After a hectic first fortnight at All Saints, there was no time to pause for breath. The second Saturday of July dawned bright and sunny and the first weekend team of the year got straight to work!
Inducted, oriented and tooled up, the new team took straight to the trench. The plan of attack was to attack on two fronts, investigating two very different sequences of archaeology.
In the centre of the trench, Archaeology Live! veterans Sue and Gill were joined by new starter Dineke and began work on what was believed to be the final grave plot to be investigated. Over the previous three seasons, a sequence of 19th century deposits had been excavated and the team had begun to wonder if the space had ever received a burial. As work progressed, a faint rectangular edge did eventually emerge and the new team made quick work of recording their suspected grave backfill.
Recording done, it was now time to break out the trowels and start digging. As the depth of a burial can never be predicted, this process is carried out slowly and with great care and one of the edges of the grave cut proved to be very clear – the others were somewhat less co-operative.
When graves have been tightly packed together and repeatedly re-opened in the past, it isn’t unusual to find their edges to be a little diffuse and the trio tackled the task with admiral patience. Thankfully, this was met with fine reward when some stunning finds began to emerge.
Dineke struck first, spotting an oddly shaped and distinctly heavy object from the mass of animal bone and pottery that was being recovered from the backfill deposit. The object was made of lead, but didn’t appear to relate to maintenance of the stained glass, as so many of our other lead artefacts have. Its purpose may remain a mystery for now, but an assessment of our small finds is scheduled for next year and may tell us a little more.
Not to be beaten, Gill celebrated her fifth season of Archaeology Live! with a real benchmark in any archaeologist’s experience – her first ever coin!
The tiny object appears to have been made of copper alloy and was covered in a thick layer of corrosion. Nonetheless, its shape and thickness appeared distinctly Roman, making it another addition top a growing assemblage of Roman coinage found at All Saints.
As we’re digging in the heart of the civilian Roman city (the Colonia), finding a good number of coins isn’t a great surprise. The interesting development is the relative scarcity of any later coins, which appear in far less quantity.
There could be numerous reasons for this skewed assemblage, but it seems very likely that the site was an important place in the height of York’s Roman splendour. As with Dineke’s lead object, we hope to learn more about Gill’s coin in post-excavation.
On the road again…
In the very north-east corner of the trench, Debi, Sonia and Richard were making their Archaeology Live! debut in a very exciting new sondage (archaeologist parlance for a ‘trench within a trench’). Church Lane is a narrow passage that runs along the north side of All Saints and connects North Street to Tanner Row. Today, it is a quiet, private footpath, but it was once a busy route between the waterfront of the Ouse and the centre of York’s tanning industry. Only one section has ever been excavated across the street back in the 2015 season and the results of this were unexpected to say the least.
Beginning with a sequence of 19th and early 20th century service cuts for drains and cables, the 2015 sondage didn’t get off to a glamorous start, although the fill of the drain trench did yield a beautiful Roman coin. The surprise came later as, buried beneath 18th century road surfaces, a pair of post-medieval burials were revealed close to the wall of the church. These burials appear to have been interred at a point when this area was not an active burial ground – what was going on?
Of course, there was only one way to find out – time to dig!
With the (incredibly heavy) flagstones of the path lifted, the first task was to quickly record the latest feature beneath them. In this case, the drainage beneath the street appears to have been replaced in the 1920s, leaving a long thin trench beneath the street.
While this is hardly Stonehenge, this drain cut is one of the deepest features on the whole site and, as a result, was cut through many centuries of archaeological deposits which, following the installation of the 1920s drains, were then used to backfill the hole. This means that lots of earlier finds have been re-deposited within the trench, finds that can tell us a lot about the site’s more ancient past.
Sonia, Richard and Debi immediately began to see the results of this process as a wonderful array of finds veritably poured from the trench.
There were many highlights, with a particularly stunning array of ceramics stealing the show. Sonia discovered the base of a 16th century Cistercian ware cup with a lovely iridescent purple brown glaze. The cup would likely have been a two handled vessel and provides a direct connection to one of the area’s post-medieval inhabitants. Holding the objects people used on a day to day basis is one of the real pleasures of archaeology after all!
