2015 has been a busy year for York Archaeological Trust. Our team of professional archaeologists have been carrying out numerous projects across the north of England; from the unprecedented discoveries beneath York Theatre Royal, to the impressive Roman fortifications at the site of York’s forthcoming Community Stadium. Despite all of this excitement, Toby, Arran and Gary (Team Archaeology Live!) have still been counting down the days until June 22nd – without fail, the training dig is the highlight of each of our years!
The 2015 summer season began on a somewhat damp note, the weather seemingly having missed the memo that it was late June. Despite the slightly moist and chilly conditions, the new team of trainees were excited to get the season started!
The first task in hand was to clear away the weeds and dust that had accumulated since the May training weekend. These had grown at a prodigious rate, but it didn’t take long to get the site looking shipshape. The week one team were a diverse mix of new faces and returning veterans from as far afield as Italy, Norway, the USA and… Grimsby.
With the site looking spotless, it was time to get cracking with the excavation!
In the southern half of the trench, or ‘This End’ as it is colloquially known as, Archaeology Live! Supervisor Gary was joined by Kimberley, Brad and Zada, a family from Houston, Texas. As teachers, Brad and Kimberley had been sponsored by the Fund For Teachers initiative to use their experience on site to create a program of archaeology based lessons back in Texas.
With a lot of new skills to learn, the trio cleaned and recorded the upper layer within a 1.5m square slot aiming to provide a window into deeper and earlier deposits close to the trench edge. As work progressed however, it was Brad and Kimberley’s daughter Zada who appeared to have the magic touch, finding a large sherd of Roman Samian Ware and the handle of a medieval in her first ever morning of archaeology!
As work continued on the slot, the mixed nature of the upper deposit suggested that we were within the backfill of a cut feature that had disturbed and re-deposited material from earlier contexts below. This meant a great mixture of finds, from Roman to 19th century.
Returning trainees Jan and Janet teamed up to pick up work on a structural sequence relating to the front yard of a rectory that occupied the site until the 1850s. The rectory is visible in the 1852 OS map excerpt pictured below, just above the top left corner of the church.
A small brick chamber built against the northern boundary wall of the Rectory’s yard was excavated last season, revealing part of an earlier structure made up of re-used medieval roof tile.
Jan and Janet’s first task was to record and excavate a dump deposit covering the rest of the tile structure.
Bri and Matt also began their week looking at the remains of the Rectory, continuing to pick apart a brick chamber added on to the building in the 18th or 19th century. The chamber appears to have functioned as the building’s cesspit and was first looked at last season (see our earlier site diaries for more info). The cobbled base of the cesspit was removed in the spring, allowing earlier elements of the structure to be recorded and taken away.
Prior to the cobbles being laid, the last addition to the chamber was a short section of brick wall dividing the chamber in two. As single context excavation requires the latest feature to be excavated first, Bri and Matt’s first task was to record the dividing wall in advance of a spot of controlled demolition.
The brickwork came away without much of a fight, allowing Bri and Matt to investigate earlier parts of the chamber.
At the northern end of the trench, or ‘That End’, Arran’s team were busily working on a number of different features. Returning trainees Jade and Yvonne took over the excavation of a burial that was first discovered back in Spring.
It was tricky work! The burial was located right at the edge of the trench and was already quite deep. Jade and Yvonne showed a great deal of skill and patience as they delicately lowered the looser fill that occupied the interior of the collapsed coffin. Their hard work soon paid off as the remains of a small child began to appear.
Dealing with the remains of young individuals can be an emotional experience and all Archaeology Live! trainees are taught to treat the burials with an appropriate amount of care and respect. Fittingly, Jade and Yvonne did an excellent job of exposing the remains, allowing us to accurately record the position and depth of the burial.
Working on two other partially excavated burials, local lad Gideon and Alice from northern Italy were also facing a painstaking task. Both burials had begun to reveal the outlines of coffins during the spring excavation, although neither had been completely exposed.
Both coffins survived only as a thin line of darker soil, with occasional iron fittings and fragments of degraded wood. If you were to trowel a little too hard, you could very easily destroy the fragile remains of the coffin. If you were a tad too cautious, it would be easy to miss the faint outline of the feature altogether!
