The River Ouse flows through the very heart of the ancient city of York, carving the city into two distinct halves. Over the millennia, fords, ferries and bridges have come and gone, connecting the divided city and allowing goods and people to move freely across the water. However, there has always been more to this division than simple geography.
It was the Romans who first established York as a major permanent settlement in AD71, taking advantage of the excellent communications offered by the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss and the spur of high ground that today plays home to the Minster. The Romans were clearly aware that this was a focal point of the native British landscape and chose the high ground just north of the Ouse to house their fortress. The colonia, the civilian sector of the frontier city sprang up along the southern bank of the river and a pattern of division that can still be seen today was set in motion.
The fortress was the centre of Eboracum (Roman York) and when the legions left around 410 AD, the same space would go on to be occupied by a succession of great cathedrals – the church too were clearly aware of the site’s dominant position in the landscape. As York grew throughout the middle ages, the Minster remained as the beating heart of the city and when York’s fortunes began to decline in the post-medieval and early modern eras, it was the medieval buildings of the north side of the city, now considered quaint and picturesque, that would become a new kind of tourist attraction with the arrival of the railways. The southern half of the city was frequented less by the city’s many visitors then as it is today, and as a result, far less of the area’s ancient fabric has survived.
This is not to say, however, that this side of the city is of any less historic consequence than it’s counterpart, quite the opposite in fact. For archaeologists, a key difference lies in the disproportionate amount of attention the colonia has received. York’s great excavations at Coppergate, the Minster and Hungate were all located in or around the fortress while the south bank remains largely shrouded in mystery – and archaeologists love a mystery! As the area is largely occupied by handsome dwellings of 18th and 19th century date, it is a rare privilege to open a sizeable trench in the heart of the colonia and this is what makes our site so special.
The 2014 season began with a great deal of uncertainty. We were opening up a new trench at a new site and digging on the southern side of the city for the first time.
Thankfully, any doubts about the site’s potential were quickly swept away by a series of fascinating discoveries. By October, we had begun to reveal a rich story covering two centuries of change, drama and devotion. We were privy to personal tragedies through the site’s numerous infant burials and subjected to the grimy realities of early 19th century industry, as attested by the substantial by-products of nearby tanneries. We ended 2014 with much of the site having been taken back to the late 1700s, yet we were by no means at the end of the site’s early modern story. As always, every answer brought with it more questions and all at Archaeology Live! have been counting down the days for the 2015 season to begin.
On April 6th, the wait was finally over as the soothing music of trowel, shovel and brush returned to the trench. The Archaeology Live! team of Toby, Arran and Gary met the new team and were pleased to see a mix of new and familiar faces. For the 2015 season, Toby will be looking after finds processing while Gary and Arran will take charge of the two halves of the trench – the ingeniously named This End (Gary) and That End (Arran).
The site was in remarkable condition considering it had been largely open to the elements all winter, but the first task in hand was to give it a good clean. This meant troweling, a lot of troweling!
Basking in glorious spring sunshine, the team quickly tidied up the trench and began to familiarise themselves with the material that they would be working on.
In ‘This End’ Gary’s team picked up where they had left off in October and began to peel away the first of a number of trample deposits. It didn’t take long for the finds start flowing! Amy uncovered a large fragment of a medieval jug and Alex came across the rim of a 10th to 11th century Stamford Ware pot.
Over in ‘That End’, Arran’s team were also coming across some nice finds. Chris’ piece of decorated Roman Samian ware being the pick of the bunch!
Samian is an amazing pottery type, appearing far more modern than it is! It’s hard to believe this pot was made almost two thousand years ago!
With the site now looking fantastic, we were able to take on the next challenge. At Archaeology Live!, we excavate and record using the single context methodology. In short, this means breaking down the site in to individual events. For example, if you notice a post hole cut into the backfill of a pit, you would have at least four contexts to excavate and record – the post hole backfill, the post hole cut, the pit backfill and the pit cut.
The next task is to work out the sequence of events. In the above example, we would know that the post hole is the later feature as it is cut through the material used to fill in the pit, however, with urban archaeology, things are rarely this simple.
When you walk on to a site in a city like York and look at the ground, you will see a mass of colours and shapes within the soil. Learning to spot and define changes and features within complex archaeological sequences is one of the key skills that we teach each year. Happily, the week one team proved to be a keen eyed bunch and by day two, work was underway on a number of newly identified features and deposits.
