It’s a cliche that’s brazenly obvious at the end of a long project, but nonetheless seems perfectly apt. We’ve had a lot of fun and made some intriguing and often surprising discoveries. It really is hard to believe that three months have passed since we kicked off the summer season back in June! Back then, the team were fresh and raring to go and Planty the Plant was in the first flush of youth.
That said, it’s been a very busy 12 weeks for the Archaeology Live! team. There are a few new grey hairs here and there and Planty now looks a little worse for wear…
Tired archaeologists aside, it’s been an amazing summer and week 12 saw the team add a few new pieces to the puzzle, before making sure that all loose ends were tied up prior to our autumn hiatus.
In ‘That End’, Gary’s team had a very productive week. Rob and Nick began their week by wrapping up the records for ‘contrary corner’.
This area proved to be incredibly difficult to pick apart right up to the last few weeks of the summer, when the sequence began to resolve itself.
We now know that the area was used as part of the All Saints burial ground from 1823, a marked change from its previous life as a working yard at the turn of the 19th century. Pre-dating all of this, a wall footing discovered by Iain and Rose in week 10 suggests that the area was built on in the 18th century. What this building was and when it was built will be research targets for next season, for now it will remain a mystery!
Later in the week, Rob and Nick turned their attention to a pit that was started in week 11. Situated next to our ‘horn pit’, this feature also contained a large amount of cattle skull fragments and horn core. This tells us that the by-products of the tanning industry on nearby Tanner Row were also being disposed of in this pit, which in turn suggests that this was part of an ongoing process as opposed to being an isolated event. Future historic search into the 18th century tanning industry will hopefully add some more detail to this picture of industrial early modern York.
With work on this feature completed by midweek, the terrible twosome went their seperate ways as a number of new features were investigated. Rob moved to the central area of the trench to assist Jane in completing work on a partially excavated grave backfill. Jane, joining us for her fourth year of archaeology, had high hopes for this feature – it was from this context that Alan found his delightful Viking antler spindle whorl several weeks ago.
It took Jane a matter of minutes to locate the surprisingly shallow skull of the individual interred in this grave. Fascinatingly, the metallic decorative exterior of the coffin had survived, allowing us to see the size and shape of the coffin, as well as the position of the body within it. In this case, the coffin must have been lowered in a somewhat clumsy manner, as the skeleton had rolled slightly to one side, with the skull pressed against the edge of the coffin.
At the bottom end of the grave, Rob was looking to uncover the legs of the individual. He quickly located one leg, then another and then… another!? This was certainly a strange discovery, which caused a good deal of discussion among the team.
It is not unusual, particularly in densely occupied medieval burial grounds, for burials to cut through earlier interments. Often, the disturbed bones of the earlier grave will be re-deposited along the exterior of the new coffin – a trend seen on several recent York Archaeological Trust excavations. In this case however, all of the remains Rob had uncovered were in position and correctly articulated. Something odd was going on…
Thankfully, a little more delicate trowelling by Rob cleared up the situation when he revealed yet another leg. Instead of having numerous graves that were cut into each other, it seems our early 19th century burials can play home to more than one individual. In this case, at least one further inhumation lies beneath the skeleton revealed by Jane and Rob.
The fact that the two skeletons are currently laid directly over one and other reveals that the lower coffin must have decayed and given way, causing the coffin above to fall on to the top of the lower burial. One cannott help but wonder if anyone was in the church yard to hear the muffled thud from beneath the ground…
This is a fascinating discovery that really helps us to build a better picture of the area’s use as a graveyard. The fact that none of our adult burials intercut tells us that the burials must have been clearly marked, perhaps with headstones or earthern mounds. The graveyard was clearly well ordered, with family plots being periodically re-opened to receive numerous burials. It is also increasingly clear that the area was intended to remain in use as a burial ground for some time and records must have been kept of who was buried in which plot, and at what depth.
In the fullness of time, the area only went on to receive burials for around 25 years, as it was de-consecrated in the 1850s to house the new church hall. Despite this, Rob and Jane’s discoveries this week reveal that the churchyard was well ordered and was certainly not intended to be a short-term endeavour.
Lori’s week began with the tricky task of recording a fragment of a post-medieval (or earlier) hearth made of edge-set roof tile.
