An Archaeology Live! trench is always a fun place to be on a Monday morning. As the new team arrive, the site comes to life with the polite chatter of introductions and the unsheathing of shiny new trowels. Each week sees the arrival of a diverse group of brand new and returning trainees from all over the world, all with a shared passion for exploring the past and an eagerness to learn new skills.
As the new team set foot on to site, the weather was overcast but warm and everyone was keen to add to the exciting discoveries of week one.
In Arran’s area (That End), Sue was joined by new starter Dan as she continued to investigate a linear feature that pre-dates the Church Hall (built 1860). The southern half of the same feature was excavated during the 2014 season and proved to be be quite intriguing. Frequent finds of discarded structural stonework appear to suggest that the feature was a robber trench that was dug to recover masonry from a redundant boundary wall. Also present in some quantity was disarticulated human bone, a rare discovery in features pre-dating the Church Hall. While the robber trench theory remains a possibility, it is also possible that the linear could represent the edge of the medieval graveyard – the point at which the densely packed, intercutting burials were contained by the churchyard’s northern boundary.
In Sue and Dan’s small slot through the feature, the same pattern of finds was continuing. Amidst a jumble of human bone, sherds of pottery from the Roman period through to the 19th century were recovered and at 0.60m and descending, the feature was looking to be pretty deep!
Close by, Alice got her second week on site started by completing the records for a burial excavated during week one.
The burial proved to be that of a tall and striking middle-aged male and Alice did an excellent job of recording the remains. With this job done, Alice teamed up with Jade to record a newly discovered grave backfill. As Jade was also beginning her second week on-site, the pair were quickly becoming a crack team when it came to recording. It didn’t take long for the records to be completed and for excavation to begin on the new feature.
Elsewhere in Arran’s area, Barry and Hayley picked up work on a possible burial situated right on the edge of the trench. In a wonderfully ‘small world’ moment, it turned out that they actually lived only a few miles away from one and other down in Essex!
Careful excavation quickly revealed the surprisingly shallow remains of a coffin. While the vast majority of the timber had long since rotted away, small fragments had survived when in close proximity to the coffin’s iron fittings. Coffins can also reveal themselves with a simple change in compaction – the material within the coffin being decidedly looser and less compacted than the rest of the grave backfill. With one edge beginning to appear, Barry and Hayley now had to expose the full outline of the feature.
Over in This End, many of Gary’s team were continuing where they left off in week one.
The Texan trio of Brad, Kimberley and Zada were continuing to work within a 1.50m square slot positioned to provide a window into earlier deposits underlying the 19th century horizon. The discovery of another coffin stain, however, soon complicated matters – what was thought to be a dump deposit was now clearly a grave backfill.
In a brick chamber built onto the side of an 18th-19th century Rectory building, Bri and Matt finished the records for a newly discovered construction backfill.
Locating the construction backfill was a key event in dating and understanding the wall. As this deposit relates directly to the construction of the structure, any dateable material recovered can be used to more tightly date the feature.
Unexpectedly, the brickwork proved to be far more substantial than had been thought. The main Rectory wall that the chamber is built against only survives to a depth of up to four courses. As Matt and Bri removed the loose, rubbly material from the construction cut, the chamber wall was found to be 10 courses deep! This substantial footing provides strong evidence that the structure would have stood to more than a single storey. Such a depth of brickwork simply wouldn’t be required for a single storey structure.
A large fragment of mid-19th century concrete confirmed that the extension had been built quite late on in the Rectory’s long life. Originally medieval, the majority of the building appears to have been re-built in the early to mid-19th century before being demolished between 1852 and 1860.
Joining us from Boston, MA, Cynde continued work on a narrow strip of grave backfill on the southern edge of the trench. By the end of the day, the feature was getting pretty deep and there was no sign of a coffin within the grave.
As the end of the day arrived, the team packed away and headed to the familiar surrounds of The Golden Slipper for rehydration and theoretical discussions.
By day two, summer was really beginning to make its presence felt, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and temperatures were already soaring!
Jade’s day got off to a good start as she discovered a fragment of glazed medieval floor tile, adding to a growing assemblage of yellow and green glazed tiles that have been recovered from the site so far. All Saints has spent a millennium being altered and extended, finds like these help us to create a picture of the church in its high medieval heyday.
As work on Jade and Alice’s feature continued it became apparent that the grave was home to more than one individual. The delicate remains of two tiny, but well made coffins were exposed, complete with decorative metal plating. With the coffin stains cleaned up, Jade and Alice set up to record their new discoveries.
In Dan and Sue’s linear feature, the growing depth of the cut was making it difficult to reach down and excavate the fill without damaging the human remains within it. As a precautionary measure, the records for the cut were updated and the feature was put on hold. Work will resume when the surrounding area has been reduced.
