Week 4 of the 2016 excavations at All Saints North Street saw a lot of finds, excellent progress on our 19th century burials and the occasional bout of heat-induced delirium – Summer had finally arrived! With another fully booked week and nine new starters, the team were anticipating another hectic but enjoyable week. They weren’t wrong on either count! This week, York Archaeological Trust’s Katie Smith tells the tale.
On Monday, our freshly inducted week 4 trainees were able to jump straight in the trench thanks to the excellent sunny weather! The new team set to work on our C19th burials, with (inadvertently) rhyming new starters Anna and Hannah taking over the area Jenni and Annie had been working on in week 3 – a grave cut with the double burial of suspected siblings. As had been suspected, this burial did indeed overlay an earlier infant/juvenile grave. However before they managed to find the outline of a small coffin, Hannah found a lovely medieval jug handle re-deposited within the grave backfill.
Not to be left out, Hannah’s digging partner Anna managed to get herself a rather nice find later in the week. Despite the grave backfill proving to be rather compacted and mixed, Anna’s keen eyes spotted a tiny coin! The size and shape of it makes it likely that it is a minim, the Roman equivalent of small change.
A thick layer of corrosion means that no further comment can be made about the coin’s date until it is seen by our conservation team, however, it is always wonderful to discover objects that were misplaced by the citizens of Eboracum and to wonder quite how the coin ended up in a 19th century grave backfill.
By the end of the week the girls had managed to find and record a previously unidentified coffin and still had time to start to reveal the skeleton of a juvenile. In addition, Hannah and Anna also assisted with the recording of burials being worked on right next to them by Grace and Catherine.
Grace spent most of her week with us working on a very small, fragile infant burial. As usual the first thing to be identified, recorded and then dug was the grave backfill. Then, very carefully and patiently, Grace found the coffin which was fully recorded before she began looking for the remains themselves. Because of the size of this person Grace really had to take her time as infant remains are much more fragile than juveniles and adults, this is a difficult task, but she did a great job.
Catherine joined us all the way from New York and picked up where week 3 taster student Robert had previously been working, looking for a deeper burial. The search for this individual, however, had to be put on hold after an unexpected and somewhat gruesome discovery – the jumbled and incomplete remains of a newborn child.
While carefully troweling through grave backfill, Catherine found evidence that a 19th century grave digger had accidentally disturbed an infant burial when reopening an existing grave to inter another individual.
Despite the site’s proliferation of infant burials in this area, this is the first example of a human grave from the 1826-1854 phases of burials being almost completely destroyed by the insertion of a later grave. Although this was almost certainly accidental it was still a sobering find.
The fact that the remains had been gathered together and reburied suggests that the person who dug the grave had noticed their mistake and attempted to show a degree of respect to the infant. Despite this, much of the skeleton was never found.
With assistance from Grace, Catherine made a complete record of the infant before lifting the fragile remains out of harm’s way.
At the other end of the trench in ‘Contrary Corner’ (where the archaeology tends to be a little difficult), Molly and Meg began their second week on-site with the difficult task of reaching down into an ever-deepening grave cut in very hot weather to find the skeleton within their coffin.
Whilst parts of the skull had been revealed in the previous week, Molly and Meg had to go down quite a bit further to find the rest of their skeleton. This is a trend that occurs in the majority of inhumations and happens because the skull generally sits higher than the rest of the body when laid flat. While the rib cage settles and flattens during decomposition, a well-preserved adult skull remains intact.
With space at a premium, the girls worked out a good system of one person digging while the other was sieving; swapping places until they eventually found the torso. Despite challenges from the weather and the awkwardness of their deep grave cut, Molly and Meg were more than up to the task.
After finishing this burial and re-covering it with lots of sieved soil to protect it, Meg and Molly moved onto a different area of the site.
By the end of the week they had also excavated and recorded a posthole, a patch of graveyard soil and a post-medieval stone footing! That’s a lot of in some sweltering heat, but that didn’t seem too much of a problem for Molly and Meg, except for the occasional moment of sun-induced delirium…
Elsewhere on site, Frankie and Kaylan and new starters Phil and Naomi were working on burials for the week. Naomi and Phil started looking for a grave but they soon discovered they had not one, but two juvenile burials within one grave cut. The second burial was discovered while the grave cut was being widened in order to find the full outline of the coffin stain from the first burial.
Naomi and Phil recorded both coffins and then proceeded to look for the remains of one of the juveniles. Whilst they did not fully uncover this burial by the end of the week, given the fact they found two burials where we only expected one, they made fantastic progress on the recording and understanding of this burial sequence.
