Digging in the hazy sunshine of late summer can be a marvellous experience, despite the occasional reminder that the unpredictable weather of autumn is just around the corner. Thankfully, week ten of our 2015 excavation at All Saints, North Street began on just such a warm and pleasant note.
Gary’s ‘This End’ team had a very fruitful week, focusing in particular on delving deeper into the medieval deposits that pre-date the brickwork of a post-medieval Rectory.
As later elements of the Rectory structure have been carefully recorded and taken away, a roughly built stone footing has slowly been revealed. Anne, Eileen and Denis’ first task of the week was to record the newly exposed structure and to try and work out what function it served.
With the mortar and brickwork that had been built over the structure fully excavated, it was clear that we had found a substantial, if poorly built footing that may once have supported a sizeable post.
Unusually, the masonry had no construction cut – rather than being set within a foundation trench, the stones had simply been piled on top of each other and roughly mortared together.
With the masonry recorded, the team now turned their attention to the deposit below the footing. We knew that the structure was built before the 18th century, but we needed to ascertain the date of the underlying deposits to reveal a construction date for the stonework itself.
A homogenous dump of dark silty material was found to contain a range of ceramics dating between the Roman period and the 14th century. The assemblage was typified by the vivid green-glazed pottery of the high-medieval period and contained nothing that clearly post-dated the Black Death. This discovery told us that the stonework was built in, or after, the 14th century and certainly no later than the 1700s. In short, the footing is likely part of the Rectory’s original medieval incarnation, an important discovery as the vast majority of the structure will have been obliterated by the construction of the Rectory’s 18th-19th century replacement.
As the week progressed, Anne, Denis and Eileen painstakingly recorded, excavated and sieved a number of dump deposits. As each of these thin, laminated layers was excavated, the deposits became increasingly mixed, with a great deal of burnt, ashy material beginning to appear.
This change in deposition was an interesting development as it suggested that we were no longer looking at levelling material associated with the construction of the medieval Rectory. Instead, it seemed we had reached an earlier horizon typified by the disposal of hearth clearances and domestic waste. Anne, Eileen and Denis were now looking at a window into how people were using the site prior to the Rectory being built.
The week was topped off by an exciting find for Eileen; a fragment of beautifully worked masonry.
This fragment of stonework bears the marks of a skilled medieval mason and is finished to a high standard. The stone was most likely part of an earlier phase of the church fabric that was superseded by 15th and 16th century alterations.
Interestingly, the stone is clearly very worn, indicating that it stood exposed to the elements for a considerable length of time. It could even feasibly have been part of the first stone church to occupy the site around a thousand years ago! A wonderful find.
Close-by, Archaeology Live! legend Bri was hard at work on similar deposits.
An exciting development for Bri was the continued presence of Anglo-Scandinavian pottery re-deposited within his layers of medieval dumping. This growing assemblage of Viking pottery recovered from later contexts bodes very well for the underlying archaeology!
With one layer squared away, Bri turned his attention to a possible cut feature that has been heavily truncated by later walls and drains. Despite this damage, the edges were still very clear and the deposit turned out to be the fill of a substantial post hole. The cut was so deep that Bri was forced to break out a highly specialised tool – the Archaeology Ladle!
The discovery of this medieval post hole was an exciting development as it provides us with another piece to the puzzle of the medieval Rectory. The more structural elements we find in the gaps between later intrusions, the more we will be able to say about this mysterious lost building.
At the southern end of the trench, the trio of Sam, Sam and Theo took over excavation of a late medieval sequence below the floor of the 18th century Rectory. As with Anne and Denis’ area, the presence of pits in the area suggests that we are beginning to see the archaeology that pre-dates even the earliest incarnation of the Rectory. After all, you wouldn’t dig rubbish pits through the floor of your living room!
The first task for Theo and the Sams was the excavation and recording of a small pit.
Containing domestic waste and medieval ceramics, the pit appears to be the latest of a series of refuse pits and dumps.
With the pit records completed, the trio began to clean up the surrounding area to establish which context to investigate next. The deposit turned out to be a widespread dump of silt and rubble that was most likely deposited to raise and level off the ground during the medieval period.
Theo, Sam and Sam’s week ended on an exciting note when (Big) Sam spotted an unusual sherd of pottery. Closer inspection revealed it to be a fragment of a medieval seal jug.
These vessels were highly popular in the ostentatious times of the high medieval period and featured applied circular motifs with images that represented religious, family and guild affiliations. Despite heavy wear and damage, specialist analysis may allow us to relate this sherd to a particular group or individual. Finds such as these can have quite a story to tell and help us to discover how the medieval citizens of York chose to represent themselves.
Over in Arran’s area, the That End team were also enjoying a busy week.
New starter Abi took over the excavation of a 19th century burial that has proved to be quite challenging! With one side of a coffin clearly visible, it was clear that the grave cut continued further to the south-west than had been originally thought. Abi started her week by following the newly discovered edge and looking for the delicate remains of the head end of the coffin.
