Week two of the 2016 summer excavation saw much of the All Saints team continue to explore the funerary landscape of the early to mid-19th century, adding new knowledge to a complex picture of tradition and remembrance. While numerous burials were meticulously recorded, a small group of trainees investigated the site’s more distant past.
Across the majority of the site, adult and infant burials are laid out in rows that follow the alignment of the long axis of the church. The graves respect each other and there is only sparse evidence of graves intercutting, and no evidence of new burials knowingly damaging in-situ remains. This indicates that the graves must have been clearly marked and that care was clearly taken to avoid damaging existing burials.
By the north-eastern wall of the former Rectory, however, lies a notable concentration of infant burials that are laid out in no clear order, with many grave cuts overlapping with each other. This area makes for an intriguing break in an otherwise clear trend of burial tradition at All Saints.
Quite why this area of the graveyard is so disordered and densely occupied is open for debate, although it has been suggested that there is an affinity with burial at the tower end of a churchyard, as this then associates the interred with the most impressive aspect of the church.
The negative stigma attached to burial on the north side of churches was certainly in decline by the early 19th century, perhaps as much a result of pragmatism as opposed to anything more ideological. After all, people had to be buried somewhere and space was getting tight!
When the area was consecrated in 1826, the church will obviously not have known that York’s churchyards would all be closed in 1854. Could the idea have been to fill the space as much as possible, working out from the Rectory walls to the north-east? We can only speculate at present, as no church records have survived relating to the churchyard at this point.
This lack of historic context makes the meticulous work of our trainees very significant as it will be down to the archaeology alone to tell the story of this part of the site’s history. By carefully picking apart the sequence of burials in this area, we will be able to analyse and better understand the funerary practices of the time.
Jenni and Rhiannon spent their week exposing the remains of two infants that had been extensively damaged by 19th century animal burrowing. This disturbance meant that parts of the skeletons had been moved or, in some cases, were missing altogether. Despite these difficulties, the pair were able to fully reveal and record the two individuals, finding evidence that they were buried simultaneously. Whether the two infants were siblings may never be known, but it is a distinct possibility.
Kaylan and Emily teamed up for their second week on site to finish lifting and recording an infant burial that had been started the previous week.
With this task completed, Kaylan and Emily recorded and began to excavate another grave backfill. Two infant burials had already been lifted from within this grave plot and it was suspected that an adult lied beneath. As it turned out, the adult was interred at a significant depth!
Confined spaces and deep features can make for uncomfortable digging positions but Kaylan and Emily’s patient work paid off and, by the end of the week, they had located the skull of a deeply buried adult.
A noteworthy find was a corroded ring made of copper alloy. Whether it was a decorative object or something more mundane will have to wait until the find is investigated by YAT’s Conservation Lab.
After recording and excavating an infant individual within the cluster of burials by the Rectory, Italian archaeologists Federica and Elisa turned their attention to a deep feature close to the edge of the trench.
As the feature descended ever deeper, the pair became a little tough to spot…
At first, the feature was believed to be another burial, albeit one of the later ones in the sequence. As Elisa and Federica slowly troweled away the material infilling the feature, however, disarticulated fragments of human bone began to appear. This was an unexpected development as we have had almost no evidence of burials disturbing earlier inhumations.
The feature’s proximity to the Church Hall wall that was built six years after the 1854 closure of York’s graveyards provided a clue as to what was happening.
The human remains that had been disturbed were originally buried as part of our 1826-1854 phase of burials, however, they were disturbed when the boundary wall separating the graveyard from Church Lane was robbed out between 1854 and 1860.
Whoever dug out this trench to recover stone from the demolished boundary wall clearly paid no regard to the burials they were disturbing, simply throwing broken fragments back into the finished trench as it was backfilled.
As the churchyard had only been closed for a few years when this robbing event occurred, this is an unpleasant circumstance to consider and shows how values have changed since Victorian times.
Two further infant burials were investigated by Annie, India and Anna, yielding interesting new possibilities. Some burials appeared to overlie further inhumations within the same plot, whereas some seemed to be single interments.
Over the course of the week, four burials were exposed and recorded in this area, all by trainees with little or no prior archaeological experience. The quality of the records they produced and the careful, delicate excavation they carried out is to be commended.
Away from the Rectory area, Kate and Marie-Soleil continued work on a complicated sequence within a single grave plot.
Graves with a single occupant can be relatively easy to spot. After troweling an area clean, a rectangle of more mixed, often looser material will be revealed which can then be recorded and investigated. When grave plots are opened, backfilled and re-opened numerous times, these edges can become much less defined, as numerous overlapping cuts are now present in one space.