All told, the pottery found in the top few inches of the feature filled several finds trays and spanned from locally made 2nd century Ebor wares to late 19th century white wares – that’s a date range of just shy of two millennia! You really can’t beat digging in York.
The good weather held for the whole weekend and the team made an excellent start on the two new features. There would, however, be no rest for the wicked – it was time for week three!
The fine weather of the July weekend didn’t last for long and the third Monday of the dig began on a decidedly damp note. Undeterred by grey skies, the continuing trainees from week two dived straight into the trench with Katie, while Arran inducted the new starters.
Bad weather hampered much of week three, forcing the team to juggle the schedule to make best use of gaps in the rain, but it would take more than cold, wet ‘Yorkshire sunshine’ to hold our team back!
New starters Linden and Karu took over the excavation of the burial started by Gill, Sue and Dineke at the weekend and successfully defined three clear edges to the cut. The remaining edge remained elusive, with the loose backfill deposit spreading further to the north than might have been expected.
In spite of this curious edge, the feature yielded some interesting finds including a ceramic stopper from a 19th century bottle. The stopper most likely had a second life as a child’s marble as bottles of this type were frequently smashed by children to recover the stoppers.
Not to be left behind, Karu came across a fragment of beautifully worked bone. The object appears to have been purely decorative and may well have been made by the horn and bone workers who occupied the site prior to its use as a graveyard.
After three days of patient trowelling, the gents were rewarded with the discovery of the coffin. While the wood only survived as an organic stain, the decorative band of metal around the edge of the coffin was clearly visible and a fragment of the collapsed lid demonstrated how beautifully decorated the coffins would have been.
By the end of the week, Karu and Linden had exposed around half of the coffin, which was no mean feat considering how difficult it was to reach the base of the cut. There was also one more find in store, as Karu spotted a rather enigmatic sherd of pottery…
The sherd appears to be the handle of a 19th century vessel and has been shaped in to the head of an animal. Debate raged in the trench as to precisely what creature Karu had found; was it a swan? A snake? A dragon? Karu’s suggestions of a ‘demon duck’ seems sensible enough to us…
Whatever the truth of the matter, this is certainly an unusual find – and a strong contender for find of the season!
Sam and Jenni continued work on a double burial in the centre of the trench. With one individual lifted, they were now free to clean up the remains of the other occupant of the grave.
While the upper burial had been challenging due to its collapse into the underlying coffin, the lower burial proved to be equally challenging. There was no further issue with subsidence into a lower feature but, in this case, the remains were incredibly delicate. As more of the skeleton was revealed, Sam and Jenni could see that the skeleton was female and that the bone was unusually porous, with evidence of extensive wear and tear in the spine and joints. Furthermore, almost all of the teeth were missing and had been absent long enough for the sockets in the maxilla and mandible to have almost totally healed over – this had clearly been a very elderly lady.
Discovering an individual like this was an important development as it provides a window into a an aspect of 19th century life that isn’t always apparent in the archaeological record – compassion.
To a casual modern observer, the 19th century can seem remote, cold, even callous. At All Saints, we have certainly seen a very high occurrence of infant mortality and the countless ways that this may have touched the lives of families living in the parish can only be imagined. Workhouses, debtors’ gaols, child labour, outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have become emblematic of this fascinating period of British history; permeating the fabric of the public consciousness.
Sam and Jenni’s discovery, however, demonstrates that a woman who must have been in near constant pain and struggled with her mobility was cared for well enough to live to a ripe old age. With the few records that survive relating to our burial ground still awaiting further study, we may never know the name of this woman, or who it was that cared for her in her final years, but we are able to put forward some possibilities.
The 1852 OS map of York depicts a row of buildings marked as Colton’s Hospital a mere stone’s throw from the west end of Church Lane. An annotation reads, ‘An Almshouse for Poor Women’ and contemporary census data even lists the names of some of the residents. Was our lady a resident of Colton’s? Or was she cared for at home by her family? Whatever the truth, this lady was certainly not abandoned.
Crucially, it is clear that at least some measures were in place to care for the most vulnerable parishioners of All Saints, North Street and it is certainly refreshing to see a more human aspect of 19th century life visible in the archaeological record.
