Over the course of the summer, well over 200 budding archaeologists will have taken part in our 2015 training excavation at All Saints, North Street.
Each trainee will be introduced to all of the fundamental skills, theories and techniques that make up modern archaeological fieldwork. From the many ways one can wield a trowel, to the intricacies of building a Harris Matrix, all bases are covered. That isn’t to say, however, that every trainee’s experience will be the same, far from it in fact!
Urban archaeology is always full of surprises, offering the chance to tease apart complex layers of deposition and retrieve wonderfully human moments from the ground. As the week three team arrived, each individual had a very different week ahead of them!
That End (Arran’s area)
Joining us from Texas and Utah respectively, Bob and Taralea were tasked with the exciting challenge of opening up a brand new area of excavation.
The trench is separated from the church by a paved footpath that once connected the Tanner Row area of York to the waterfront. One of the key aims of the 2015 season is to connect the complex sequence that we have already exposed to the church itself, this means taking up areas of the old paved surface of Church Lane and expanding our limit of excavation right up to the medieval walls!
As any good archaeologist knows, however, recording should always precede excavation! Laid in the mid-19th century, the Yorkstone paving slabs that make up the present surface of Church Lane represent the latest archaeological context in this new area and would require a full single context record before they could be lifted. With this in mind, Bob and Taralea cleaned up and photographed the area and were shown how to create an accurate scale drawing of the surface.
With a nine metre stretch of the surface to record, the drawing took some time to put together, but the final product was a work of art!
Heights above sea level were added to the plan at regular intervals to make the drawing three-dimesional and a context card was compiled describing the surface in minute detail.
After several days of careful measurements and detailed observations, it was time to get physical! The old paving slabs had seen people come and go for a century and a half, now it was find what was hidden beneath them – which seemed simple in principle…
Lifting just a two metre wide section of the surface proved to be a tremendous challenge, the slabs were very heavy! Happily, with the assistance of Gary and Arran, the stones were lifted and neatly stacked ready to be re-used in the future re-development of the site.
With the archaeology beneath the surface freshly exposed, a clear linear feature was immediately visible – the drain trench associated with the 1860s Church Hall.
As Taralea and Bob were now a crack recording team, it took very little time to clean up and record the backfill of the drain trench and they were soon hard at work excavating the deposit.
As the drain trench runs very close to the church, we suspected that it would contain some interesting finds.
When the trench was originally dug out in the 1860s, the workers will have cut through around a metre of stratigraphy that had built up beside the church, laid the new drain pipes and pushed the now jumbled up archaeological material back in to the trench.
Sadly, archaeologists weren’t around then to carry out a watching brief as we would today, but the deposit still has considerable interpretive potential. If Bob and Taralea were to find a wealth of medieval pottery, for instance, it would suggest that medieval stratigraphy survives on either side of the drain trench.
Just as we’d hoped, it didn’t take long for the first exciting find to be recovered from the deposit!
With practically his first scrape of the trowel, Bob recovered a well-preserved struck silver coin. While it will require a good deal of cleaning in our conservation lab, enough detail is visible through the corrosion to reveal that the coin is Roman. Keen eyes will spot that a small amount of text is still visible around the periphery of the coin.
While the coin was found in a 19th century context, it provides further evidence that the site was occupied during the Roman period and that surviving deposits may be present deeper down. This isn’t a great surprise considering the site’s riverside position with the Roman colonia (civilian settlement) of Eboracum, but it’s always good to have confirmation. Most importantly, the coin adds that little extra bit of detail to our knowledge of Roman York and it made Bob very happy indeed!
As the week progressed, Taralea and Bob continued to make some very illuminating discoveries!
Mixed in with the 19th century material deposited as the drain trench had been originally backfilled were a number of intriguing objects, one of the most exciting being the handle of a large medieval jug. In fact, a huge amount of Roman to post-medieval ceramics were recovered, hinting that an unbroken sequence of occupation is waiting to be discovered in the layers below!