Sitting on a slither of undisturbed archaeology between two early 19th century grave cuts, this feature is lucky to have survived! It’s precise date will only be confirmed following its excavation in the autumn, but it is exciting to be seeing glimpses of earlier archaeology beginning to emerge.
Medieval roof tiles are sturdy things and can take a lot of heat! Setting them on edge reduces the risk of cracking and provides a hearth surface that can be used again and again. Visitors to YAT’s Barley Hall can see a complete example of an edge-set tile hearth; they were certainly decorative as well as practical.
With the records done and dusted, Lori teamed up with Nick to resume work on what appeared to be an infant/juvenile burial close to the north end of the trench.
Despite being small, this feature proved to be very deep and quite challenging to excavate. Nick and Lori worked patiently to uncover the remains of a small coffin. Degraded to little more than a stain, this required delicate work as the timber and corroded metal could very easily be destroyed.
Happily, after three previous years with us, Nick has developed a great trowelling technique and her and Lori were up to the task. Interestingly, this proved to be our second ’empty’ grave of the season, with no human remains found within the coffin. As discussed in last week’s blog, this could be the result of a localised quirk in the acidity of the soil (which can easily dissolve infant remains) or perhaps an infant lost early in a pregnancy that has not survived in the ground. There is also the possibility of these being symbolic burials of a coffin for an individual whose remains could not be interred.
While we will never know for sure, such features are always highly evocative, with very human moments of tragedy and remembrance that would otherwise have been lost to history being recovered the ground.
Elsewhere in Gary’s area, a pit cut that was started during our August training weekend was completed by Jackie. Joining us for a two day taster course, Jackie unearthed evidence of 19th century refuse disposal alongside medieval material upcast from earlier deposits.
There are a number of traditions on Archaeology Live! and a number of individuals who join us year after year, without whom the dig wouldn’t be quite complete. Week 12 saw the arrival of the one, the only, Betty Bashford! (For some reason, dressed as a Viking!)
Betty, along with her friend Janet, is one of the characters that make working on Archaeology Live! such an absolute pleasure. There is never a dull moment when this dream team are on site! Sure enough, it didn’t take them long to make an unexpected discovery. Betty and Janet firstly took out the last remaining construction backfills relating to the 1860s church hall.
Some nice finds were recovered from these deposits including a lovely hand-painted fragment of tin glazed earthenware dating to the late 18th century.
With the backfills removed and the construction cuts empty, it was possible to see the footings of the church hall, however, this was not all that was revealed. At the base of the cut, what appears to be a fragment of a herring-bone pattern brick floor was uncovered.
This was certainly a surprise, as we weren’t expecting to see structural remains in this part of the trench. Quite what building or yard this floor relates to is uncertain at present, but it is always exciting when such features appear.
A surviving patch of 19th century levelling material covered the rest of this brick feature, so Janet and Betty ended their week by recording this deposit and beginning to remove it. Excavation of this deposit will resume during our October dig.
Over at ‘This End’, Toby’s team had a similarly industrious week. Joining us from Sweden, Paul joined Bri to work on the site’s earliest deposits.
Working on a slither of archaeology cut on one side by a drain run and the other by the church hall wall footings, Paul recorded and removed a dump deposit. This revealed an interesting feature filled with rubble and mortar.
We suspect that the front wall of our 18th century rectory would have run below the current church hall brickwork (pictured below). Up to this point, we hadn’t been able to identify any surviving structure in this area. This truncated post-hole/footing is our first tantalising evidence of this part of the rectory structure. As we know the medieval rectory was altered and re-built on numerous occasions, it is hard to say which phase this feature relates to, but it is a good start, and something we hope to clarify as work progresses in this area.
Paul went on to empty out the rubble feature and record the cut. This exposed a burnt dump very similar in appearance to one being worked on in the next cell by Bri. By chasing into this early archaeology in these two cells, we have had a self-contained sneak preview into the medieval archaeology we will be seeing across the whole site.
Bri’s slot featured no large structural remains, but it was possible to see distinct tips of medieval material and one shallow post hole that may have contained a fence post in front of the old rectory.
