In the months leading up to our flagship summer excavation, bookings went through the roof. By the beginning of week one, 96% of the spaces in all 12 weeks of the dig were already booked up. All the signs suggested we were in for a hectic and eventful summer – they weren’t wrong! Here’s the first site diary from the 2016 summer dig at All Saints, North Street.
The Archaeology Live! training excavations are the flagship public archaeology project of York Archaeological Trust. Each year, trainees from across the world converge on York to work on some of the most complex and fascinating archaeology that the UK has to offer, working all the while under the guidance of a crack team of full-time professional archaeologists.
The 2016 season at All Saints, North Street marked our third consecutive summer at this remarkable little site and the team were poised and ready to answer some of the myriad questions that have arisen around the site’s long and storied history.
It was something of a breathless start! In the months leading up to the summer season, the YAT fieldwork department had been kept very busy on a number of excavations across Yorkshire and the largest of these was still in full swing. This meant that regular All Saints supervisor Gary wasn’t available to take his usual post alongside Arran in running the All Saints dig. With Project Director Toby running the St Saviour’s excavation, new blood was clearly required.
Becky’s archaeological career began in 2010, when she took part in Archaeology Live! at Hungate. Since then, Becky has gained her degree in archaeology at Edinburgh and completed countless weeks as an Arch Live! placement. All of this culminated in Becky being taken on by YAT at the end of the 2015 season.
Now a fully fledged professional, Becky was back to help Arran with the running of the site.
Airdropped in from a large rural excavation, Arran and Becky gathered tools, prepared the site and welcomed the new team. The summer season was finally underway!
With a primary aim of the season being the identification of the remaining 19th century burials that are spread across the site, the majority of the team picked up work on a number of burials. Both Emily and Simon and Sue and Gill were given the delicate task of excavating and recording infant burials, making excellent headway over the course of the week.
Both burials turned out to house multiple occupants, presumably related individuals within a family plot. Emily and Simon’s inhumation proved to be in good condition and featured a well-preserved coffin. Sue and Gill’s burial was found directly below an infant that had been lifted during the spring excavation. This unusual burial was found interred with a coin in its left hand, an interesting throwback to an ancient tradition.
The underlying individual proved to be very challenging indeed, with the legs having partially collapsed into an underlying void. Untangling which remains belonged to which individual required some painstaking trowel work, something that Sue and Gill coped with admirably.
By the end of the week, both burials were fully recorded and had begun to be lifted. Due to the shallow depth and vulnerability to erosion of the infant burials, we had been requested by the church to carefully lift the infants and juveniles for re-burial in the safety and sanctity of the church.
In the centre of the trench, Sarah and Marie-Soleil began work on what was believed to be an adult burial, a task with unique challenges of its own. Careful trowel cleaning had revealed the outline of a rectangular feature that pre-dated a number of burials, the size of which suggested that a fully mature person would be interred within.
As the adults have tended to be buried at a greater depth than the infants, there is a far greater volume of grave backfill to excavate, but this doesn’t make it time to break out the mattock. On a site full of family grave plots, it is impossible to know whether or not infant or juvenile burials are stacked on top of the underlying adult. Marie-Soleil and Sarah had a lot of patient troweling to do!
Despite taking a fittingly measured approach, good progress was made and some interesting finds were soon unearthed. The value of sieving was proved by the discovery of this mysterious little object.
The soil conditions in York offer a remarkable level of preservation, allowing a delicate fragment of the trachea of a goose to survive in the ground. Credit also goes to the careful troweling and keen eyes of Marie-Soleil and Sarah! A second finds highlight was a fragment of a decorative 19th century clay pipe bowl. The fleur-de-lys decoration tells us that this pipe may well have been purchased from the Prince of Wales pub that traded on nearby Skeldergate in the 19th century.
The most exciting find to be recovered from the grave backfill was undoubtedly a circular lead seal or token.
These lead objects can have a variety of uses and forms. In the medieval period, there was a drive to enforce uniformity in the sale of textiles. Lead seals were often used as a method of authenticating the quality and provenance of cloth and were stamped in the same way as coins to produce imagery and text.