With some skilled troweling, Kate and Marie-Soleil were able to follow the suspected edge of the latest grave cut and made a surprising discovery – not one, but two coffins! At the south-west end of the cut, the tiny coffin of an infant began to emerge, while the larger coffin of a juvenile individual occupied the north-eastern half of the grave.
After over 150 years in the ground, the majority of the organic materials of the coffins have long since decayed, although the presence of metal plates and fittings can slow this process. In some cases, a thin line of decayed wood and corroded iron and brass can still show us the size and shape of the coffins and Kate and Marie-Soleil’s larger coffin was particularly clear.
The infant burial was recorded and lifted first and proved to be heavily affected by animal burrowing, with much of the skull and torso missing. The larger coffin was then cleaned up for photography and recording.
By the end of the week, the burial was fully recorded and ready to be lifted in week 3. The juvenile was too young to suggest a gender, but a slight curvature in the femurs may suggest that the child had suffered from malnutrition in life. A sobering reminder of the often cruel realities of life in 19th century Britain.
While the week two team took great strides forward in our understanding of the 19th century burial ground, some of the team were also delving further back into the site’s past.
Newcastle University students Hannah and Hope proved that a huge amount of information can be derived from a very small amount of archaeology as they started work on a thin peninsula of archaeology that was cut on two sides by a pair of later burials.
As well as pre-dating the burials of the early to mid-19th century, the sequence was also earlier than a stone and tile oven feature that once sat within an 18th century workshop.
The uppermost deposit was a compacted layer of silt and sand that overlaid a number of thin, laminated dumps of mortar and beaten earth – we were clearly looking at floor surfaces that had been laid and relaid numerous times.
It is common for rough surfaces such as these to be frequently replaced, as simple beaten earth horizons are prone to rapid wear. As Hannah and Hope recorded and lifted each subsequent deposit, one possible reason for the need to refresh the floors so frequently became clear – subsidence.
Each layer of Hannah and Hope’s floor sequence proved to be far from flat and some tended to slope quite steeply downwards. The most likely reason for this is the presence of earlier pits below the workshop floors, with soft, organic fills that settle over time.
Clearly, the occupier of this workshop would have frequently found hollows appearing in the floor and would have been forced to deposit layers of soil, sand and mortar to provide a level working surface. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after excavating a number of such layers, Hannah and Hope came across a shallow pit – a possible culprit for the subsidence.
Further work may reveal a huge number of refuse and cess pits that pre-date both the 19th century burials and 18th century workshops. Quite why so many pits occupy this space will remain a mystery for now.
At the southern end of the trench, work also continued on the earliest sequence of deposits that have been encountered so far.
The southern boundary of the 19th century burial ground was the northern wall of All Saints Rectory, which stood until 1854-59.
Within the footprint of this building, there has been far less damage to the medieval and post-medieval horizon than elsewhere on-site, which gives us a far greater chance of understanding the site’s pre-18th century sequence.
This week, it was up to people taking part in our one and two day taster courses to further investigate this area and good progress was made. Following the excavation of a layer of silt dating to the 14th century, a more compacted layer was unearthed that may once have been a surface.
This deposit proved to be very shallow and, by the end of the week, a small pit/post hole was found beneath it. Although our small slot into the medieval horizon was only getting started, interesting questions were already beginning to emerge.
- Were we within the footprint of a building that pre-dates the 14th century Rectory?
- Were we in an open yard space?
- Was the area in industrial or domestic (or both!) use at this point?
As usual, each discovery brought with it new questions, but the team remained hopeful that we would be able to characterise this sequence of medieval archaeology.
Beneath the Tree of Finds, the team continued to make inroads into tackling our ever growing mountain of finds and some previously unnoticed treasures emerged as countless tubs of finds were cleaned up.
The undoubted highlight was a fragment of medieval stained glass with paint still visible, a vivid reminder of the pomp and colour that would have characterised All Saints in its medieval heyday.
The team were excited to see the brushstrokes of a medieval artisan still surviving on the glass. While we’ll never know how the complete image would have looked, it remains a wonderful little find!
All told, week two of the summer excavation comfortably kept up the momentum of week one and the site changed visibly in a short space of time.
Massive thanks to all of the trainees and placements that made the week such a success!
Two weeks down, ten to go. Some questions answered, countless more posed. We had our work cut out for us!
Watch this space for more site diaries, onwards and downwards!
PS. During week two, Arran and Becky became aware of a peril of asking younger placements to take a few working shots: The #ArchaeologySelfie