church Lane. Despite extensive truncation from Victorian service trenches, a small strip of intact archaeology had remained undisturbed. Sharon and Julie’s first task was to record and excavate a compacted sandy deposit that pre-dates a pair of burials from the 1700s.
While it was clear that the surface was earlier than the 18th century grave, its own date could only be known once we recovered some dating material. As Sharon and Julie troweled through the deposit, the latest finds to be unearthed were 14th century in date – we had found the medieval surface of Church Lane!
Finding the medieval horizon beneath present day Church Lane was an exciting but slightly frustrating development as we had reached the maximum excavation depth in this area. Despite this, the investigative slot had been successful in characterising the nature and preservation of the archaeology beneath the current paved surface. As the excavation progresses, we now know that medieval archaeology does survive in close proximity to the church and this may prove very useful in tightening up our knowledge of the dating and development of the building.
With their medieval surface fully excavated, Sharon and Julie moved onto a very different challenge, a 19th century burial in the area lovingly known as ‘Contrary Corner’.
Despite the area’s reputation for difficult edges and unclear relationships, the pair made excellent progress. The faint edge of a decayed coffin had been partially exposed in the previous week and it was down to Sharon and Julie to expose the rest.
With the whole outline of a tapered coffin now visible, it was recorded in detail before excavation continued within it. By the end of the weekend, Julie and Sharon had even begun to uncover the remains of a juvenile individual, not bad for two day’s work!
Nearby, Nicola and Michelle were facing a similar challenge as they took over the investigation of another partially excavated burial.
The 2015 season marked Nicola’s 12th season of Archaeology Live! and she quickly discovered an interesting artefact to mark the occasion!
The object in question was an enigmatic copper alloy fitting of somewhat uncertain date and purpose. Hopefully, cleaning in our conservation facility will shed some light on what Nicola’s mystery object actually is!
Over the course of the weekend, the narrow grave cut grew ever deeper, leading us to wonder if we were ever going to find the individual within! Thankfully, persistent careful excavation paid off and by packing up time on Sunday, Nicola and Michelle had successfully revealed the outline of the coffin and the location of the skull. As the narrow grave cut had suggested, this was the burial of a small child; yet another sobering reminder of the high infant mortality of the 19th century.
Elsewhere in the trench, the rest of the team were working on some very different kinds of features. Archaeology Live! legend Juliet was joined by her sister Fiona and the pair set to work on a deposit that simply wasn’t behaving itself!
A small peninsula of medieval soil that survives between an 1860s drain cut and the 19th century Rectory wall had been thought to be free of later truncations, however, as it was cleaned for a photograph, Juliet and Fiona noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Ceramics from the 19th century were still present close to the wall, as was a concentration of stones and cobbles. It soon became apparent that the construction cut of the Rectory wall hadn’t been excavated to its full width, meaning Juliet and Fiona’s first task would be to excavate the remainder and amend the records of the cut.
As has been the standard for the majority of our 19th century features, the construction backfill was full of earlier artefacts, including a particularly lovely shard of post-medieval glass discovered by Fiona.
The glass is awaiting specialist assessment, but is reminiscent of decorative discs and bands applied to 17th and 18th century drinking vessels and bottles. Whether this was a prized possession of the residents of the original Rectory will never be known, but it remains an intriguing and beautiful find.
Working within the footprint of the medieval Rectory, Paul, Beverley and Lynne began their weekend by recording a robber cut that appears to have been positioned to reclaim materials from the original medieval Rectory prior to the construction of its 18th-19th century replacement.
With the records for the robber cut complete, the next task for the trio was to clean up the whole area to establish which deposit was next in the sequence. Stratigraphic excavation of urban archaeology requires us to excavate in reverse chronological order, so it was up to Paul, Lynne and Beverley to establish which context was deposited immediately prior to the robber cut.
After a lot of careful troweling, a dark, charcoal rich deposit became the next deposit to be cleaned up and photographed.
With just enough time to start excavation before the end of the weekend, Paul, Lynne and Beverley were able to recover some dating material from the deposit – it seemed that another part of the site had finally reached the medieval horizon!
At the opposite end of the trench, Paul was also descending into the Middle Ages. In this case, however, it was necessary to squeeze into a small, exploratory slot designed to find the depth of medieval deposits at the northern end of the trench.
With a mixed dump of clayey material recorded, John began excavation and quickly noticed an interesting change in deposition.
Unlike the later deposits, this context was rich with re-deposited burnt material. It is possible to identify scorched soil as it often changes colour to shades of orange, grey and red, as seen in the image below.
Paul’s discovery is an interesting development as it sees a shift in activity from simple raising of the ground level through large dumps of silty clays to the kind of deposition that usually indicates occupation. In short, we are coming down on to a deposit that has the potential to tell us much more about life in the medieval period. This slot will be one to watch!
The final surprise of the weekend came during finds washing. Hidden amongst countless fragments of animal bone and pottery was a previously un-noticed shard of medieval stained glass. The growing assemblage of broken medieval window glass being recovered from the site reminds us that the windows of All Saints, North Street were not always afforded the reverence they rightly receive today. It is unsettling to think of how much medieval artistry has fell foul of vandalism and accidental damage over the centuries.
The August weekend turned out to be a highly enjoyable excavation, with some great finds and interesting developments. Thanks to all of the team for all their hard work and longstanding support of the Archaeology Live! project.
With August drawing to a close, the final quarter of the excavation was already upon us. No rest for the wicked – onwards and downwards!