Month: November 2016

Site Diary: Summer Week 3

Following a successful weekend excavation, the third week of the summer dig saw the team continuing to explore the complex archaeology of All Saints, North Street. This week it’s over to York Archaeological Trust field archaeologist Katie Smith to set the scene.

Summer arrives at All Saints.Summer arrives at All Saints.

Summer arrives at All Saints.

Week 3 of the 2016  summer excavation at All Saints saw a continuation of the previous week’s work on a number of burials, as well as venturing into the earlier, pre-burial activities at this fascinating little site. Some of the trainees in week 3 were beginning their second or third weeks of excavation at North Street, and so their Monday action plans consisted of picking up where they left off the previous Friday. Our new trainees for week 3 were inducted and introduced to the site and were raring to get in the trench. However the weather had other plans…

Finds washing beneath the Tree of Finds

Spirits remained high beneath the Tree of Finds despite the rain.

 

Fortunately, by mid-morning the clouds dispersed and it was time to hop in the trench. New starters David and Kathryn began work in one of the earliest parts of the site sequence, within the old rectory walls. This area contains none of the 1824-1856 burials so we have been able to go further and further back in time in a small sondage (archaeology speak for trench within a trench!).

David and Kathryn made good progress in a very clay-rich deposit – clay is always hard going and clingy to dig! Despite this they managed to uncover a range of nice finds, such as animal bone and pottery, which indicated they were working in a medieval midden deposit full of domestic waste.

Trowelling a layer of medieval midden waste.

Trowelling a layer of medieval midden waste.

 

If the medieval dwellings that produced this material lie outside the bounds of our excavation, these deposits may provide the only evidence for what people were doing, using and eating at this point in history.

Just on the other side of the Rectory walls, we step forwards into the 19th Century, where a cluster of infant burials continued to be worked on by Jenni, Annie, Elisa and Federica.

Jenni and Annie teamed up for the week to carry on work on a double infant burial and by midweek they had fully recorded and very carefully lifted the remains ready to be put to rest in the safety of the church.

With work on the double burial completed, a trowel clean of the grave cut revealed that we had yet to reach its base – this meant that further occupants must be present below. Jenni and Annie had more work to do…

Jenni and Annie carefully lifting the decayed remains of a pair of timber coffins.

Jenni and Annie carefully lifting the decayed remains of a pair of timber coffins.

In the neighbouring grave plot, Elisa and Federica continued work on an infant burial which also had a very well preserved, albeit delicate coffin. Once the remains had been removed they meticulously collected all of the coffin fragments down to the tiniest splinters so they could be kept with the burial when it was relocated to the church.

Elisa and Federica excavating a difficult to reach burial.

Elisa and Federica excavating a difficult to reach burial.

All four trainees produced quality records and carried out the excavation and lifting with such care and attention to detail. We always take pride in our trainees as all carry out high standards of work regardless of previous experience and how delicate or difficult some archaeology may be.

Elisa painstakingly removing the last tiny coffin fragments from her and Federica’s infant burial after the remains had been lifted.

Elisa painstakingly removing the last tiny coffin fragments from her and Federica’s infant burial after the remains had been lifted.

Further down the trench Emily and Kaylan began their third weeks as trainees by finishing the recording of an adult burial who was the third inhumation in this particular grave, indicating a likely family plot. By Tuesday they had already exposed, recorded and re-covered the adult. Whether there are more burials lower down is unclear, as we are not lifting adult burials at this point because of their depth and therefore low risk of damage by development.

By working on this difficult inhumation, Kaylan and Emily were able to improve on many of the skills they have been taught over the past few weeks. For a new challenge, the intrepid pair moved to a new area to focus on pre-graveyard archaeology.

Trowel cleaning a post-medieval post pad.

Trowel cleaning a post-medieval post pad.

The theory goes that, prior to becoming a graveyard, the main section of the site would have contained a series of roughly built dwellings or open-fronted workshops that would have been somewhat haphazard in their construction and appearance. One of the most striking pieces of evidence for this is a rather large post pad that has been left in-situ for the past two seasons at North Street.