Dan and Sue moved over to a new area that is suspected to contain another burial and recorded the extents of a dump of rubbly material. The complex pattern of deposition that dates to the lifespan of the cemetery proves that 19th century graveyards were not without activity. Between neat rows of graves, tips and dumps of soil were still constantly accumulating, presumably a by-product of the tons of material being moved by gravediggers.
As the many adult and infant burials demonstrate, the site would have witnessed countless solemn services and outpourings of grief between 1826 and 1854, but it was by no means a sterile environment. Pits were still being dug, soil was still being moved around and an industrious rabbit unofficially dubbed Flopsy the B*****d was energetically burrowing through layers of archaeology (much to Arran’s annoyance!).
Outside the current trench, work was continuing on creating a plan of the paved surface of Church Lane. When the surface has been fully recorded, several new slots will be excavated beneath paving slabs to investigate the archaeology between the trench and the church itself.
With the construction backfills within their brick chamber now fully excavated, much of Bri and Matt’s day was taken up with recording the walls themselves. Recording structures can be an exhaustive process; before they can be dismantled, it is vital to measure the building materials, describe the mortar, detail the patterns of coursing and pick apart the sequence of construction. Bri and Matt had their work cut out for them!
In Contrary Corner, Arran’s team were joined by Jean, a longstanding volunteer with YAT’s finds department. On site for a taster day, Jean was eager to brush up on her fieldwork skills and took to the excavation of an ashy deposit that appeared to post-dates the phase of burials. Jean’s careful troweling was rewarded by a number of nice finds, including some particularly pretty sherds of medieval pottery.
Just metres away, Barry and Hayley were continuing to follow the edges of a coffin stain. As this work demanded the pair to reach over a truncated fragment of an earlier cobbled surface, work was paused on the burial while the cobbles were recorded. As the surface pre-dates the site’s use as a graveyard, it can’t be excavated until all of the burials have been recorded. As a precautionary measure, Barry and Hayley recorded the cobbles before returning to work on their burial, this way, any accidental damage to the surface won’t be a disaster as it would already be fully recorded and ready to lift.
Although their burial had only been excavated to a depth of 20cm, Barry and Hayley’s finds tray was already burgeoning with a wealth of ceramics. Keen eyes will be able to spot post-medieval slipwares and Cistercian ware sitting alongside medieval York Glazed Ware and Roman Mortaria.
By Wednesday, temperatures were close to 30 degrees celsius and the trench was feeling increasingly like an oven! Nonetheless, progress continued at a steady pace with regular trips to the shade of the Tree of Finds for a spot of finds washing and and some respite from the sun.
While work in the trench continued on exposing coffin stains and excavating grave backfills, the finds team were making some interesting discoveries! While cleaning a small mountain of finds, Matt noticed an interesting sherd of pottery.
The sherd turned out to be part of the neck of a Bellarmine (or Bartmann) jar. These 17th century stoneware vessels are thought to represent the highly divisive figure of Cardinal Bellarmine, a staunch opponent of protestantism and alcohol! A more complete example was one of the star finds of the 2014 season! http://archaeologylive.org/archaeology/find-of-the-year-2014-poll/
Back on-site, Jade and Alice had finished work on their double infant burial and were beginning to pick apart a sequence of deposits that survived in a narrow peninsula between two graves. Pre-dating the burials, the upper deposit appeared to be part of a compacted surface that could once have been the floor of a workshop. Interestingly, the date of the feature was something of a mystery. We knew it would pre-date the area’s consecration in 1826, but not by how much. Jade and Alice were taking one of our first peeks into the site’s more distant past, all we needed now was some dateable material!
The day ended on a high note for Archaeology Live! legend Bri. Working in a deposit associated with the construction of the Rectory, he discovered a decorative glass bead.
These personal finds always add a little colour to our view of the periods we study. Getting in touch with the more frivolous sides of our predecessors helps to remind us that they were people just like ourselves.
The temperatures remained hot and muggy on Thursday, but a productive day was had nonetheless.
Once recorded, Jade and Alice’s surface peeled away very easily and revealed… another surface! This turned out to be something of a trend, with surface after surface being recorded and excavated. Tantalisingly, the latest ceramics to be recovered from this sequence were 16th/17th century in date. We finally had a foothold in the post-medieval period!
After a lot of careful troweling, Hayley and Barry managed to expose the delicate outline of a tiny coffin. Set within a grave cut measuring well over 1.50m in length, this was an unexpected discovery.
As the day progressed, the remains of the coffin were meticulously recorded, allowing Barry and Hayley to excavate further and reveal the remains of a small infant. The presence of an infant burial within a larger grave cut suggests that the coffin may gave been placed above a deeper adult burial. Once the recording for their infant burial was complete, Barry and Hayley would be able to investigate the rest of the grave and, it was hoped, to locate the anticipated second inhabitant.