With the post hole recorded, Bri then fully exposed and recorded his burnt medieval dump. Whether this is evidence of some industrial process will be investigated in the autumn.
Paul ended his week by wrapping up the records for his and Bri’s area. He also found time to help with the excavation of another of our 19th century graves.
Archaeology Live! legend Clive re-joined us for the last week of the summer, assisting Steve with an area populated by intercutting infant burials.
This was delicate work! Fragments of coffin and the tiny bones of juvenile individuals are very susceptible to damage, so Clive and Steve were slow and steady with their work. They located the position and extent of the burial of a small child, but also worked out the relationships of a number of burials in close proximity to each other. This allows us to understand the order of events, which burials were the earliest and latest in the sequence.
These features always throw up a lot of paperwork, as the grave backfills, coffin remains and skeletons are all recorded, drawn and photographed individually. Clive and Steve made sure that all the records were in order for their burial sequence and that all the contexts were positioned correctly on our stratigraphic matrix – the diagram that allows us to understand the site sequence.
Working on his birthday, Clive was rewarded with a small archaeological gift when he found a small bone button. Clive and Steve brought their week to a close by taking over work on a burial that has been heavily disturbed by a 19th century rabbit burrow. True to form, the pair managed to locate the true edges of the grave cut. This will be looked at later in the season.
Another returning Archaeology Live! legend, Juliet was also kept very busy in this area. Charged with some of the week’s most challenging excavation, Juliet looked to fully expose a deep burial by the southern edge of the trench.
Buried well over a metre below present ground level, Juliet discovered that what had been thought to be a juvenile individual was actually an adult. Working in close confines, Juliet managed to expose enough of the skeleton to accurately plot its position. This was then recorded in detail and backfilled with a cushion of sieved soil to protect the remains from any damage. Later in the week, Juliet and Donald worked to clarify more of this sequence of infant burials and to complete any outstanding records.
The proliferation of infant burials by the rectory wall makes for very difficult excavation. Inter-cutting features often have very unclear edges due to the frequent disturbance of later graves. Once located, it takes time and great care to expose and record these remains.
Working with the guidance of the professional staff, the team in This End have done a fantastic job of picking apart this sequence. There is a lot more to do, but we are really starting to get on top of this area.
Week 12 saw us enjoying site visits from a number of YAT colleagues from our Nottingham branch, Trent and Peak Archaeology. T&P archaeologist Laura was the quickest to break out her trowel and get stuck in! Working with Kirsten, Laura investigated our largest grave cut.
This feature has been ongoing for a number of weeks and has become increasingly complex as time has gone by. It is clear that a number of graves have been situated here, the question in hand is whether we are seeing a family plot being repeatedly re-opened, or an inter-cutting sequence of individual burials. Kirsten and Laura’s deposit is proving to be one of our more finds-rich grave backfills. At present, three tubs of pottery, animal bone, shell, glass, tile, etc. have been recovered, and the feature is far from finished! As is the norm on North Street, the material is a fantastic mix of Roman to 19th century artefacts.
Later in the week, Kirsten helped Clive and Steve with the recording of their newly discovered grave backfill.
The great success of this week in Toby’s area has been the sharpening up of a very difficult sequence. As mentioned above, no half measures can be taken with this kind of archaeology, with care and respect for the individuals interred always being the prime concern.
We are now developing a growing understanding of exactly who was buried here and when. Quite why this area in particular is so densely occupied will be something to investigate in the near future.
It was another busy and eventful week for Arran and the finds team. Beneath the Tree of Finds, they battled to keep on top of the vast amount of material coming from the trench.
Over the course of the week, countless finds were washed, dried, sorted and bagged – to the ruthlessly exacting standards of our finds department.
As the finds are cleaned and dried, it is often at this point that previously un-noticed details are spotted.
The most exciting discovery this week was found on a seemingly innocuous piece of black burnished ware pottery. At first, the sherd of a Roman vessel seemed to be perfectly ordinary, part of a shallow, flat bottomed bowl referred to by archaeologists as a ‘dog bowl’.
Closer inspection revealed that the sherd had a secret – it had been inscribed with a cross.
It would be very easy to get excited about an early example of christian graffiti, but it must be kept in mind that, while the date of the pot is securely Roman, it is impossible to know exactly when the cross was inscribed. Regardless, it is still wonderful to see a personal touch on an artefact that is almost 2,000 years old!