A more macabre discovery was the presence of a large amount of disarticulated human bone. It has long been suspected that what is now Church Lane was once part of the medieval graveyard and Taralea and Bob’s discovery of human remains disturbed by the digging of the drain trench confirms this theory. As the season progresses, we will locate and record these burials and hopefully find exactly when and for how long the area was used for burials.
To finish the week, Bob made a discovery that pre-dates even the earliest of human settlement in York, a Belemnite fossil. Dating to the Jurassic and Cretacious periods, these fossils were once part of small squid-like creatures that are related to modern cuttlefish. The bullet-shaped calcite of the fossil was part of the guard structure at the tail end of the creature.
While our site is not a paleontological excavation, the find can still tell us something as they are not found naturally in York. At some point in history, the fossil will have been brought down from the hills around Whitby, perhaps as a trinket or ornament. It’s a pleasant mystery to ponder.
While Bob and Taralea were working to expand the trench, returning trainees Gill and Sue were taking up residence in the most infamous corner of the site – Contrary Corner!
Here, the edges of features play hard to get and new theories rarely last the day. One does not simply walk into Contrary Corner.
That said, we have been making good progress in the area of late and Sue and Gill had high hopes of taming the beast!
With a new patch of an 18th century cobbled surface discovered in the area during week two, Sue and Gill were given the challenge of locating any remaining 19th century burials in the area. Once all of these have been discovered, we will be able to really get our teeth into the post-medieval layers!
The first deposit to record and excavate was a small dump deposit, that was suspected to date to the site’s use as a graveyard between 1826 and 1854. Sue and Gill made good progress on this, taking away the looser material of the dump and beginning to expose a more compacted deposit.
A finds highlight from this process was an enigmatic copper alloy object that was found by Sue.
Described in somewhat dubious expert detail by That End Supervisor Arran as a ‘copper thing’, the object is difficult to identify before being cleaned up by the conservation team.
The object isn’t a complete mystery, however, as it does bear a resemblance to a medieval weighing scale arm found during the 2014 season. Time will tell on this one, but it remains a fantastic find!
With the last of their dump removed, Sue and Gill had revealed a new context with a familiar rectangular shape. As suspected, it seems we had found another 19th century grave.
Without further ado, tapes, scales and pencils were gathered and the freshly exposed grave backfill was quickly recorded. Sue and Gill were keen to triumph over Contrary Corner!
As the depth of a burial is impossible to know for sure, careful excavation is a must on features such as these. Sue and Gill made good, steady progress, lowering the deposit and inspecting it for any signs of a coffin stain beginning to emerge.
Perhaps the nicest find from this context was a fragment of a 16th century Cistercian Ware mug. These double handled drinking vessels were very popular in post-medieval North Yorkshire and have a beautifully iridescent purplish-brown glaze over a distinctive red fabric.
By the end of the week, Gill and Sue were successful in their quest, as the giveaway dark line of the head end of a coffin began to appear within their grave backfill. While there wasn’t time to expose the full outline of the coffin, the intrepid pair had stepped into Contrary Corner and emerged victorious, making some great finds along the way!
Outside Contrary Corner, the rest of Arran’s team were making a concerted effort to locate and record the area’s remaining burials.
Sue from San Francisco had a challenging task in hand, as she delicately excavated and recorded the burial of an infant individual. This can be an emotive process and requires a lot of care and concentration.
Despite very poor preservation, Sue managed to expose and record the decayed remains of a tiny coffin, complete with decorative metal plating.
We cannot say much about the individual buried within this grave, but it is clear that great care was taken with their burial. One of archaeology’s greatest strengths is to bring to life moments of joy, tragedy and mundanity that do not make it into the history books, bringing us a little closer to the people who walked the streets of York before us.
Barry’s week began on an equally challenging note, as he recorded an infant burial that appeared to overlay the head end of a deeper adult burial. With this task completed, Barry turned to the other end of the grave only to discover a second infant had also been placed in the grave. This required a great deal of careful excavation and recording and Barry proved very adept at working in a very confined space!
