The second week of the 2016 excavation at All Saints, North Street saw the team dealing with archaeology as unpredictable as the weather. Despite the best efforts of the intermittent drizzle, a number of intriguing discoveries were made and the sunshine did eventually make an appearance.
Week 2 of the spring excavation saw a number of new trainees joining the team and hopes were high that we would be able to answer some of the questions thrown up in week 1.
Kate and her new digging partner Sally began their week by recording the cut of a burial that was lifted in week 1. Suspicions that the grave overlaid an earlier burial were quickly confirmed when the outline of a rectangular feature on the correct alignment became visible in the base of the cut.
At Archaeology Live! we teach the Single Context recording methodology, a system that breaks archaeological features down into their individual components, i.e. a pit cut with two distinct layers of backfilling would be recorded as three separate contexts (one cut and two fills). Each context is photographed, geolocated and described in detail prior to excavation.
Back in 2014, the inaugural All Saints team cleaned up the site and identified which of the many deposits was the last to be laid down. As this was the latest event in the site sequence, it was the first to be excavated. Over the last two years, each successive team has been following on from this, teasing apart the relationships between features and excavating them in reverse chronological order. The result of this work is a complex stratigraphic sequence that sets each context in a known place in the All Saints timeline. Over 700 contexts have already been dealt with!
This painstaking process is allowing us to discover the story of the site and as each feature is excavated, the team travel a little further back in time. Kate and Sally’s discovery of a new burial meant that their first job was to define its extent and to record the backfill in advance of excavation.
As the week progressed, it became apparent that this burial was particularly deep and would not be easy to excavate. Unfazed by the challenging conditions, Kate and Sally successfully located the outline of the coffin and the skull and torso of the individual within, an excellent achievement given the circumstances!
Sally and Kate’s hard work was rewarded with a great find – a fragment of glazed medieval tile that would once have been laid within the church.
As locating, recording and, where appropriate, lifting the remainder of our 19th century burials is one of the major priorities of the 2016 season, much of the team were engaged in similar work. Between 1826 when the site was incorporated into the churchyard of All Saints and 1854 when all of York’s churchyards were closed, many parishioners were laid to rest within our excavation area. In the case of deeply buried adults, the graves are being located, recorded and re-covered with a protective layer of sieved earth. Shallow burials of infants and juveniles are being carefully lifted for reinterment within the church. All burials are receiving a field assessment to record any osteoarchaeological detail.
Archaeology students from UCL Yuqi and Jia spent week 2 continuing work on a grave cut with numerous occupants. In week 1, they established that the grave had been re-opened to receive the remains of a tiny infant burial and the first task of the week was to carefully lift the remains.
While the interment of the additional infant had clearly been done with care, it was evident that an even earlier infant burial had been damaged in the process. It goes without saying that whoever dug the grave in the 19th century wouldn’t have intended this, but this discovery highlights the demand for space in York’s Gerorgian and Victorian burial grounds.
Yuqi and Jia demonstrated some patient trowel work and were able to record and lift the second infant burial before the end of the week. Despite the two infants having passed away at such a young age, they were both clearly afforded proper burials and were laid to rest within decorative timber coffins with brass plates. This has been something of a trend at All Saints and reminds us that no-one was immune to the hardships of 19th century life.
Close to the ruins of the former Rectory, Yannick and Ann spent their second week on site revealing further evidence of of 19th century illness.
Often, long term and even terminal health problems can leave little or no mark on the skeleton, making it difficult for archaeologists to identify a definitive cause of death. In the case of Ann and Yannick’s inhumation, however, there was clear evidence for a serious case of osteomyelitis. An infection of the bone, osteomyelitis is very treatable when diagnosed early, however, in the days before antibiotics it could easily lead to major complications.
In the case of Ann and Yannick’s individual, one of the femurs had become extremely swollen, with visible holes through which pus would have flown. This would have been an incredibly painful condition to live with and may even have led to the death of the individual; a fascinating but sobering discovery.
Other teams dealing with burials included Alice and Imogen and Penny and Jan. Both pairs were faced with difficulties such as variable preservation and challenging digging positions, happily they all battled through and carried out some excellent excavation work.
Once excavated, the sections of Jan and Penny’s burial showed evidence of in-situ stratigraphy, suggesting that no earlier burials are present below. This was an encouraging find, as it means that not all of the site’s post-medieval stratigraphy has been disturbed by 19th century burials.
The final grave to be investigated was located close to the walls of the later Church Hall. Chris and Julia spent their third taster day cleaning up what turned out to be a sequence of inhumations within a single plot. As collapsing coffins had caused the remains to concertina down on top of one and other, identifying articulated remains was going to be a challenging task!
Despite the identification and excavation of 19th century burials being the main focus of the week, a number of earlier features were also investigated. The mother and daughter team of Sian and Anna excavated a sequence of deposits that survived in a thin slither of archaeology between two later graves.
Despite working in somewhat cramped conditions, the pair identified a number of separate deposits that may once have been surfaces within one of the 18th century workshops that occupied the site before the graves.
The star find from the sequence was unearthed by Anna, the handle of a fine Humber Ware jug (most likely 14th-16th century). While we are yet to reach medieval deposits in this area, it is a very promising sign of what’s to come!
Gary joined us for a two day taster course and spent his first ever day of archaeology excavating a curious brick and tile built structure.
As it is truncated by a pair of 19th century grave cuts, the structure must pre-date 1826, however, the ceramic building material within it is medieval in date. This meant that the date of the feature was somewhere between the medieval period and the early 19th century -could Gary tighten up the dating for us?
With the tile surface and brick superstructure lifted, a substantial stone footing for the feature was revealed. This tantalising development suggested that we were looking at a larger oven feature as opposed to a simple hearth, but we still didn’t know the construction date!
In the end, it was the week’s most unassuming find that gave us the crucial dating evidence, a tiny sherd of tin glazed earthenware from the mid-late 18th or early 19th century. By finding this datable artefact within the mortar and stone of the structure, Gary had revealed that it must have been built in the decades immediately preceding the consecration of the graveyard. It’s amazing what a tiny sherd of a dinner plate can tell you!
The week drew to a close with a session on stratigraphic analysis and a spot of gentle finds washing. Everyone agreed that we had made some industrious progress in understanding the 19th century burials and the deposits and features that pre-date them.
After months of waiting, the spring excavation was all but over! Happily, it had been a great success and a lot of fun! Thanks to all of the trainees and placements, none of this would be possible without you!
Our next site diaries will look at our weekend digs and (when I catch up) the beginning of the summer session. Speaking from experience, I can guarantee a few surprises! In the meantime dear friends, onwards and downwards!