Working in the cramped confines of a 19th century grave is no easy task and it is vital to position yourself in such a way that allows you to cause no damage to the delicate remains beneath you. Happily, Abi made good progress and by the end of the week had successfully located the end of the coffin. The next task was to locate the other side of the coffin and follow it to foot end of the grave.
Australian couple John and Sue began their first Archaeology Live! experience by recording an excavated burial and then cleaning up one of the final areas thought to contain further 19th century graves.
It didn’t take much troweling to discover the faint but distinctive outline of a grave backfill. Situated between a pair of earlier structural features, the deposit was quickly recorded, allowing John and Sue to begin the careful process of excavation.
As the site is remarkably artefact rich, we sieve 100% of the material excavated from the trench to maximise finds recovery; and it was during this process that John discovered the week’s star find – a beautifully preserved medieval Long Cross Penny made of silver.
York was home to an important mint between the 12th-15th centuries and produced many thousands of coins. John’s example is in marvellous condition and, following a careful clean in the conservation lab, will be tightly dateable.
Discoveries such as these highlight the remarkable mobility of finds following their initial deposition, with constant human activity disturbing existing deposits and spreading their contents into later contexts. We’ll look forward to specialist feedback on this one!
In an investigative slot close to the north-east end of the trench, Josef spent a productive week finishing off the excavation of a curious 19th century linear that runs almost the whole length of the site.
The upper extents of the feature were excavated back in June, but work was forced to be temporarily haulted due to the feature’s considerable depth. With the archaeology around it now reduced to a workable level, Josef resumer excavation and looked to expose the base of the cut.
With disarticulated human bone occurring frequently in the backfill of the linear, it is clearly a feature that has disturbed a number of burials. The cut may have been dug in the mid-19th century to recover stone from a demolished boundary wall prior to the construction of the Church Hall, disturbing burials in the process.
By the end of the week, Josef managed to reach the base of the cut and in doing so made an exciting discovery – two in-situ burials. There is a bit of a mystery here, as the dates of these graves are presently unknown. The boundary between the Church Hall plot and Church Lane itself is thought to represent the boundary of the medieval graveyard. Could we be looking at medieval burials, or are these individuals more of our 19th century parishioners? Watch this space for updates!
By completing the excavation of our enigmatic linear, Josef helped to answer a few key questions, but as usual, every answer brought new questions!
In the centre of the trench, Bill and taster student Lynne continued the investigation of an area that may once have been a processional route into the 19th century graveyard.
To prove whether or not this thoroughfare existed, we need to find archaeology that definitively pre-dates the 1826-54 date range of the burials. Week 9 proved to be frustrating as, despite no burials being found, 19th century material was still being recovered from a sequence of dump deposits.
As excavation progressed, it seemed we were in for a similar set of results, as 19th century ceramics were still being recovered from Bill and Lynne’s deposit.
Fortunes did improve later in the week, as Bill (now working with two day taster student Mark) began work on an earlier layer that contained some fantastic finds!
While troweling through a loose, rubble-rich deposit, Bill and Mark recovered a scrap of lead that may relate to repairs of the church’s stained glass.
Later on, Mark came across an even more exciting find – a sherd of what appears to be prehistoric pottery!
While the traditional history books will have you believe that York as a settlement began with the arrival of the Romans in AD71, recent excavations have amassed a growing assemblage of prehistoric finds from within the city walls.
While settlement may have been on a far smaller scale than the grand colonnades and imposing defences of Roman Eboracum, finds like Mark’s pot sherd are creating an ever more compelling argument that people were living in York long before the arrival of the 9th Legion.
The coarse, poorly fired pottery could be as early as Neolithic in date and would have been part of a utilitarian vessel, such as a cooking pot or storage jar.
Other finds highlights from week 10 were mainly animal related, the first example being the tooth of a rather elderly dog. Clearly, this pooch received its fair share of bones to gnaw!
A particularly cute find was a sherd of medieval roof tile, complete with the footprint of a chicken! From the various animal paw prints we’ve noticed in medieval tiles, it seems that the tilers of the Middle Ages must have been fighting a constant battle against errant livestock trampling over their drying tiles!
As packing up time on Friday arrived, the team gathered to look back on the week’s discoveries and, true to form, there had been no shortage of exciting finds!
With more burials located and the upper extents of medieval occupation deposits beginning to appear, week 10 was a huge success! Thanks to all of the team for some fantastic work!
With just a fortnight to go, the end of the summer was approaching all too quickly! However, there were a few surprises in store for us yet, the weather included!
Until next time, onwards and downwards!
PS. Special thanks must go out to our placements this week. With a weekend dig sandwiched between weeks 9 and 10, the team worked twelve days straight and were tireless to the end! Well, almost…