As often happens, the tallest people on site ended up working on the tiniest feature. While cleaning up what was thought to be a trample layer, Chris and Martin noticed a circular feature with a distinctive dark infill. This turned out to be a post hole, presumably part of one of a workshop structure that occupied the site prior to the church hall’s construction in 1860. When this post was removed in antiquity, the hole was backfilled with clinker (an industrial residue) and compacted down. Perhaps this removal of a trip hazard is evidence of 19th century health and safety…
By cleaning up their area and identifying this feature, Chris and Martin proved that the trample layer pre-dates their post hole, making the post hole the next feature to investigate. By identifying each archaeological event and working out the order in which they occurred, single context archaeology allows us to go back in time with each feature we excavate.
Several more post holes were recorded and excavated in Gary’s area. Sitting a little later in the sequence, these were interpreted as holes for scaffolding dating to the erection of the church hall.
With their post holes fully squared away, the ‘This End’ team could turn their attention to a sizeable stony deposit that covers much of the southern end of the trench.
As this deposit is cut by numerous burials, it clearly pre-dates the site’s use as a graveyard between the 1820s and 1850s. As the team exposed more of the deposit, it became apparent that it laps up against the latest incarnation of our Rectory building which is thought to date to the late 1700s or early 1800s – this gives us quite a tight date range for the deposit. The mortar, stone, brick and tile inclusions within the deposit may suggest that it was laid down while the Rectory was being re-built.
As this deposit covers a large area, it proved quite the challenge to clean, photograph and draw, but the team did a marvellous job and work continued on the deposit for much of the spring session.
Over in Arran’s area, the ‘That End’ team were also being kept busy by some challenging archaeology!
‘Contrary Corner’ is the unofficial name of the northernmost end of the trench. Over the 2014 season, this area constantly proved to be the trickiest part of the site to work, with clear edges and relationships in short supply. Elanor and Savannah began the week by cleaning up the area and steeling themselves for some difficult archaeology – although as it turned out, ‘Contrary Corner’ had different plans for them.
Joining us for the whole of the spring session, Elanor and Savannah had a really productive fortnight, answering many of our questions about the area.
Their first clean-up of the area revealed no cut features such as pits, graves or post holes. Instead, a dump of compacted material was found to be the latest identifiable event. After being cleaned and recorded, the pair began to remove the deposit, revealing it to be a levelling dump of 19th century date containing some nice finds. Elanor came across a delicate bone button and Savannah found an unusual piece of Roman pottery.
The base of a colour coat vessel, the sherd had a hole punched through the base during manufacture. Pending confirmation by a specialist, our current theory is that the vessel may have been used to drain liquid from food, perhaps olives. How this Roman object ended up in a 19th century dump will never be known, but it remains a wonderful find.
Nearby, Lorna, Wen and Yinghong picked up work on what was believed to be a 19th century pit that had been cut to dispose of cattle skull and horn core waste from a nearby tannery. As the trio began to better define the feature, it became apparent that something else was afoot. The edges proved to be very straight and near vertical, we were clearly looking at another 19th century grave. The high occurrence of cattle horn core is a result of the grave being dug through an earlier tanning waste pit. As the cut was backfilled with the same material that it was cut through, thousands of fragments of skull and horn core were re-deposited in the feature when the coffin was buried.
As well as being cut through an early modern tanning waste pit, the grave clearly disturbs other archaeology. Numerous earlier artefacts were recovered from its backfill, including a piece of post-medieval window glass and a sherd of burnt Samian ware.
With the records on their post hole squared away, Chris and Martin turned their attention to the trample layer that it was cut through. Working next to a tall, upstanding section of church hall wall, it would be unwise to undermine the structure as it cannot presently be demolished, so an alternate digging strategy was set in place. The archaeology against the wall will be investigated in 1.5m square trenches that can be backfilled with compacted material when excavation is complete. This allows us to remain safe while looking at the deeper, earlier material.
Chris and Martin made some great progress on their ‘trench within a trench’, isolating and recording the construction event of the church hall and beginning to remove the dump of material that pre-dates the post hole.