This wasn’t the only piece of interesting Roman pottery either. A beautifully decorated sherd of a colour coat drinking vessel was noted during washing, this would have been a lovely object when complete. Seeing 2000 year old brush strokes is always wonderful!
One piece of Roman pottery caused confusion at first, as it proved hard to identify. It became clear that this confusion had arisen due to the fact that this particular sherd of high status samian ware had been burned, changing the familiar terracotta colour to a dark grey.
This wouldn’t be the last pot sherd with a story to tell either. The base of a medieval jug was cleaned and noticed to feature a ‘kiln scar’. As pots are often stacked upside down during firing, the base of the vessels can be marked by the glazed rim of the pot above. The pot above can also affect the firing of the lower vessel and a distinct curved line was clearly evident on our sherd.
The fabric on the inside of the curved mark is darker and has a distinctive grey colour. This is where the above pot has limited the airflow to the base of our vessel. When clay is fired in an oxygen starved environment it will often turn a dark grey colour, this is called reduction.
When pot is fired in a well-ventilated environment, such as a kiln with bellows, it will turn a lighter, more orange colour – this is called oxidisation and can be seen on the outside of the kiln scar curve pictured above.
While washing a clay pipe stem, Bri noticed that it was a little different to most. Early examples of clay tobacco pipes feature thick stems with a wide, off-centre aperture. This is due to the relative crudeness of manufacturing process and that thin wire had yet to be developed that was strong enough to push through the wet clay to create an airway. Instead, thicker wire had to be used which leaves a broader airway. Bri’s example could be as early in date as the late 1600s!
In a busy week for finds highlights, we also came across another fragment of medieval roof tile complete with the paw-print of a large dog. As medieval tiles were laid out to dry before firing, finds like these are surprisingly common. That said, we never tire of finding such wonderful objects! It is even possible to see the ridges of the skin in the pads of the dog’s paws. You can almost sense the medieval tiler’s annoyance!
Yet another great find from this week was a fragment of worked bone that appears to be a very early form of pen. Its date is as yet uncertain, but we look forward to showing this one to our small finds specialist.
Week 12 saw the team bring together a lot of loose ends, while new discoveries showed no signs of slowing. Our knowledge of the site’s early modern development from a busy industrial yard to a peaceful graveyard has come on in leaps and bounds. It is wonderful to be able to plot the sweeping changes in the mood and use of the area and to recover small moments such as a medieval dog plodding over his master’s unfired tiles.
This End’s concentration of infant and juvenile burials is now being mapped and understood in detail, while the first glimpses of the site’s medieval past are beginning to appear. That End continues to surprise us, with Betty and Janet’s unexpected brick floor and Nick and Lori’s ’empty’ grave keeping us firmly on our toes! Not to mention Rob’s ‘four-legged’ individual!!
Huge thanks as always must go out to our team of trainees and placements for yet another vintage week of good fun and and great archaeology!
While it is frustrating to have to stop just when the site is getting so exciting, we know that we’ll be returning to some wonderful archaeology in October! In the intervening weeks, we hope to post an overview of our findings so far on North Street, to help understand quite how much we have learned about this fascinating site. We will also aim to continue our series of blog posts looking back at previous seasons of Archaeology Live!
We’ll be back on site in October, there’s still room to join us, just contact firstname.lastname@example.org for info/bookings. We will also be opening up the site to the public between 11am and 3pm on the 25th of October! Come along and see the latest finds, meet the archaeologists and say hello to Planty the Plant (if you don’t mind the smell of slightly rotten cabbage…)
So, that wraps up the summer season of our first year on North Street. It’s been better than we could have hoped for, with a wonderfully diverse and passionate team of budding archaeologists joining us from far and wide. Thanks again to all involved for making the site such a success! Now it’s time to catch our breath, take stock and get prepped for the autumn season. Until then friends, onwards and downwards!
PS. It’s become traditional to share the more light hearted moments of the week at the end of each post. Our placement Donald had an unexpected moment this week when a sizeable moth flew out of his hair. Goodness knows how long it had been living in there. Donald’s vegan superpowers are clearly growing…