With the later deposits now cleared away,  we set Emily and Kaylan on the job of excavating the post pad which comprised some fairly hefty masonry! The structure would have provided a solid foundation and would have been capable of supporting considerable structural timbers.

Dismantling a post pad.

Kaylan and Emily dismantling a post pad and getting quite a workout!

After the post pad construction cut was recorded the pair moved on to a post-medieval levelling deposit that immediately pre-dates the structure and recovered some lovely finds.

Kaylan and a fragment of medieval floor tile.

Kaylan and a fragment of medieval floor tile.

Kaylan found part of a glazed floor tile that is similar to other examples from the site and presumably originally made up part of the church floor.

Along with glazed floor tile, we’ve also found bright green glazed roof tile at North Street, which presents an image of a very colourful medieval church.

Emily also had a nice find, a lead seal similar to one found in week 1 by Marie in a nearby grave backfill. These seals can be used for anything from textiles to correspondence as a means of authentication, perhaps after work on the corrosion by our conservation department we might be able to suggest exactly what was happening at North Street that required authenticating!

Emily and her lead seal.

Emily and her lead seal.

Close to Kaylan and Emily, work on University of Newcastle students Hope and Hannah’s well preserved juvenile burial continued as they created a detailed plan drawing of their skeleton.

The detail which goes into the recording done by our trainees is always to a professional standard  – even if it takes a while!

Thankfully, you don’t need to be an artist to draw intricate plans of seemingly tricky things such as skeletons. After a lot of careful measurements, Hope and Hannah were rightly very pleased with their drawing of this particular skeleton.

The drawing even met the exacting standards of our placement Alice!

Alice, Hannah and Hope celebrate a job well done.

Alice, Hannah and Hope celebrate a job well done.

Once recording was completed, Hannah and Hope were able to carefully lift the skeleton and collect the remaining pieces of coffin ready to go into the church for reburial. Needless to say, they did a wonderful job and were able to clean up the grave cut and get it fully recorded by the end of the week.

Molly and Meg excavating in the shade of Contrary Corner.

Molly and Meg excavating in the shade of ‘Contrary Corner’.

At the bottom end of the trench, new starters and University of York students Molly and Meg began work on a somewhat inaccessible burial. This inhumation was particularly difficult  to dig because the lower two thirds of the skeleton lay directly underneath the north east wall of the old Church Hall. Having identified the outline of a grave, they dug steadily downwards until they came across the coffin.

A well preserved 19th century coffin stain.

A well preserved 19th century coffin stain.

In several cases on this site the decorative metal plates of the coffins have been preserved to an extraordinary level, and Molly and Meg’s grave was no exception to this. Meg very carefully cleaned up a particularly nice section of surviving plating on her side which clearly showed the tapered hexagonal shape of the coffin.

Meg and Molly carefully removing the backfill of their grave.

Meg and Molly carefully removing the backfill of their grave.

 

Unfortunately, the preservation wasn’t quite as good on Molly’s side but she was still able to recover some small loose fragments of decorative plating and a lovely copper alloy button from the grave backfill.

Molly and her freshly unearthed copper alloy button.

Molly and her freshly unearthed copper alloy button.

With the midweek addition of one and two day tasters Sue and Robert the trench became a hive of activity from one end to the other.

A very busy trench from top to bottom!

A very busy trench from top to bottom!

Both tasters worked on quite different burials; Sue’s was an infant burial and Robert’s was a much deeper adult burial.

It has been a common theme across the site for infants and juveniles to have some of the most beautiful coffins, and Robert and Sue’s burials followed this trend.

The surviving timber of a 160+ year old coffin

The surviving timber of a 160+ year old coffin

Robert’s coffin was again well preserved and fragments of the elaborate decorative plating had also survived in places. Carrying out careful excavation while reaching into deep cuts is no mean feat!

Robert (foreground) reaching into a deep grave cut, while Federica and Elisa complete a plan drawing.