Around the corner in the churchyard, Toby and the finds team were busily trying to keep up with the volume of finds coming off of site. As these are often caked in mud, it’s often when finds are cleaned that some of their more remarkable qualities are noticed. A fascinating example of this was seen in a pair of glazed medieval floor tiles that had been found last year. After being washed, it became apparent that the two tiles had quite different stories to tell.
Dating to the height of the church’s medieval pomp, the tiles give us a glimpse of a time when church interiors would have been far more bright and colourful than the often austere spaces that we know today. The yellow glazed example was fired as a triangle as opposed to the standard square. In this case, the tile was always intended to sit where a tiled surface meets a wall and space is insufficient to house a whole tile. The glaze is badly worn, indicating that many a medieval footstep would have passed over this tile while it was set in the church floor. If tiles could speak…
The green glazed example was clearly less fortunate. Fired as a whole, a scoured line can be seen running diagonally across the surface of the tile. This represents an attempt to split the tile in two, to use in a similar way as to its yellow glazed counterpart. The split was clearly unsuccessful and as the pristine condition of the vivid green glaze suggests, the tile was never used.
Despite the two very different stories of these tiles, they would both end up being redeposited in a 19th century yard surface. Perhaps all tiles are created equal after all.
Back in the trench, work continued apace and more noteworthy finds were appearing. Joe was delighted to find a medieval coin. Whether this is a long or short cross penny remains to be seen once the coin goes through conservation.
The coin was found re-deposited in a later context, but adds to a growing collection of residual Roman, Viking and medieval objects. The sheer volume of this material bodes well for the earlier archaeology that we will reach during the 2015 season.
On Thursday, Karen and Phillip joined us for a two day taster course and quickly set to work on a slither of earlier archaeology that had survived between a 19th century robber trench and tanning waste pit.
As the deposit is cut on either side by 19th century features, it is clearly earlier in date, but quite how early was entirely unknown. Karen and Phillip steadily lowered the deposit and began to accumulate a virtual reference collection of pottery, ranging in date from Roman to the 15th century.
In deposits such as this, it is the latest sherd that counts. A deposit may contain Viking, medieval and Victorian finds, but it is the Victorian examples that give it a date. After all, you won’t find Victorian pottery in a medieval pit – it hadn’t been invented yet – but you can find earlier finds mixed up in a Victorian pit. As this was their first ever excavation, Karen and Phillip were overjoyed to find such a range of material.
As Friday rolled around, it was time for Toby’s session on building and understanding stratigraphic matrices. Over the week, the team enjoyed specialist sessions on pottery, small finds and conservation. The stratigraphy session is what brings everything together and by the end of the week, the whole team had learned how to identify, understand, excavate and record archaeological features – and had a lot of fun doing it! As the sun grew low in the sky, the team packed up and headed to a local hostelry to celebrate a great first week on site.
The April Weekend Excavation
With the first week being such a success, we were glad to welcome a brand new team on to site for the first weekend excavation of the year. Introductions and inductions out of the way, the team got started on site and picked up on many features that had been started in week one.
Jennifer and Danielle joined us from Dublin for the weekend and began to excavate more of the Rectory construction spread. This was challenging at times due to the compacted nature of the deposit and the possibility of finding more of the infant burials that are present in this area. The girls managed to find a perfect balance of delicate yet robust troweling, allowing them to make good progress while not damaging any potentially delicate remains.
The father and son team of Gregers and Peter, spent the weekend working on similar deposits close to the north-west wall of the church hall. Peter had some great finds luck, uncovering two interesting objects – the first of which being a sherd of burnt Samian ware complete with a maker’s stamp.
Mass produced mainly in France, Samian vessels were sometimes adorned with the stamp of their maker. As many production sites have been located, it is often possible to find out where and within what date range these vessels were made. Being able to give such provenance to objects of such antiquity is a real pleasure! We’ll look forward to showing this one to our Roman specialist!
While washing finds, Peter noticed a clod of soil in the finds tray and gently broke up the soil to make sure no rogue finds were lurking within it. This is how he came across his second small find!
Close inspection of the obect revealed it to be made of copper alloy and possibly silver plated. At first glance, this artefact is highly reminiscent of a Roman ‘crossbow’ brooch and will be another object that we’re excited to hear a specialist opinion on.
Like all of our early finds, this object was found in a much later context. It remains a wonderful find however, and if Peter’s luck carries on like this, we’ll always look forward to having him back!
