The funerary customs of 19th century Britain have long fascinated those with a passion for the past. How we deal with death has changed remarkably over the millennia and by Victoria’s reign countless influences had contrived to create a heady brew of tradition, superstition and etiquette that can seem detached, morbid and even bizarre to modern observers. The highly ritualised world of burial and mourning seen in Victorian Britain was not, however, devoid of emotion. The painstaking work of our trainees here in York is enabling us to recover lost moments of genuine humanity from layers of earth and bone.
Over 160 years ago, a small child in the ancient parish of All Saints, North Street succumbed to illness or disease and passed away. In an age of high infant mortality this was not an uncommon event, although this would have been of little comfort to the family the child was leaving behind. Like many others at the time, the infant was laid to rest in a quiet parcel of land nestled between a ramshackle range of Georgian and medieval dwellings, an increasingly decrepit Rectory and the looming mass of All Saints church itself. Something about this burial, however, was a little different…
Over the past three years, the trainees of York Archaeological Trust’s training excavation have been meticulously excavating and recording the complex archaeological sequence below the recently demolished All Saints Church Hall. Perhaps the most interesting discovery of the project has been a densely occupied but short-lived burial ground that covered much of the site between 1826 and 1854.
By July 2016, the summer excavation season was well underway and site supervisor Arran was joined by a team of mainly familiar faces for the year’s third weekend excavation.
As in the previous two weeks of the summer dig, much of the team took up work on a difficult, intercutting sequence of infant burials close to the walls of the former Rectory. Theo, Michelle, Nicola and Paul had a tough task ahead of them as these burials have been found to lay stacked one above the other in no discernable pattern – a stark contrast to the neat rows seen elsewhere on site.
Theo’s burial was that of an infant that had been extensively damaged by the collapse of its coffin. Lifting away the loose grave backfill while not disturbing the remains took a great deal of patience, but following several years as a member of the Young Archaeologists’ Club, Theo is an assured hand with a trowel. Nearby, Michelle made good progress within an adult burial, carefully excavating the material within the grave cut and exposing elements of a poorly preserved coffin stain.
Up to this point, it was business as usual. The burials were laid in the same position, on the same alignment and in the same kind of coffin. Nicola and Paul’s burial, however, had a surprise in store.
Once the pair had fully exposed the remains of an infant and its coffin, they created a detailed record of the burial. With this process complete, the next task was to delicately lift the remains. As any development of the site will damage the more shallow graves, these infant burials are being recorded, lifted and re-buried in a safe location within the church.
As would be expected, this is not a quick process. Paul and Nicola cautiously lifted each bone and ran all of the excavated grave fill through a fine mesh sieve to ensure that 100% of the remains were recovered.
When the time came to lift the cranium, Nicola noticed something unusual in the soil beneath the right ear – not one, but two coins. This unexpected discovery immediately raised a number of questions.
It is unusual to find grave goods within 19th century Christian burials as this was not the prevailing custom of the time. While the gesture of placing a small gift of money with a deceased relative is only a relatively minor break from normal practice, the position of the coins by the skull is interesting. Could the coins have been placed over the eyes only to slip off when the coffin decayed and collapsed?
The practice of interring individuals with coins on their eyes or in their mouths goes back thousands of years and the act has waxed and waned in popularity over time. While we can’t say for certain exactly how the coins had been placed within the coffin, Nicola’s discovery means that a forgotten act of kindness has been recovered from the ground.
The 19th century was a true age of discovery. Alongside technological advancements that would spearhead the industrial revolution, the findings of the first antiquarians fired the imaginations of the British public. This revival of public interest in the distant past can be seen in changes in architecture, fashion and even burial practice. Were the family of this infant caught up in this new found fervour for archaeology, or are we seeing an echo of older folk traditions still being practiced in the 19th century? Of course, we can never know and maybe that isn’t the point.
Finds like these tell us more about the things that don’t make it into the ground; giving us new insight into funeral practices and even the thoughts and acts of those who were there to lay the infant to rest.
Closer inspection of the coins revealed a further sobering discovery. The gradual corrosion of the copper alloy had clearly limited the process of decay, allowing fragments of the infant’s shroud and even hair to survive in an unusual freak of preservation. With the date of the burial well understood, no further investigation of the coins has been carried out. Instead, the coins have been reunited with the remains of the child and re-buried in the safety and sanctity of the church.
This evocative burial is an excellent example of the huge amount that we can learn about the 19th century through the study of changing funerary traditions and also highlights the importance of keeping the ethics of what we do at the forefront of our thoughts. While the stories are fascinating, they are nonetheless the stories of real lives.
Elsewhere in the trench, Julie and Sharon investigated a sequence of deposits that were laid down in the decades before the site became a graveyard.
The first order of business was to excavate the remains of a cobbled floor surface that had been cut on all sides by later graves. This deposit had already been recorded back in 2014, meaning that Julie and Sharon could begin to lift the now moss-covered cobbles immediately.
The proliferation of grave cuts across the site has made it difficult to piece together how this area would have looked prior to 1826, making these slithers of surviving structures highly important.
The cobbles had been laid tightly packed together, but aesthetics were clearly of little concern as the builders made use of fragments of masonry and brick in as well as cobbles. The surface was not laid solidly in a bed of mortar, instead, a thin layer of sandy silt was apparently deemed to be sufficient.
This discovery reinforces the interpretation of these structures as roughly built workshops that were assembled cheaply and quickly.
As Julie and Sharon would discover, the upshot of this low quality build was that repairs and replacements to these floors must have been frequently required.
Once the tiles and their bedding material had been fully lifted, Julie and Sharon discovered a compacted layer of tile fragments laid in a thin bed of mortar – an even earlier floor surface. Even at the turn of the 19th century, it seems that they didn’t build ’em like they used to!
At the opposite end of the trench, Beverley worked with Archaeology Live! placement Katie to delve even further back into the site’s long history. The pair revealed, cleaned up and recorded a layer of silt and ash that was deposited back in the fourteenth or even thirteenth century.
While there is no evidence of medieval structures occupying the site prior to the construction of the Rectory in the 14th century, our trainees have unearthed a growing number of pits, dumps and levelling deposits that are packed with domestic refuse. Study of this material will allow us to gain some insight into the lifestyle led by the medieval occupants of Church Lane.
The July weekend saw the team unearth some unexpected and occasionally quite moving finds, finds that allow us a glimpse into the changing ways people have dealt with mortality and how the site has been put to use. The good weather (mainly) held and the team made it a lot of fun!
With a plot that continued to thicken and a full ten weeks of excavation still ahead of us, the summer was beginning to look very promising indeed. As always, everyone at Archaeology Live! would like to thank the trainees that made the July weekend possible, after all, they funded the work and carried out all of the excavation and recording! Good effort team!
There are lots more updates to follow so watch this space! Until then, onwards and downwards!