Alice and Gideon both proved to be more than up to the task in hand and by the end of their first day on site, both coffins were cleaned up and ready to record.
In the north-east corner of the trench, Sue from California and Greg from Norway took over work on a linear feature with an interesting backfill.
Containing a huge range of ceramics, from Roman to 19th century, the feature clearly truncates a lot of earlier features. What set the deposit apart from the rest of the majority of features on site was the high occurrence of disarticulated human bone.
The 19th century burials that occupy much of the site appear to have been clearly marked in their day – there is almost no evidence of intercutting. As such, the people laid to rest in the graves were not truncated by later burials.
On medieval graveyards recently excavated by YAT, it was a very different story. With space at a premium, it was not uncommon for a person to be buried for less than a year before the grave of someone else disturbed their remains. In many cases, the upcast arm and leg bones would be relaid along the edges of the new burial, showing at least some degree of reverence from the medieval grave diggers. The smaller bones of the hands, feet and torso would often simply be lost.
With a number of philanges (finger bones) being recovered by Greg and Sue, were we looking at the disturbed remains of medieval parishioners? And how had they found their way into this context? There was more work to do on this one!
As the week progressed, the weather quickly improved and summery conditions returned to All Saints.
With a lot of new contexts freshly exposed, there was a lot of recording to be getting on with, giving the trainees a chance to learn new skills and to develop existing ones.
In typical York style, the finds were coming out of the ground thick and fast! Sue and Greg were finding some lovely examples of archetypal Roman and medieval wares such as Black Burnished Ware and York Glazed Ware.
The pick of the bunch was found by Kimberley, as she unearthed a substantial fragment of a Roman Greyware vessel! The shallow curvature of the rim suggests that this would have been part of a sizeable pot!
With their upper deposit fully excavated, Kimberley, Brad and Zada began to record the next deposit in the sequence, seemingly another dump deposit.
By this point, the industrious double act of Bri and Matt were proving that a combination of experience and youthful exuberance can be pretty effective! With their wall removed, they removed a shallow underlying deposit and discovered the construction cut for the chamber.
Locating the point at which a wall cuts into the ground is crucial in understanding its date. Up to press, all the deposits that had been removed from in and around the chamber had built up after its construction. By finding the point at which the construction event cuts the ground, Matt and Bri now knew that the deposit that was cut by the wall’s construction (and all others below it) pre-date the wall.
The significance of this stratigraphic relationship is this; if a hypothetical sherd of pottery dating to the 18th century is recovered from the deposit that was cut by the chamber’s walls, this means that the chamber cannot possibly pre-date the 18th century. In a well-understood stratigraphic sequence, finds have real significance. If a medieval pottery sherd is found in a pit backfill, we then know that every single context that post-dates that pit can’t possibly pre-date the medieval period. It’s delightfully simple (honest!)
While Matt and Bri were recording their new discovery, Jan and Janet were removing the last of the material covering an unusual tile-built feature.
Made of re-used medieval roof tile, the heavily truncated structure appears to have been some sort of drain or culvert. Dating to the 18th or early 19th century, this reminds us of what excellent recyclers our early-modern forebears were.
Over in Arran’s area, breakthroughs were also being made, with Gideon and Alice both successfully locating the skulls of the individuals within their burials.
Excavating a burial can be nerve-wracking work, a slip of the wrist can easily damage human remains and skulls have a habit of appearing where you least expect them! Thankfully, Alice and Gideon’s steady work was re-paid with some excellent preservation.
Alice’s individual had many masculine characteristics within its skull, with a particularly pronounced brow ridge. Much of the delicate cartilage of the nose was still intact, allowing us to create an idea of what this man may have looked like. With his proud brow and large nose, he would have had a striking appearance!
Conversely, in Gideon’s burial, the inhumation was that of a young adult female with quite delicate features. Having come face to face with a pair of early 19th century parishioners of All Saints, Gideon and Alice’s next task was to expose more of the remains. This would allow us to discern the precise depth and position of the burials.
Jade and Yvonne’s burial was now fully recorded and re-buried beneath a layer of sieved soil. At first it seemed like the next deposit to investigate was a very mixed deposit comprising of interweaving layers of mortar, charcoal and sandy clay, however, it soon became apparent this wasn’t the case. A linear feature was found to cut this layer – we’d found another burial.
