‘How do you know where to dig?’

It’s one of the most commonly asked questions that is posed to many an archaeologist and it is fundamental to what we do.  A common misconception is that archaeology is all about finding artefacts; objects that can be used to illuminate the misty recesses of the past. Those with only a casual interest in the discipline can certainly be forgiven for assuming that each hole dug on an excavation was sited to locate and recover an object. While this isn’t wholly untrue, it doesn’t take into account the huge importance of context. A find without a known provenance is merely the sum of its parts. A piece of medieval pottery picked up from the floor can tell us about its manufacture but no more. A piece of medieval pottery recovered from the backfill of a refuse pit gives us a crucial piece to the overall puzzle – a pit containing medieval pottery cannot have been backfilled prior to the medieval period. This unassuming sherd of pot has given us a terminus post quem; a ‘time after which’ an event has occurred.

Archaeology in the May sunshine.

Archaeology in the May sunshine.

With this in mind, it is crucial to recover finds from a known context within a clear stratigraphic sequence. In plain English, this means that we have to know what feature an object came from and where this feature fits in to the timeline of the site – all of which brings us back to the original question. How do we know where to dig?

Every hole you see on an excavation will have been dug by an archaeologist, but they will certainly not have been the first people to do so. In essence, we re-excavate holes that have already been dug in the past. These features come in all shapes and sizes and can be infilled with an almost infinite variety of materials. The real skill lies in identifying the edges of these features and following in the footsteps of the people who created them.

Archaeology Live! weekend training excavations offer a concise introduction to the theories and techniques of excavation and recording, they’re also a lot of fun! Looking for edges is just one of many skills that we teach on our training excavations.

For our second weekend dig of 2015, Arran and Gary were joined on-site by an enthusiastic group of trainees looking to add new discoveries to what is becoming a fascinating story at All Saints, North Street.

While it is impossible to learn every aspect of field archaeology in just two days, we structure our weekend courses to allow people the opportunity to try their hand at as many activities as possible. As the weather was looking good and sunny, we kicked off the weekend by handing out trowels and quickly picked up where the April dig had left off.

Mother and daughter team Sharon and Helen set to work on a feature located close to the site’s north-western boundary. An exploratory 1.5m slot was strung out and started back in April to give us a window into the earlier archaeology beneath the 18th and 19th century horizons. Below a later post-hole and dump deposit, the backfill of what is believed to be a 19th century burial was discovered, recorded and partially excavated. Now Sharon and Helen were tasked with continuing work on this feature.

Sharon and Michelle get started.

Sharon and Helen get started.

Discerning and following the edges of cut features on urban excavations is particularly challenging. A hypothetical ditch on a rural site may be cut through yellow natural clays and backfilled with dark brown silt. In this instance, locating and excavating along the edge of such a feature is a relatively straightforward process. In the heart of York, there is such a depth of stratified deposition that the majority of features are cut through earlier archaeology as opposed to virgin natural.

A 19th century grave cut through mixed post-medieval dumping will usually be backfilled with the very same material. As a result, spotting the edge of the cut and knowing where to dig can be quite the challenge. Sometimes it can be a matter of identifying a change in compaction or colour that gives the feature away, other times it can be a matter of archaeological intuition built up through years of experience. Some people just have the knack, and Sharon and Helen proved to be very adept at following the extents of their feature.

Sharon proudly displaying her first find.

Sharon proudly displaying her first find.

It didn’t take long for some nice finds to start showing up. Sharon was delighted to discover the handle and part of the rim of a medieval Humber Ware jug and that was just the beginning! Before long, Helen and Sharon had discovered pottery from almost every period of York’s history, with sherds of Roman Samian ware and post-medieval Cistercian ware being the highlights. All told, their finds tray had a date range of almost 2000 years!

Sharon and Helen's ceramic timeline.

Sharon and Helen’s ceramic timeline.

Joining us from the Canaries, Sydney took over the excavation of a grave in the site’s trickiest area ‘Contrary Corner’. At the end of the April excavation, delicate fragments of a coffin complete with decorative metal fittings were just beginning to appear. This meant that Sydney had to work very carefully, gently easing the grave backfill away from the remnants of the coffin.

Sydney working on a 19th century grave.

Sydney working on a 19th century grave.

Over the course of the weekend, Sydney’s gentle troweling revealed much of the outline of the coffin. As work progressed, it became apparent that the burial is that of a juvenile. This evocative discovery serves as a useful reminder that the features we are excavating tell of real human tragedies and should be treated with care and respect.

While sieving the backfill of her burial, Sydney made an unexpected find – a Roman coin! Re-deposited in a later context, the coin adds to a growing body of Roman artefacts that have been recovered from the site, many of which being of some status.

Sydney and her coin.

Sydney and her coin.

Just metres away from Sydney’s burial, Michelle also spent her weekend working on a grave that was already part-excavated. One of the deeper burials on-site, this grave also appears to contain a coffin. With much of the wood now entirely decomposed, Michelle had to gently follow a dark grey stain with corroded iron fragments appearing at regular intervals.

Michelle trowel cleaning her coffin stain.

Michelle trowel cleaning her coffin stain.

Michelle’s patient work revealed the coffin to be an unusual shape, somewhat shorter and wider than may be expected. While the base of the coffin was yet to be reached by the end of the weekend, some interesting finds were recovered. The most intriguing of these was a small fragment of bone with some incised striations. It is possible that this represents a bone-worker’s practice piece.

Michelle's worked bone object.

Michelle’s worked bone object.

Close to the north door of the church, Chelsea and Tara cleaned up a small area and discovered an as-yet unknown burial. The whole team recorded the grave backfill as a group, allowing Chelsea and Tara to quickly get started on the excavation of the feature.

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Chelsea and Tara having a closer look at their finds.

With considerable truncation from later contexts and a somewhat hazy edge, it took some persistence to discern the full outline of the burial but the girls did a marvellous job. Chelsea was rewarded by an interesting, if somewhat enigmatic find.

Chelsea's mystery object.

Chelsea’s mystery object.

Made of copper alloy, the object prompted some discussion although no conclusion was reached. This is one for the specialists!

A closer look.

A closer look.

As happens very often, the end of the weekend brought an unexpected discovery. Sharon and Helen noticed a change of compaction within their burial. This change formed a neat rectangle, although we weren’t dealing with a coffin stain this time.

Helen exposing a grave void.

Helen exposing a grave void.

What we were looking at was a looser area of soil that relates to changes in the underlying levels. The grave had been backfilled in the 19th century and the soil was compacted down. At some subsequent point, the coffin appears to have collapsed, causing the backfill directly above it to subside while the fill to either side remained unchanged. Spotting this change is useful as it gives us an idea of the size and location of the coffin that still lies deeper within the grave.

On that exciting discovery, the weekend came to an end and the team began to pack away their tools and put the site to bed until we return in late June. In the summer session, we will be locating and investigating the last of our 19th century burials before pressing on down into the post-medieval and earlier horizons. Thanks to the excellent work of our May weekend team, we now know that bit more about this fascinating site.

There’s still time to sign up for the summer excavation, we’re expecting an amazing season! Please send any enquiries to trainingdig@yorkat.co.uk

So, thanks again to our weekend trainees and placements. It was a lot of fun and we had some wonderful finds. Come the summer, we have a huge number of fascinating features and deposits to investigate and we’ll detail all of our discoveries right here.

Onwards and downwards!

– Arran