At the south end of the trench, close to the walls of the former Rectory, Josh, Hannah and Laura picked up the excavation of another burial. As has become something of an All Saints tradition, this feature required the team to adopt some unusual digging positions…
The team proved to be very capable and didn’t take long to have the skeleton recorded and carefully lifted. The next task was to fully clean and record the remains of the coffin, which now stood empty for the first time in around 160 years.
Before the end of the week, the coffin was also ready to lift and the trio started to clean up the cut of the grave, revealing a tantalising surprise in section.
Clearly visible in the edge of the grave cut were bands of grey and black ash and charcoal that clearly pre-date both the lifetime of the graveyard and the workshops that came before it. Were we looking at more surviving elements of a medieval yard? Only time would tell…
Finally, Josh, Laura and Hannah topped off a successful week with some great finds, including a piece of decorative glasswork from the 18th/19th century and a cute little bone button.
In the neighbouring burial plot, were also faced with the challenges of excavating the uppermost burial within a single burial plot. With a great deal of patience (and occasionally numb legs!) the pair squeezed into a difficult space and made really good headway.
Discerning what elements of a burial are collapsed and in-situ can be very difficult, but Gill and Adele were quick to adapt. On a rainy afternoon, they also accurately transferred a benchmark around the inside of the church with a dumpy level. We love gadgets, but it’s always good to master the old fashioned hard skills too!
The team were bolstered by a healthy crowd of tasters who joined us for one to two day sessions on-site. Early in the week, the team of Juliet, Bernard and Janet took over the excavation of our Church Lane sondage, before passing the baton to Sarah, Helen, Janet and Bev.
Finds of Roman, medieval and post-medieval pottery continued to appear in the service trench backfill running beneath the street surface, as did a substantial amount of disarticulated human bone.
Juliet, a doctor from Cambridgeshire, unearthed the star find – a small shard of what appears to be post-medieval window glass. The glass was immediately placed into a finds bag with a small amount of water, before being placed in a cool, dark container. This will slow down the decay that can terribly affect ancient glass.
With the trench being situated immediately adjacent to the church, it is perfectly possible that this glass was once set within one of All Saints’ world famous windows. If only finds could speak…
As well as having a busy week in the trench, the week’s new starters also enjoyed our signature specialist sessions.
Anyone familiar with Time Team will know how impressive it is when a beautiful 3D graphic is produced after an archaeologist unearths a tiny pot sherd. Happily, you don’t need a PhD to be able to learn a lot from even the smallest ceramic find. After an hour with Arran and our reference collection, the team were well on their way to happily telling their Gritty Wares from their Grey Wares!
For the first two seasons at All Saints, a reference collection of small finds (objects of individual significance) was used to teach trainees to recognise different artefacts and material types. By 2016, the finds we had recovered from our own little trench had become a far more exciting collection! As a result, this session has now also become a chance to admire our own assemblage!
Stratigraphy and the dreaded Harris Matrix were the concern of our final specialist session of the week. Placing hundreds of individual contexts into an accurate stratigraphic sequence has been the bane of many a student of archaeology, however, our irreverent take on the subject has always had great success; there are just a few more unicorns than usual…
All told, week three turned out to be a real gem, with plenty of finds too!
After seven days straight on site, there was no rest yet for Arran and Katie as July 16th marked the beginning of the UK Festival of Archaeology. To celebrate, a well attended open day was held at All Saints, giving local people a chance to see the site and to see our most exciting finds so far.
The fourth week of the dig began amidst a flurry of sunshine, small finds and Samian.
Returnee Gill was quick off the mark with the discovery of a cute copper alloy object while Jenni unearthed a lovely rim sherd from a Samian ware vessel.
This was the beginning of a flurry of nice finds, with sudden bursts of celebration echoing around the trench. Jenni led the charge by spying a fragment of a medieval coin within the backfill of her feature.
Week four was off to a flying start!
This was Jenni’s third and final week on-site and she was joined by new starter Andrew to excavate another of our 19th century inhumations. While the sunshine was welcome, the high contrast made photography something of a challenge!
Josh and Laura continued work on the burial they started back in week three, lifting the remains of the coffin and recording the cut.