Inhumations weren’t the only discoveries being made! Kimberley was delighted to find a small button or spacer made of neatly worked bone, while the finds washing team made a fantastic discovery – a piece of medieval stained glass!
The glass had looked plain until it was cleaned. This revealed a stroke of red paint still adhering to the glass.
While All Saints still boasts an internationally significant collection of stained glass, many ancient windows have been lost to vandalism and accidental damage. It’s tantalising to imagine what work of medieval art this tiny piece of glass may once have been part of!
As the end of the week drew close, work began on some new features. Jan, Janet and Karen picked up the excavation of a grave that was started back in May.
Bri and Matt took time out from their brickwork to begin recording the surface of Church Lane, the passageway that runs between the trench and the church. Once a medieval thoroughfare, Church Lane may overlay some amazing archaeology and we will begin to excavate sections across the street during the 2015 season.
Joining the excavation for a taster day, Gill marked her second season at All Saints by venturing into Contrary Corner and investigating a dump of material close to a cobbled surface. An excellent range of ceramics were recovered from the dump, including some nice sherds of Roman pottery.
Just next door, Sue and Greg’s feature was descending ever deeper and continued to produce a veritable pick n mix of pottery spanning two millennia!
By the end of Thursday, Kimberley, Brad and Zada had made a breakthrough of their own, they had discovered the fragile remains of a coffin.
While only fragments of corroded iron and decayed wood survived, it was nonetheless possible to discern the shape of the coffin and the material within it was notably looser than that around it.
With a good day’s work done, the team packed up and gathered outside the church for an archaeological tour of central York led by Toby. This gave the trainees a chance to put the site in its local context and to see echoes of York’s past that remain visible in the modern streetscape. As so often happens after such wanders, the team then sojourned to the delightfully Victorian comforts of the Minster Inn…
Friday began with the whole team in the trench, prompting a reprise of the debate as to what exactly is the collective term for a group of archaeologists? While ‘a spoilheap’ and ‘an anomaly’ remain close seconds, ‘an assemblage’ remains the front runner!
Some features wrapped up nicely to mark the end of the week. Gideon and Alice’s burials were fully recorded and then gently backfilled. Purely by chance, the church organist was practicing sombre music as the remains were covered over. Everyone agreed that this seemed very fitting.
Zada, Kimberley and Brad finished the records for their coffin stain before beginning to excavate within it. It didn’t take long to locate the surprisingly shallow remains of an adolescent individual.
In a nearby burial, Jan proved that lightning can strike twice as she discovered a fragment of glazed medieval floor tile for the second year running!
While work continued on excavating and recording features on site, Toby was leading specialist sessions beneath the Tree of Finds.
These covered the identification and management of small finds and a masterclass on stratigraphic analysis.
Before we knew it, packing up time was upon us! The team gathered together for a tour of the trench and a summary of the week’s discoveries before heading out into the city for food and a well-earned drink.
It’s remarkable how much our understanding of a site can change in just one week. As more and more burials are discovered, we are not only getting to meet the people that lived and died in the area, but also adding a forgotten chapter to the story of this quiet corner of York. Many locals fondly recall the old boxing club that occupied the site until 2013, none recall the time when the area was a space for remembrance and mourning.
As the season progresses, we will locate and investigate the remaining burials before delving deeper into the site’s past. Huge thanks go out to all of our trainees for making the project happen and for getting us off to a flying start!
Toby, Arran and Gary also wish to thank our fantastic week one placements Becky and Katie for all of their hard work. The future of archaeology seems to be in safe hands!
Thanks must also go out to our volunteer aerial photographer David Dodwell. His elevated views of the site have really helped put it into context, check out his work at https://www.flickr.com/photos/22260522@N06/
So, one week down, eleven to go. Here’s to another summer of exciting discoveries and unexpected surprises at All Saints. Watch this space for all the updates and follow us live on Twitter (@ArchaeologyLive)
Onwards and downwards!
PS. Fans of site mascot Planty the Plant will be delighted to know that he has a new friend. Brought all the way from Croatia by site placement Becky, please meet Mr Fish.
I know, strange things happen in the field…