Springtime in the British Isles. A time of change and renewal heralded by trumpeting daffodils and a flourish of birdsong. Verdant growth returns to barren trees and the days steadily become longer and warmer. Unless, of course, you are trying to carry out an archaeological excavation in Yorkshire.
Following a spell of settled sunny weather, the rain clouds inevitably gathered just in time for the Grand Départ of the 2016 season. The site had lain silent and empty for six long months and the latest wave of brand new archaeologists were excitedly waiting in the wings. Sadly, we’d have to wait just a little longer to hear the music of trowels return to the trench.
Thankfully, there’s much more to archaeology than just excavation, so the team had plenty to get on with in the warmth and shelter of All Saints church, our rather stunning site hut. While the rain lashed against the beautiful stained glass, the site induction was followed by a tour of the church led by Dr. Robert Richards. All Saints has been in constant use for the best part of a millennium and there is good evidence to suggest it is older still, so the ancient fabric of the building is awash with wonderful insights into the beliefs, politics and perils of the people who have worshipped here over the centuries.
After lunch, site supervisors Gary and Arran introduced the team to the theories and techniques we would be using in the trench, before beginning work on processing our already rather formidable assemblage of finds. In urban archaeology, it is not uncommon for a single context (i.e. the backfill of a post hole) to contain tens or even hundreds of finds. Each set of finds recovered from a given context are cleaned and allowed to dry, before being sorted into various categories such as pottery, animal bone and so on. This sorted material can then be analysed by specialists, providing an extra layer of detail to our interpretations. It was at this point, that we spotted the season’s first star find.
Hidden amongst a jumble of bone and pottery was a fairly unassuming fragment of antler, spotted by the keen eyes of York local Ann. It was immediately apparent that we had happened upon a noteworthy find, one that could even take us back in time to the dense forest that once covered the land north of York.
In the years following the Norman conquest, huge areas of the countryside were declared Royal Forests, meaning common land that had been a source of fuel, food and raw materials for centuries was now reserved exclusively for the use of the elite. This legislation acted as a catalyst for changes that can easily be seen in the material culture that we find in York. Prior to this royal acquisition, antlers shed by the many red and fallow deer that roamed the Forest of Galtres in York could be collected and put to use by Anglo-Scandinavian traders and craftsmen.
Antler is a useful and highly versatile material that was utilised extensively in York during the 10th to 12th centuries. One of the more common objects to be manufactured were composite bone and antler combs. Raw antler was cut into thin plates held together by bone or antler panels that would often be incised with intricate decorations. Once the plates and panels were riveted together, the teeth of the combs would be carved – a painstaking operation! For wealthier Viking individuals, these combs were a real status symbol and a recent study has revealed them to have played an important role in Anglo-Scandinavian culture.
By spotting this previously un-noticed find, Ann had got us off to a great start!
Tuesday saw blue skies and more seasonal weather return to York and the team got to work in cleaning up the trench following its long abandonment.
A primary goal of the 2016 season is to gain a full understanding of the density, nature and location of the burials that were interred between 1826 and 1854. No church records regarding these burials have survived, so it will be up to the archaeology to tell us more about life and death in the parish during the 19th century. A definite trend was noted during the 2015 season wherein infant and juvenile burials were placed at a far shallower depth than adults, thereby rendering them highly vulnerable to damage. Over the course of 2016, these shallow inhumations will be carefully recorded, lifted and re-buried in the ossuary of All Saints Church. Adult burials will be recorded and left in-situ below a protective layer of sieved earth.
Following her remarkable start to the week, Ann teamed up with Swiss archaeology enthusiast Yannick to record and excavate our smallest coffin yet. The individual laid to rest in this grave must have died at a very young age as very little of the skeleton had survived. Through some precise and very cautious troweling, Ann and Yannick were able to define the outline of the decayed timber coffin in which the infant was buried, before lifting the remains and placing them within the church. Infant mortality was very high in 19th century York and Ann and Yannick’s measured and respectful work has revealed another forgotten tale of loss from the ground.
Elsewhere on site, the teams of Kate and Ella and Kirsten and Alice were also tasked with the delicate work of recording and excavating infant burials.
Kate and Ella did an excellent job of exposing, recording and lifting their burial and they also discovered that the inhumation had been placed above at least one adult individual. The second individual was buried at a far greater depth, meaning Kate and Ella had a lot of digging to do!
Alice and Kirsten took over the excavation of a more unusual infant burial that had initially been discovered back in 2015. While the excellent levels of preservation in York have allowed us to see and record the outlines and decorative features of many of our coffins, this burial had something else – the fragile remains of a name plate. While over 150 years of corrosion had left the plate incredibly delicate, the words ‘aged 0 years’ remained legible. This was an evocative moment for the team and it was certainly a privilege to witness such a personal moment of All Saints’ long history.
At the northern end of the trench, Jia and Yuqi spent their week working on an equally difficult burial. In this instance, an adult grave had been re-opened to allow for the interment of an infant. Burials like these demonstrate the re-use of grave plots to receive the remains of numerous presumably related individuals.
Excavating and recording a skeleton is a delicate and considered process that is complicated further when numerous individuals are placed on top of each other. Yuqi and Jia were more than up to the task and made excellent progress.
The first week of the new season wasn’t only about burials, trench supervisors Arran and Gary were also keen to delve further back into the history of the site.
Returning trainees Lydia and Cheryl picked up work on a small area of archaeology surviving between a number of later graves and pits. Several layers have already been recorded and excavated in this location, revealing a sequence of post-medieval dumping and refuse disposal, it was now time to find what was laying in wait for us below.
Revealing a brand new archaeological context for the first time is always an exciting moment and Lydia and Cheryl’s deposit didn’t disappoint. As the remnants of the overlying layer were troweled away, a much lighter and more clay rich deposit began to appear, containing pottery of 11th to 15th century date. The new layer was cleaner with less in the way of domestic refuse than had been seen above. Perhaps we are looking at an attempt to raise the ground level following a period of flooding, perhaps we have revealed an intact medieval surface. This will be an area to watch in the 2016 season!
David and Lindsey enjoyed a productive taster day working on an even more truncated slither of archaeology that had survived between a pair of later graves. Their first task was to complete the excavation of a dump deposit of late 18th century date and it didn’t take long to come across an unexpected surprise – a surviving cobbled surface.
The many 19th century burials have left the earlier archaeology looking something like a swiss cheese, although it is still possible to learn a lot about the older material. David and Lindsey’s surface will prove to be an invaluable piece to a complex puzzle, each piece giving us a more complete picture of the site’s industrial use in the late 1700s. The floor would once have been situated within a roughly built timber shed where evidence so far suggests that metalworking was practiced – not a bad discovery for a pair of brand new archaeologists!
After a long winter spent waiting for the new season, the first week of the spring dig seemed to fly by! The first team of the 2016 excavation were fantastic fun to have on-site and carried out some stellar work. As Friday drew to a close, the team took some time to reflect on our latest discoveries, from tragic tales of young lives cut short, to tantalising glimpses into life in the height of Viking York. Not a bad start, not bad at all!
As always, everyone at Archaeology Live! express our thanks to the trainees that make the project possible. We are entirely funded by the fees paid by the team and none of our discoveries would be possible without their hard work and boundless enthusiasm – especially in the unpredictable spring weather!
So that’s us up and running, watch this space for updates on the rest of the spring season. It seems like we’re in for some amazing archaeology!
Onwards and downwards!