Robert (foreground) reaching into a deep grave cut, while Federica and Elisa complete a plan drawing.

In Sue’s burial, she was pleased to have recovered a number of tiny pins which may have held a shroud in place. A concentration of pins around the skull may also suggest that the infant was buried with a bonnet pinned to its hair.

Keen-eyed Sue with one of her tiny copper alloy pins.

Keen-eyed Sue with one of her tiny copper alloy pins.

Little things like these are so important because they provide insight into how, even at times of high infant and juvenile mortality rates, families would put a great deal of money and care into the burials of their lost loved ones. When the church records for the burials haven’t survived, the excavations at All Saints and the diligent work of our trainees allow the forgotten to be remembered again.

On Friday the new trainees enjoyed Arran’s usual stratigraphy masterclass, and needless to say Molly, Meg, Kathryn and Hannah did not disappoint, providing abundant bizarre suggestions for the fictional archaeological sequence. There was also a game of spot the placement going on…

Arrans stratigraphy session, complete with mammoths.

Arran’s stratigraphy session, complete with mammoths and a cunningly hidden placement.

Friday came around all too quickly and concluded a very busy week on site. The team had done some great and poignant archaeology and added some new star finds to the increasingly impressive collection. Looking back on the week the stand out find was a fragment of a lead ampulla, found by Jenni.

Jenni and her fragment of a lead ampulla.

Jenni and her fragment of a lead ampulla.

An ampulla is a type of vessel used to store holy water or oils from pilgrimages, particularly in the Middle Ages. Amupllae were originally a type of Roman vessel but were adapted for this later function from the 6th century onwards. The later types relating to pilgrimages were made out of tin, lead and sometimes silver. More extravagant examples featured religious imagery and beautiful decoration.

A lead ampulla.

A lead ampulla.

A complete example of a decorated ampulla was found during York Archaeological Trust’s recent excavations at Hungate and was dated to the 14th-16th centuries.

The handles visible on both Jenni’s and the Hungate example would have been for stringing a cord or chain through in order for the ampulla to be worn around the neck.

Jenni’s find could very possibly be a fragment of another such decorated example, like the Hungate ampulla. It’s an interesting thought to imagine that one of the medieval patrons of All Saints could have been the person who made a pilgrimage to Rome or who knows where, and returned with this precious and tiny holy cargo.

This wonderful artefact may have travelled across Europe and seen Rome at the height of its medieval splendour. Furthermore, as all that remains of Jenni’s ampulla is the corner, having been snipped off from the body of the vessel, we also know that the contents were decanted and used.

The Hungate ampulla. Image copyright York Archaeological Trust.

The Hungate ampulla. Image copyright York Archaeological Trust.

 

All in all to say it was only week 3 of 12, immense progress had been made by our fantastic trainees on so many areas of the site.

We can’t do this dig without the trainees and they do make everything such good fun, so thank you again to all of you for making Archaeology Live! possible.

 

The week 3 team

The week 3 team

As the Saturday at the end of week 3 marked the beginning of the Festival of Archaeology, we held an open day at All Saints where members of the public were able to come and look through our finds, have talks on what the archaeology was telling us about the site so far and tours around the stained glass within the church (it is some of the finest medieval stained glass in the country!).

Becky, Ellen and Katie declare the open day open!

Becky, Ellen and Katie declare the open day open!

We had lots of people of all ages and from different countries pop in to have a look around the site and it was a pleasure to share our discoveries with so many. It was particularly encouraging to meet our younger visitors who were very tenacious and keen to know what everything was!

Showing off our latest finds.

Showing off our latest finds.

Thank you to everyone who came along, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did! Also, thanks for reading my first Archaeology Live! site diary, there’ll be more to follow very soon!

-Katie

PS. There was one more… unusual artefact discovered in week three. Found in a 1990s intrusion, meet ‘Princess Head’.

Princess Head. It's best not to ask...

