Month: October 2016

Site Diary: Summer Week 2

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.

Not a bad day for digging!

Excavation of burials close to the walls of All Saints Rectory.

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.

Excavation of a cluster of infant burials.

Excavation of a cluster of infant burials.

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.

Careful excavation of a double infant inhumation.

Careful excavation of a double infant inhumation.

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.

Rhiannon and Jenni (foreground) working on a double burial.

Rhiannon and Jenni (foreground) working on a double burial.

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.

Kaylan, Katie and Emily collating the records for their burial.

Kaylan, Katie and Emily collating the records for their burial.

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!

Kaylan and Emily reaching into a deep inhumation.

Kaylan and Emily reaching into a deep inhumation.

Emily and her star find.

Emily and her star find.

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…

They're down there somewhere!

They’re down there somewhere!

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.

Federica and Elisa in their deep linear feature.

Federica and Elisa in their deep linear feature.

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.

Anna and India lifting an infant skeleton.

Anna and India exposing an infant skeleton.

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.

Annie and Ellen recording an infant burial.

Annie and Ellen recording an infant burial.

 

Annie cleaning up a grave cut for photography.

Annie cleaning up a grave cut for photography.

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.

Kate and Marie-Soleil creating a plan drawing.

Kate and Marie-Soleil creating a plan drawing.

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.

Cleaning up a decayed coffin.

Cleaning up a decayed coffin.

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.

Marie-Soleil cleaning up the coffin of a juvenile individual.

Marie-Soleil cleaning up the coffin of a juvenile individual.

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.

The coffin of a juvenile interred between 1826 and 1854.

The timber coffin of a juvenile interred between 1826 and 1854.

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.

Kate completing her coffin plan.

Kate completing her coffin plan.

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.

Hannah and Hope set to work in the centre of the trench.

Hannah and Hope set to work in the centre of the trench.

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.

Hope cleaning a truncated pit cut prior to photography.

Hope cleaning a sloping surface prior to photography.

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.

In the foreground, Bri begins work on a medieval levelling deposit.

In the foreground, Bri begins work on a medieval levelling deposit.

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.

Taralea helping Alison and Helen create a new context record.

Taralea helping Alison and Helen create a new single context record.

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.

Per and Janet recording a pit backfill.

Per and Janet recording a medieval pit backfill.

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.

Finds washing in the sun.

Finds washing in the sun.

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.

Medieval stained glass.

Medieval stained glass.

 

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!

The week two team.

The week two team.

Two weeks down, ten to go. Some questions answered, countless more posed. We had our work cut out for us!

A frequent sight at All Saints: Arran and Becky checking the week two records.

A frequent sight at All Saints: Arran and Becky checking the week two records.

Watch this space for more site diaries, onwards and downwards!

-Arran

 

PS. During week two, Arran and Becky became aware of a peril of asking younger placements to take a few working shots: The #ArchaeologySelfie

Ellen and Taralea in an #ArchaeologySelfie

Ellen and Taralea in an #ArchaeologySelfie

Site Diary: Summer Week 1

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.

Guess who's back...

Guess who’s back…

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.

Work begins on day one, week one of the summer excavation.

Work begins on day one, week one of the summer excavation.

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 (left) in full recording mode.

Becky (left) in full recording mode.

Enter Becky!

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!

Emily and Simon working on an infant burial.

Emily and Simon working on an infant burial.

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.

Sue and Gill excavating an infant burial.

Sue and Gill excavating an infant burial.

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.

Recording using a planning frame.

Recording using a planning frame.

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!

Sarah and Marie-Soleil working on a burial

Sarah and Marie-Soleil working on a burial

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.

An ossified segment of a goose trachea.

An ossified segment of a goose trachea.

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.

Marie-Soleil and her clay pipe bowl.

Marie-Soleil and her clay pipe bowl.

A lead seal/token.

A lead seal/token.

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.

Sarah and Kaylan tackling some tricky digging.

Sarah and Kaylan tackling some tricky digging.

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!

Excavation of deep features can require some creative positioning...

Excavation of deep features can require some creative positioning…

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.

Kaylan and Sarah planning their burial.

Kaylan and Sarah planning their burial.

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.

Becky explaining single context recording.

Becky explaining single context recording.

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.

Paula and Lisa investigating the medieval horizon.

Paula and Lisa investigating the medieval horizon.

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!

Working out elevations.

Working out elevations.

Arran leading the stratigraphy session.

Arran leading the stratigraphy session.

 

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.

Sarah and Becky

Sarah and Becky

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!

Taralea and Emily

Taralea and Emily

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!

The week one team

The week one team

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!

-Arran

 

 

PS. Special mention should go to our placement Katie for her sheer enthusiasm in this session of levelling…

Katie

Adopt the position!!!

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