In week two, Alice excavated a sequence of surfaces that seem to have been an ultimately futile attempt to counter a subsiding floor within a post-medieval workshop. Over week three, she continued this process, lifting a silty levelling layer and exposing an even earlier mortar floor!
Sitting in a slither of archaeology left between two later burials, it was remarkable how much we could learn from such a small area! Before long, Alice had recorded the new mortar surface and started to take it away. This revealed a cleaner deposit with a greenish brown tinge, a good indicator that organic, cessy deposits may not be far away. Perhaps we will soon find the underlying cesspit that may have caused the subsidence.
Archaeology: the only job where finding an unexpected cesspit is a good thing.
It wasn’t all cess and subsidence however, as Alice’s patient work was rewarded with a wonderful find – a beautifully worked stone spindle whorl of Viking or medieval date. Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, spinning wool would have been a daily chore for many past residents of York, hence the discovery of many spindle whorls in excavations across the city. This is a particularly fine example, however, and whoever misplaced it would have been very upset! Happily, their loss proved to be archaeology’s gain!
Barry and Alice ended their week by teaming up to tackle a newly discovered burial that proved to be surprisingly shallow. As the backfill was peeled away, one of our better preserved coffins began to emerge.
The discoveries of Arran’s team were added to by three taster students. Mary spent a productive couple of days on site investigating a dump deposit in a gap between a pair of graves. With the recording complete, excavation began and it didn’t take long to discover that the space was occupied by another burial.
James and Sue picked up where Mary left off and started to excavate the newly discovered burial. It is becoming increasingly clear that this graveyard was densely occupied!
In Gary’s area, Matt and Bri’s third week on site saw them continue to make great progress in picking apart the structural sequence of the Rectory. Built in the medieval period, it seems that the structure was altered and re-built on a number of occasions, meaning a lot of contexts to record and dig!
After excavating the construction backfill of the main Rectory wall, the pair turned their attention to a tile-built feature discovered during week one.
Made up of overlapping medieval roof-tile, the feature may have served as a primitive drain or sluice.
Following the completion of their records, excavation could begin – quickly revealing an underlying deposit of silty material. As Matt and Bri continue to take away later additions to the building, more and more of the older fabric will be revealed, perhaps even remains of its medieval predecessor.
For Theo, Rob and Andy, the first part of their week involved the excavation of a graveyard soil – an accumulation of material resultant of repeated grave-digging and soil disturbance. As expected, this process revealed numerous as-yet undiscovered graves. The team were going to have their work cut out for them!
Later in the week, the trio completed the plan of the surface of Church Lane, an area that the trench will soon be expanding into.
Back in the trench, Sam and Emma teamed up to take on a previously identified burial. The first task for the pair was to define the outline of the feature and record it prior to excavation.
The outline of the grave proved to be very clear indeed, visible as a rectangle of very mixed material.
By the end of the week, recording was complete and the remains of a small coffin were beginning to emerge.
The location and recording of each of these burials is important for two main reasons; to learn more about the people who lived and died in the area almost two centuries ago and to protect their remains from any damage caused by forthcoming redevelopment.
Beyond the trench, work in the Tree of Finds continued to throw up a few surprises, the most noteworthy being a visit from our resident site dog, Harry.
Harry worked tirelessly, helping out wherever he could.
While his input mainly involved sleeping and occasional drooling, Harry proved to be an invaluable addition to the team. He made some interesting discoveries, although these were mainly limited to misplaced crisps and ham…
Over week three, our team of trainees made huge steps forward in our aim to fully understand the graveyard phase and carried out some truly professional standard excavation and recording. Each grave that is revealed and investigated means that we can divert more and more of our attention to earlier features. Over the coming few weeks, we will be looking more closely at the site’s post-medieval past – who knows what is waiting in store for us!
Thanks for reading folks, until next time – onwards and downwards!
PS. Planty is still with us, just about…