In Arran’s area, Archaeology Live! regulars Lyn and Chris joined us for their 8th season of archaeology in York. They were tasked with completing work on the spur of archaeology that Karen and Phillip had begun in week one.
Being one of the first definitively pre-19th century deposits to be investigated, we were keen to see what dating evidence would be recovered. So far, the latest material to come from the context were several sherds of 15th century pottery – were we looking at a medieval deposit? In the end, this question was answered by a tiny sherd of 18th century Black Ware, the context was post-medieval.
This is actually good news as it suggests an unbroken sequence that will continue to tell us the site’s whole story, without any gaps. By the end of the weekend, Chris and Lyn had brought the deposit down to a distinct change, exposing a clay-rich deposit with a greenish tinge. Having excavated countless medieval and Viking cesspits on Hungate, Gary and Arran found this material very familiar. As such, it seems likely that a sequence of domestic refuse and cesspits will underlie the modern and post-medieval sequence. This is exciting news as such features can contain wonderful information about past diet and lifestyle.
Taking over from week one’s Chris and Martin, Phil and Katie picked up work on a dump deposit and quickly made some interesting discoveries. The ceramic assemblage was typically varied, with noteworthy finds including the handle of a 16th/17th century Cistercian ware mug and a variety of Roman wares.
While early finds were appearing in abundance, 19th century pottery was still present and a more intriguing discovery was not far away.
As Phil peeled away the mixed material of the trample layer, a new feature began to emerge beneath it. Pictured below, a clear rectangular feature was clearly present below the trample, with a notably darker fill than the material it cuts into. Can you spot the edge?
The size and orientation of the feature suggests that we’re looking at another 19th century grave. Phil and Katie did a great job of spotting the change.
Two days is a short amount of time to squeeze in an introduction to archaeology, but our April weekend did a great job and made some wonderful discoveries.
The weather turned cooler in week two, but the site continued to surprise us as we entered the second half of the spring session. The week two team was an even mix of new starters and people carrying over from week one and we wasted no time in getting started!
Over the course of the week, many members of ‘Team This End’ spent some time working on the Rectory construction spread. While cleaning around the edge of the deposit, Bri’s keen eyes located another new edge. As it follows the same orientation as the site’s many burials, this is likely to be yet another 19th century grave and will be further investigated in the summer.
As the last of the construction spread was cleared, a number of new features began to emerge. Allison had to use some surgical troweling to peal the layer away from an earlier sequence of interweaving burnt deposits that may relate to industrial use pre-dating the burials.
With excavation of the spread completed, Gary’s team were free to look at a number of earlier features. Bri, Amy and Ernie teamed up to dismantle a small brick chamber associated with the Rectory. Interpreted as part of an ancillary building or cesspit, the chamber had been extensively damaged by the insertion of the church hall’s drainage.
The chamber was cut into a deposit of black, silty material which in turn overlaid a truncated tile built structure. This may have been some form of sluice for an earlier drainage/cesspit feature.
As has been something of a trend at All Saints, the early modern sequence is proving to be more complex than had been anticipated and Amy, Ernie and Bri did a great job of keeping on top of a mountain of recording.
At the end of the 2014 season, the main cesspit of the Rectory was beginning to reveal that elements of the building’s medieval predecessor had been incorporated into the early 19th century re-build. Bea, Emma and Allison picked up where we had left off and began to dismantle the cesspit built against the north-east wall. This involved working out the construction sequence and removing the latest parts of the structure.
The cesspit comprises numerous walls, surfaces and deposits, the latest of which being the use deposit that survives on the structures cobbled base. Thankfully, the intervening years and dry conditions have rendered the deposit totally inert, although it retains a rich brown colour. Archaeology can be so glamorous at times…
With the use deposit fully excavated, the team began to record the cobble base itself. This was done in meticulous detail, with each cobble being added to the plan drawing.
With their drawing complete, Emma and Bea were very happy to begin excavating their cobble surface. This revealed an underlying bedding layer that was also recorded and lifted. Dealing with structures like this is a challenging process, especially when they have been altered numerous times. A fantastic job was done of excavating and understanding the feature and it will continue to be picked apart in the summer session.
