As the nights draw in, the trimmings go up and Ferrero Rocher inexplicably return to supermarket shelves, the festive season is almost upon us once again. Training dig teams across the country are dragging tarps over trenches, filling sheds with freshly cleaned tools and retiring to the warmth of the tea room. Except of course, the Archaeology Live! Team, who are currently busying themselves with various projects and taking bookings for next year’s return to All Saints.
With the North Street excavation on hold until spring, now seems a good time to take stock and look back at what we achieved during the 2014 season. A good archaeologist will be quick to remind you that finds themselves are not necessarily as important as what they can tell you. Objects alone can tell a story, but it is with the art of considering finds in their context that brings us closer to the people that made, owned, used and lost them. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, we are storytellers not treasure hunters, always looking for the human moments hidden in the ground. Although that said, X does occasionally mark the spot and making an exciting discovery is always the highlight of any archaeologist’s day.
We were somewhat spoiled with finds during this year’s excavation and as it’s almost christmas, let’s allow ourselves to put the grand tales aside and look back at some of the finds highlights! (Or ‘shinies’, as they’re known on site…) The season began at the end of march, with a wintery chill lingering in the air. The rubble of the freshly demolished church hall was cleared away and the site was cleaned up before the arrival of our first team of trainees.
It didn’t take long before surprisingly ancient finds began to appear in relatively modern contexts, disturbed from deeper layers and then re-deposited by 19th century workmen. Let’s start our tour of these finds with the Romans…
Samian ware is a high status Roman tableware that proliferated across Britain in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Made primarily in France and Germany, it is often highly decorated with vivid imagery and is identifiable by its terracotta red colour and beautifully smooth, slipped exterior. In fact, it often defies belief that such well made pottery can be almost 2000 years old! The 2014 season provided us with many sherds of samian ware, one of the finest examples featuring the rear end of a lion, not a creature that immediately springs to mind when you consider 2nd century North Yorkshire…
As well as Roman pottery, we were also lucky enough to find a number of Roman coins. This silver denarius features a figure (Mars?) holding a spear and shield. Despite being found in 19th century trample, it is a good indicator that intact Roman archaeology survives in deeper layers.
Amphorae were large ceramic vessels used to transport goods like oils and wine across the Empire. On North Street this year, we have come across a number of large fragments of these huge storage vessels.
The amount of high status Roman material suggests that the area may well have been quite affluent two millennia ago, with the Romano-British inhabitants enjoying the finer things in life.
Earlier, we mentioned objects having the ability to tell a story. This sherd of samian is one such find, which in this case has clearly been burned, turning its terracotta slip a deep grey. As the cross-sections and outer surfaces are equally charred, it is almost certain that this pot was broken before it was burned. You can imagine the heavy heart of the owner, who would have been very aware that this beautifully manufactured bowl had travelled thousands of miles to reach York, as they dropped the tragically broken heirloom into the pile of burning rubbish.
Fanciful perhaps, but a good way to remind ourselves that this pot was owned and used by people just like us. Imagine finding your prized Le Creuset dinner set smashed on the kitchen floor…
Another broken pot with a tale to tell was this sherd of black burnished ware. Once part of a flat bottomed bowl type referred to affectionately by archaeologists as ‘dog bowls’, the rim of this pot has been inscribed with an ‘X’.
Whether this was the act of one of Britain’s first christians, wishing to express their faith through personalised possessions, or an absent mindedly doodled numeral, will never be known. While we do know that the pot is definitively Roman, it is impossible to know when the ‘X’ was carved. This is a wonderful find, bringing us painfully close to connecting with an ancient graffiti artist. Quite why they were driven to inscribe this object however, will remain a mystery.
One piece of Roman text that we could read appeared on a fragment of stamped tile. When the Roman army established the settlement of Eboracum (York) in 71AD, the Legio IX Hispana (Ninth Spanish Legion) began, among other things, the manufacture of tiles complete with a legionary stamp. In 119, the Legio IX Hispana were relieved in garrisoning York by the Legio VI Victrix (Sixth Victorious Legion) allowing the Hispana to embark on their famous (mis)adventure to the north. A grand scheme of re-building then occurred across Eboracum as the northern capitol of the Roman Empire grew ever grander.
The wonderful thing about this tile fragment is that we are able to confidently link it to this important part of York’s past. The stamp clearly features the text ‘VIC‘, making it a product of the kilns of the Sixth Legion. What really bridges the many centuries between us and the men of the Legio VI Victrix however, is the thumbprint located just below the stamp. This impression would have been made by the hand of the individual who placed the still wet tile into the kiln (currently thought to have been located close to St. Cuthbert’s church on Peasholme Green) sometime in the early decades of the second century AD.
It is always surprising how much you can learn from a seemingly innocuous fragment of roof tile!
Roof tiles weren’t the only Roman ceramic building material that we found this year either! A fragment of flue tile was discovered by Rosie in August. This tile may have formed part of a hypocaust system, the Roman equivalent of underfloor heating. The sites position in the heart of York’s prosperous civilian settlement, the colonia, makes it likely that high status homes would have existed close-by. This tile may have once have provided welcome warmth to Romano-British feet, finding shelter from York’s somewhat variable weather.
Our trainees are often surprised by the sheer quality of manufacture that typifies Roman artefacts. Even more utilitarian wares like greyware or black burnished are often decorated with incised markings or exteriors buffed to a smooth shine. Many sherds unearthed this season have been excellent examples of this.
Perhaps the most delicate example of fine Roman material was found by a trainee named Kaye, who attended the inaugural season of Archaeology Live! in 2001! This object has yet to be seen by a specialist, but has been tentatively dated as Roman. It appears to be a fragment of a beautiful glass ring with an inlaid stone.
This would have been an object worn with some pride by a rather well-to-do individual whom could both afford to buy it and lived a gentile enough life to risk wearing a ring made of glass. That said, it clearly did break at some point! Even if this object proves to be medieval, or later, it will remain a thing of delicate beauty. It would have adorned the finger of someone who knew well the past landscape that we have to work so hard to even begin to understand.
Personal, almost frivolous objects such as this give us a wonderful sense of closeness to those who walked the streets of York, or Yorke, or Jorvik, or Eorforwic, or even Eboracum before us. It would be just as prized today as it was then and shows that an appreciation of beauty is an enduringly human trait. The 2015 season will see us continuing to unearth lost Roman treasures like these mentioned above.
To join us and add your own discoveries to our Roman assemblage, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your place on the dig.
What did the Romans ever do for us eh? Ahem…