Princess Head. It’s best not to ask…

 

 

Site Diary: July Weekend

The funerary customs of 19th century Britain have long fascinated those with a passion for the past. How we deal with death has changed remarkably over the millennia and by Victoria’s reign countless influences had contrived to create a heady brew of tradition, superstition and etiquette that can seem detached, morbid and even bizarre to modern observers. The highly ritualised world of burial and mourning seen in Victorian Britain was not, however, devoid of emotion. The painstaking work of our trainees here in York is enabling us to recover lost moments of genuine humanity from layers of earth and bone.

Ominous skies over All Saints.

Ominous skies over All Saints.

Over 160 years ago, a small child in the ancient parish of All Saints, North Street succumbed to illness or disease and passed away. In an age of high infant mortality this was  not an uncommon event, although this would have been of little comfort to the family the child was leaving behind. Like many others at the time, the infant was laid to rest in a quiet parcel of land nestled between a ramshackle range of Georgian and medieval dwellings, an increasingly decrepit Rectory and the looming mass of All Saints church itself. Something about this burial, however, was a little different…

Over the past three years, the trainees of York Archaeological Trust’s training excavation have been meticulously excavating and recording the complex archaeological sequence below the recently demolished All Saints Church Hall. Perhaps the most interesting discovery of the project has been a densely occupied but short-lived burial ground that covered much of the site between 1826 and 1854.

By July 2016, the  summer excavation season was well underway and site supervisor Arran was joined by a team of mainly familiar faces for the year’s third weekend excavation.

Excavation of infant burials by the former Rectory.

Excavation of infant burials by the former Rectory.

As in the previous two weeks of the summer dig, much of the team took up work on a difficult, intercutting sequence of infant burials close to the walls of the former Rectory. Theo, Michelle, Nicola and Paul had a tough task ahead of them as these burials have been found to lay stacked one above the other in no discernable pattern – a stark contrast to the neat rows seen elsewhere on site.

Theo carefully excavating a burial.

Theo carefully excavating a burial.

Theo’s burial was that of an infant that had been extensively damaged by the collapse of its coffin. Lifting away the loose grave backfill while not disturbing the remains took a great deal of patience, but following several years as a member of the Young Archaeologists’ Club, Theo is an assured hand with a trowel.  Nearby, Michelle made good progress within an adult burial, carefully excavating the material within the grave cut and exposing elements of a poorly preserved coffin stain.

Michelle working on an adult burial.

Michelle (second from right) working on an adult burial.

Up to this point, it was business as usual. The burials were laid in the same position, on the same alignment and in the same kind of coffin. Nicola and Paul’s burial, however, had a surprise in store.

Nicola and Paul using a planning frame to record their inhumation.

Nicola and Paul using a planning frame to record their inhumation.

Once the pair had fully exposed the remains of an infant and its coffin, they created a detailed record of the burial. With this process complete, the next task was to delicately lift the remains. As any development of the site will damage the more shallow graves, these infant burials are being recorded, lifted and re-buried in a safe location within the church.

As would be expected, this is not a quick process. Paul and Nicola cautiously lifted each bone and ran all of the excavated grave fill through a fine mesh sieve to ensure that 100% of the remains were recovered.

When the time came to lift the cranium, Nicola noticed something unusual in the soil beneath the right ear – not one, but two coins. This unexpected discovery immediately raised a number of questions.

It is unusual to find grave goods within 19th century Christian burials as this was not the prevailing custom of the time. While the gesture of placing a small gift of money with a deceased relative is only a relatively minor break from normal practice, the position of the coins by the skull is interesting. Could the coins have been placed over the eyes only to slip off when the coffin decayed and collapsed?

A pair of copper alloy coins found beneath the skull of an infant inhumation.

A pair of copper alloy coins found beneath the skull of an infant inhumation.

The practice of interring individuals with coins on their eyes or in their mouths goes back thousands of years and the act has waxed and waned in popularity over time. While we can’t say for certain exactly how the coins had been placed within the coffin, Nicola’s discovery means that a forgotten act of kindness has been recovered from the ground.