Joining us from Australia, Germany and… Leeds, the cosmopolitan team of Gary, Christina and Joe picked up work on two contexts in Arran’s area. Taking it in turns to rotate between two features, the team took over the excavation of the Lorna, Wen and Yinghong’s grave cut and Chris and Martin’s trample layer.
Over the course of the week, the backfill of the grave was carefully excavated. By being meticulous with their troweling, Christina, Gary and Joe were able to avoid damaging any sensitive remains that lay beneath them. By the end of the week, all the delicate excavation began to pay off as the remains of a wooden coffin with copper and iron fittings began to appear. While the wood was almost entirely lost, a dark stain was still present, visible in the above photograph running along the base of the cut on the right hand side.
As work continues on this feature in the summer, we will be able to fully expose the coffin and record it, before delving deeper to locate the individual interred there. Once recorded, the remains will be re-buried and left in-situ.
As the coffin was being exposed in the deeper grave, the last of Chris and Martin’s trample layer was also being excavated. Joe, Christina and Gary were then free to record the underlying grave backfill before beginning to excavate the newly exposed feature.
Both grave backfills yielded some interesting early finds, including a fragment of a post-medieval drinking vessel and a piece of flint. The flint itself wasn’t a tool, although did offer evidence of flint-working, potentially dating back to prehistory.
The team made good progress on both features and work will resume on them in the summer.
In the north-east corner of the trench, Julia and Chris joined us for a taster day and started work on a 19th century deposit containing a particular concentration of residual Norman period ceramics.
Later in the week, tasters Paul and Emma took over work on Chris and Julia’s deposit. The layer proved to be quite shallow and revealed an earlier linear feature running beneath it.
Emma was delighted to find another flake of flint. Prehistoric finds are hard to come by in York, if we find a great quantity of residual prehistoric material, we may be able to suggest that there was prehistoric activity nearby.
Savannah and Elanor’s second week in Contrary Corner was as productive as their first. As they cleaned the area beneath the deposit they excavated in week one, a clear rectangular feature was exposed. This feature was clearly another 19th century grave and had interesting stratigraphic consequences as it effectively destroyed one of our theories about the area.
Towards the end of the 2014 season, a cobble built feature had been uncovered by Archaeology Live! regular Iain. At the time, the linear nature of the feature had us convinced that it was a cobble based wall footing, cutting into the area’s numerous tips and dumps. The north-east edge of the feature (on the left of the cobbles in the picture below) was always a little uncertain and it was only thanks to Savannah and Elanor’s hard work that this situation was resolved.
It now seems that our wall footing is not actually a footing at all. The perfect straight edges that had made it seem so structural are now known to be the points at which the cobbles are cut by 19th century graves. The feature would have originally been a cobble yard surface, and only survives now as a linear slither between three later grave cuts.
With the cobble mystery solved, the grave backfill was recorded and excavation began.
As happens all too often, the feature started to get really interesting at the very end of the final day, as the fragmentary remains of the coffin began to appear.
Tiny fragments of timber were still present alongside delicate pieces of decorative metalwork, showing that this would have been quite an ornate coffin. Dealing with burials is always an evocative experience and it was quite the experience to be the first people to see the coffin since it had been buried almost 200 years ago.
Elanor and Savannah made some great progress in Contrary Corner during the spring session. Who knows what the area will reveal in the summer!
As the second week of the dig drew to a close, it was time to tidy up and reflect on the amazing progress that had been made. It’s always difficult to join an excavation at a point when it is beginning to segue between two periods, but the spring team’s enthusiasm and hard work really paid off.
As always, we must sincerely thank our team of trainees for joining us this spring. All of our work, from site set-up to post-excavation is entirely funded by our trainees and none of our discoveries would have been possible without them!
We must also thank our dedicated team of placements for their invaluable assistance!
So, now we look to the summer, where we have twelve weeks and hundreds of new and returning trainees primed and ready to delve further into the site’s long and varied past. There is still time to get involved if you wish to add your own discoveries to the story of All Saints, North Street – just give us a shout via firstname.lastname@example.org
At the beginning of this post, we looked at the relative paucity of excavation south of the River Ouse. Each day of the 2015 season will do a great deal to address this imbalance. We will complete our picture of the site’s early modern story and then continue to dig further into the past. What will we find? Watch this space!
Onwards and downwards!
PS. Site mascot Planty the Plant survived the winter and is now best described as a shrub 🙂