With one deposit fully excavated and recorded, Sue and Dan moved on to another deposit, cleaning up and recoding an area suspected to house a burial.
At the other end of the trench, Matt and Bri were continuing to pick apart the complex Rectory sequence. This meant a lot of recording, but the pair were becoming quite the experts by this point.
The Tree of Finds remained a hive of activity, with finds washing revealing some as yet undiscovered surprises! There was a tantalising near-miss as some intriguing marks were discovered in a cattle rib. At a glance, it was hoped that these may be a Viking runic inscription, something that is remarkably yet to be discovered in York! Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed them to be cut marks from the butchery of the animal. So near, yet so far…
Throughout the day, members of the team broke away to enjoy Toby’s small finds session. Spotting those interesting finds and knowing how to process them is a key fieldwork skill. Clean, dry finds were also sorted into categories and bagged by type in advance of specialist analysis.
Back in the trench, more great finds were turning up. On her first archaeology taster day, Red found evidence of a medieval mishap in a sherd of pottery.
In this instance, a poorly applied handle had clearly detached from a large green glazed jug. You can almost imagine the crash of broken pottery as the jug full of wine fell to the floor. Needless to say, the sherd was found amongst medieval refuse!
As happens all too often on Archaeology Live!, Friday came around all too soon. Brad and Kimberley’s 1.5m x 1.5m slot had so far discovered two infant/juvenile burials and as work progressed on the remaining area, a third coffin was discovered! It seems that the area’s proximity to the edge of the graveyard had led to individuals being shoehorned into the remaining space.
Jade and Alice continued to find surface after surface in their small window into the post-medieval horizon. Beneath eight successive re-laid surfaces, a sloping cobbled surface was revealed that explained the unusual sequence that had been encountered. Clearly, a workshop floor had repeatedly been subsiding to the extent that the post-medieval resident was forced to lay countless replacement surfaces only to find them subsiding again.
The reason for this subsidence can only be suggested at present, but similar patterns seen on the Hungate excavations generally meant that a large pit with an organic fill was lying in wait at a deeper level. Perhaps we have Viking/medieval cesspits (Arran’s speciality) in store for us!
Excavation of Sue and Dan’s second deposit revealed that a burial was indeed present as the fragile outline of a tiny coffin began to appear. Locating and recording the extents of this feature proved to be a real challenge as so little of it survived. By the end of the day, Sue and Dan’s patience was rewarded and they were able to begin excavating within the coffin.
By late afternoon, the bitumen damp course of the Victorian walls around the trench was melting in the heat. Happily, it would take more than that to stop our intrepid team of archaeologists!
Zada, Red and Cynde’s grave cut continued to descend, with no sign of a coffin appearing! Reaching the base of the feature was quite the challenge, but an amazing range of ceramics continued to be recovered.
With another wave of recording complete, Bri and Matt were free to excavate a small section of brick flooring within the Rectory building – a process that yielded interesting results.
We know that the floor is made up of 18th century brick, while the north-east wall of the re-built Rectory was erected in the 19th century. It had been thought that the floor must have been re-laid following the re-build or laid using recycled brick, however, Bri and Matt discovered that the floor was simply left in-situ and cut through by the new wall. This odd construction method speaks quite loudly of a bit of a bodge job. Cowboy builders eh?
With space in their grave now at a premium, Hayley left Barry to carry out peeling away the grave backfill and assisted taster student Gill with the recording of a newly exposed section of cobbled surface in Contrary Corner.
The discovery of the cobbled surface adds to a growing picture of how the site may have looked prior to becoming a graveyard. Indeed, historic texts refer to the workshops that occupied the site in the 18th century as having ‘gravel floors’. Not exactly the height of luxury…
All too soon, 5pm rolled around and the team headed away to seek refreshment and rehydration at VJ’s (home to Team Arch Live! each Friday night). Chatting over evening meals and cold drinks, it was clear that everyone had had a great week on-site.
A real benefit of the Archaeology Live! model is the ability of trainees to take ownership of their features and to know that their records go on to form the final site archive that, in turn, forms the basis of the site report. Every trainee becomes a vital part of the team, adding their own chapters to the long history of York.
Week two saw us make fantastic progress in locating and recording the many burials that inhabit the site, while also learning more about the Rectory and workshops that pre-date the burials. Huge thanks go out to all of our trainees and placements for making the dig happen, for working hard through tough conditions and for helping us better understand our ancient city.
In week three, we will continue to build on the fantastic start that we have made to the summer season. Keep your eyes on our Twitter and Facebook pages for live updates direct from the trench!
As ever, onwards and downwards!