Papal bulla are lead seals used to authenticate documents, charters, indulgences, (etc. etc.) from the Catholic church. A number of these have been unearthed in York, sometimes with elaborate stamped imagery.
In the case of Marie-Soleil’s object, a layer of corrosion on the exterior means that we can’t currently say precisely which kind of object it is. This will be a job for our conservation department!
While the majority of the team spent the week working on burials, Arran and Becky had different plans for Kaylan and Sarah. The Anglo-American duo took over the excavation of our infamous (and seemingly bottomless!) ‘horn core pit’, an ever-deepening cut feature filled with the by-products of 18th century horn working.
It all began simply enough, with the expected bounty of cattle horn core and cranium fragments quickly appearing, but there was a surprise in store – an unexpected skull!
One of the real thrills of urban archaeology is that seemingly ironclad theories and interpretations can be destroyed almost as quickly as they are created. Up to this point, the sheer volume of horn core recovered from this feature had naturally led us to presuming that disposal of these waste products had been its primary function. Kaylan and Sarah’s discovery meant that we now knew that we were looking at a burial – but why the concentration of horn core?
Interpreting complex archaeological sequences is an artform in its own right and we encourage our trainees to really get to grips with their features. After a brief period of pondering, postulating and pontificating, Kaylan and Sarah realised that there was a simple explanation for the curious glut of horn core in this one particular burial – and it wasn’t some bizarre Mithraic ritual!
When considered in its context, the burial wasn’t really unusual at all, it just happened to have been placed in the exact location that an earlier horn working waste pit already existed. As the grave was dug out in the 19th century, the spoil, horn and all, was piled up at the side of the grave before being used to cover the newly interred coffin and backfill the hole.
So there we had it. Our horn core pit wasn’t actually a horn core pit after all, just a grave that happened to have disturbed and then re-deposited the backfill of a pre-existing pit.
This feature highlights the complexity of the archaeology at All Saints, with countless intercutting and overlapping features just waiting to be teased apart by our trainees. Breaking this palimpsest of archaeology down into a sequence is a wonderfully challenging process and, by the end of the week, Kaylan and Sarah had their newly reinterpreted burial fully recorded.
Elsewhere in the trench, Paula and Lisa spent a taster session working on some much older archaeology within the footprint of the former Rectory. Over the course of the 2015 season, this part of the trench had been taken from the 18th to the 14th century, and we were keen to go a little further back in time. To this end, a small area was set aside for a 2m x 1m sondage – a trench within a trench. The first thing to do was to clean the area up and identify the latest archaeological context in the sequence.
It didn’t take long to identify an amorphous spread of dark, silty material and, once it had been recorded, Lisa and Paula had time to excavate the deposit. A number of sherds of Roman pottery were unearthed, but the crucial finds were an assemblage of splash glazed and locally made green glazed wares. These allowed us to date the deposit to the 14th century, showing that a significant amount of deposition had occurred at this point – perhaps in response to repeated flooding or changing land use. Early signs were very promising for our new sondage!
As the week drew to a close, the summer season’s inaugural stratigraphy session was held beneath the Tree of Finds (or Stratigratree…).
The trainees came up with some surprisingly innovative suggestions and managed to put a sequence of 70 hypothetical contexts into a perfect Harris matrix.
After the long wait for the summer season to begin, the end of week one came about surprisingly quickly. We were up and running and had eleven more weeks to work on some wonderfully complex and unpredictable archaeology!
From unexpected skulls to mysterious lead seals, week one didn’t disappoint at all! The team did some fantastic work despite some difficult features and, perhaps most importantly, everyone had a lot of fun. The stage was set for a vintage year of Archaeology Live!
We always take the time to thank the team at this point, after all, none of this would happen without them! Cheers guys!
We’ll be adding more site diaries in the coming weeks and detailing the never-ending stream of finds and surprises that made this summer so exciting. Keep your eyes peeled for updates.
In the meantime, onwards and downwards!
PS. Special mention should go to our placement Katie for her sheer enthusiasm in this session of levelling…