The 19th century was a true age of discovery. Alongside technological advancements that would spearhead the industrial revolution, the findings of the first antiquarians fired the imaginations of the British public. This revival of public interest in the distant past can be seen in changes in architecture, fashion and even burial practice. Were the family of this infant caught up in this new found fervour for archaeology, or are we seeing an echo of older folk traditions still being practiced in the 19th century? Of course, we can never know and maybe that isn’t the point.

Finds like these tell us more about the things that don’t make it into the ground; giving us new insight into funeral practices and even the thoughts and acts of those who were there to lay the infant to rest.

Closer inspection of the coins revealed a further sobering discovery. The gradual corrosion of the copper alloy had clearly limited the process of decay, allowing fragments of the infant’s shroud and even hair to survive in an unusual freak of preservation. With the date of the burial well understood, no further investigation of the coins has been carried out. Instead, the coins have been reunited with the remains of the child and re-buried in the safety and sanctity of the church.

This evocative burial is an excellent example of the huge amount that we can learn about the 19th century through the study of changing funerary traditions and also highlights the importance of keeping the ethics of what we do at the forefront of our thoughts. While the stories are fascinating, they are nonetheless the stories of real lives.

Excavating the floor of an 18th century workshop.

Excavating the floor of an 18th century workshop.

Elsewhere in the trench, Julie and Sharon investigated a sequence of deposits that were laid down in the decades before the site became a graveyard.

The first order of business was to excavate the remains of a cobbled floor surface that had been cut on all sides by later graves. This deposit had already been recorded back in 2014, meaning that Julie and Sharon could begin to lift the now moss-covered cobbles immediately.

The proliferation of grave cuts across the site has made it difficult to  piece together how this area would have looked prior to 1826, making these slithers of surviving structures highly important.

The cobbles had been laid tightly packed together, but aesthetics were clearly of little concern as the builders made use of fragments of masonry and brick in as well as cobbles. The surface was not laid solidly in a bed of mortar, instead, a thin layer of sandy silt was apparently deemed  to be sufficient.

This discovery reinforces the interpretation of these structures as roughly built workshops that were assembled cheaply and quickly.

As Julie and Sharon would discover, the upshot of this low quality build was that repairs and replacements to these floors must have been frequently required.

Julie and Michelle.

Julie and Sharon.

Once the tiles and their bedding material had been fully lifted, Julie and Sharon discovered a compacted layer of tile fragments laid in a thin bed of mortar  – an even earlier floor surface. Even at the turn of the 19th century, it seems that they didn’t build ’em like they used to!

Julie and Sharon recording their second floor surface.

Julie and Sharon recording their second floor surface.

At the opposite end of the trench, Beverley worked with Archaeology Live! placement Katie to delve even further back into the site’s long history. The pair revealed, cleaned up and recorded a layer of silt and ash that was deposited back in the fourteenth or even thirteenth century.

Beverley and Katie recording a slightly waterlogged medieval dump.

Beverley and Katie recording a slightly waterlogged medieval dump.

While there is no evidence of medieval structures occupying the site prior to the construction of the Rectory in the 14th century, our trainees have unearthed a growing number of pits, dumps and levelling deposits that are packed with domestic refuse. Study of this material will allow us to gain some insight into the lifestyle led by the medieval occupants of Church Lane.

'The Bradford Gang'

‘The Bradford Gang’

The July weekend saw the team unearth some unexpected and occasionally quite moving finds, finds that allow us a glimpse into the changing ways people have dealt with mortality and how the site has been put to use. The good weather (mainly) held and the team made it a lot of fun!

Theo looking resplendent in the afternoon sun.

Theo looking resplendent in the afternoon sun.

With a plot that continued to thicken and a full ten weeks of excavation still ahead of us, the summer was beginning to look very promising indeed. As always, everyone at Archaeology Live! would like to thank the trainees that made the July weekend possible, after all, they funded the work and carried out all of the excavation and recording! Good effort team!

The July weekend team.

The July weekend team.

There are lots more updates to follow so watch this space! Until then, onwards and downwards!

-Arran

 

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