With one burial now fully dealt with, the time appeared to have finally come to further investigate the Rectory walls. As a context can only be excavated once all related later features have been taken away, this moment had been a long time coming, but when Josh and Laura discovered an as-yet unknown burial, the walls received a stay of execution.
While, Josh and Laura weren’t able to begin dismantling the walls of the Rectory just yet, the newly discovered inhumation yielded some really interesting finds.
Josh struck first, finding not only a copper alloy button, but also a coin! The object was highly corroded, but its size and thickness would suggest that it is Roman in date and must have been on quite the journey to end up in a 19th century grave.
The ‘mobility’ of finds is an interesting thing to consider. The landscape along the River Ouse has changed dramatically since the 9th and 6th Legions paraded the streets of Eboracum and Roman ground level may now be situated several metres below even the deepest features that we have excavated so far.
If Josh’s coin was misplaced during the Roman period, the deposit that it fell into must have been repeatedly disturbed by people digging pits, foundations and myriad other intrusive features. Each time the coin was moved, it was inadvertently re-deposited at contemporary ground level and, crucially, wasn’t noticed and recovered by the person who was disturbing the ground. Over the centuries, as the coin grew worn and ever more corroded, the chances of it ever seeing the light of day again would have grown ever more remote. Until Josh came along, of course!
This worn little object has clearly had quite the adventure on its way to becoming part of the archaeological record!
Not one to be left behind, Laura also recovered an interesting and rather convenient small find complete with the date of its manufacture – 1828.
The find was a clay pipe bowl; not an uncommon discovery, but a rather fine example. In this case, the moulded decoration includes the crest of the City of York and a maker’s mark that allows us to know exactly who manufactured this pipe. The 1828 date corresponds with the lifetime of the graveyard, perhaps the pipe was used by a parishioner or even a grave digger. We’ve done a little research into this particular kind of pipe in a previous season and found that it comes with an intriguing story (have a read here!).
Elsewhere in the trench, other burials were also proving to be quite fruitful, although their inaccessibility was requiring the team to squeeze into some tight spaces!
In the centre of the trench, Sue and Gill returned to the burial they began work on back in the weekend excavation. While one edge of the cut remained thoroughly elusive, they were able to discern the whole outline of the coffin and to begin exposing the remains of its occupant. Over the course of the week, the industrious pair were even able to reveal enough of the skeleton to determine that she was female.
Reaching into this grave without putting any weight on delicate remains proved to be quite the workout for Sue and Gill, but they were able to make really good progress regardless!
Elsewhere in the trench, new starters Joanna and Lizzie picked up work on another tricky burial. While the individual wasn’t interred at a great depth, parts of the body were found to have slumped into an underlying void – there was almost certainly another individual buried below.
Cleaning up human remains is never an easy task, especially when bones aren’t necessarily found where they should be(!), but Joanna and Lizzie did a great job and veteran Arch Live! placement Paul was on hand to help create a detailed record.
Week four was a busy week for taster days! A small army made up of Hannah, Mark, Diane, Andrew, Ceri, Max, Chris and Julia joined us to work on our Church Lane trench and a sequence of features that pre-date the graveyard.
The Church Lane slot continued to be very fruitful, earning its nickname of ‘The Treasure Pit!’
A huge range of pottery was unearthed, with Roman ceramics occurring in notable quantity!
It wasn’t just pottery either, as Hannah marked her first ever excavation experience with the discovery of a beautifully preserved 4th century Roman coin! As first days go, this was a good one!
Back in the trench, the tasters recorded and excavated more deposits below the floor levels of our 18th century workshops.
While the good weather didn’t hold all week, the team remained in good cheer!
Finds Mountain certainly wasn’t neglected during week 4, as the team cleaned, sorted and bagged hundreds of our latest finds.
Before we knew it, Friday was upon us and the fourth week of the dig was almost over. With one third of the dig already behind us, time was really flying, but we had already learned a huge amount more about the site.
At the end of play, tools were gathered together, buckets were stacked, records were filed and bags were packed. As the team gathered in the pub, we looked back on another fantastic week of people powered archaeology – and there were still eight weeks left to go! What surprises were left in store for us? Watch this space for updates!
Onwards and downwards!
PS. It’s always nice to get a bit of recognition for your work, especially when it comes from eminent archaeologists like Francis Pryor!