Frankie and Kaylan were paired up and tasked with finding the remaining burials in the middle of the trench, an area that has been serving as our main route on and off the site. Heavy footfall has made the ground particularly compacted in this part of the trench and, as if trowelling that wasn’t hard enough, the mixed up soil from constant past activity of grave after grave being dug makes it very difficult to spot grave outlines. On top of all this, the baking heat drying out the archaeology and turning everything the same shade of grey meant one thing; it was time to bring out the watering can!
Sure enough, the trick worked and Frankie and Kaylan followed a faint edge to reveal the clear outline of a burial, destroying one of site supervisor Arran’s pet theories in the process.
Up to this point, no burials had been found in the central area of the trench, leading to the suspicion that this strip of land had once been used as a routeway into the burial ground. Frankie and Kaylan’s discovery revealed that burials were indeed present in the area, leaving only a much reduced area seeming burial-free.
Working nearby on another burial was the crack team of Matt and Christine. They made impressive progress over their week and had finished recording their burial by the Tuesday, and lifted the skeleton on Wednesday.
Finishing all of the excavation and recording before the week’s end on that particular burial, they even had time to clean up a brick footing for a gravestone. They certainly made a determined duo! This week marked Matt’s final week as an Archaeology Live! trainee. Following a week spent brushing up on his recording skills, he was all set to begin his first ever placement the following week.
One of the main features of this quiet little site nestled in the shade of All Saints Church is its role as a burial ground for the parishioners between 1826 and 1854. The records for the burials from this time period have unfortunately not survived, and so the only information we have is the detailed archive that our trainees have been producing during their time on Archaeology Live! Although we will never know much fine detail about individual lives, we are remembering those buried here through the creation of these records and helping to protect their remains from damage. Our trainees do 100% of the recording on Archaeology Live! and needless to say, regardless of prior experience or artistic talent, our trainees consistently produce professional quality records. We’re very proud of them and the work they do!
Even trainees who only spend a couple of days with us get the chance to contribute to the site archive, and this week we had 5 tasters joining us. Caroline, Lisa and Lyn joined us at the start of the week and made good headway on the medieval deposits within the old Rectory walls that David and Kathryn had been working on in week 3. They excavated and recorded another dump deposit from this sequence, meaning they’d been able to have a go at trowelling, sieving, cleaning, photography, a 1:20 drawn plan, levels and a context card. Furthermore they were shown how archaeologists date features by pottery type, and so it turned out their deposit might be as early as the 13th Century in date!
Later in the week, tasters Ann and Pat continued to work on the same area and found another layer of dumping material, this time with a concentration of animal bone and clearance from a hearth. “But surely one dump deposit is the same as them all,” you may ask; however we have been able to see changes within each successive layer. Every pit, post hole, dump, grave or layer (etc. etc.) is indication of a newly discovered event in history and therefore needs to be recorded as a unique context. By week 4, our trainees had already identified nearly 750 of these historic events, adding to a detailed timeline of the changing ways the site has been used.
The way in which we differentiate one layer from another, particularly with something as mixed up as a dumping layer, is not just the colour of the soil but the compaction, composition, inclusions and the finds. Ann, Pat and Clare’s dumping had hearth debris in it, whereas the overlying dump deposit only had occasional flecks of charcoal – not the same as the waste from cleaning out a hearth. So there you have it, two different types of dumping from two different events.
If the complexity of the deposition in this little sondage continues as we go further down (and therefore further back in time), we ‘ll gain a detailed insight into the site’s medieval development. As the rest of the site is so densely populated with burials from the 19th Century, this area offers our only uninterrupted look into the pre-1826 landscape at North Street. Our week 4 tasters, despite only being here for a couple of days each at most, have helped us understand the beginning (archaeologically speaking) of a potentially extensive sequence of dumping relating to the medieval occupation of this site.
Over the course of the week the trainees also enjoyed our specialist sessions on pottery, conservation, small finds and stratigraphy, and when it got a bit too hot in the trench, refuge was sought either finds washing under the welcome shade of the Tree of Finds (the ‘Stratigratree’ on Fridays) or bagging dry finds in the cool of the church.
As with any of our washing and bagging sessions, occasionally something more unique will crop up. This week we found a bit of 18th Century transfer ware with this adorable little teapot on it.
Despite the immense heat and shifting lots of earth, the trainees managed to keep smiles on their faces all week long, so a big thanks to all of them for not letting that rare British summer beat them!
Hopefully there will be more site diaries coming soon so until then, thanks for reading!
P.S Week 4 brought lovely weather but also a new site mascot as Planty hadn’t survived winter very well. We now have a fluffy little sparrow fledgling zooming around the site looking for crumbs and crisps, and he wasn’t really bothered how close he had to go to us in order to get his lunch. Sometimes if we didn’t put crumbs down soon enough, he’d just help himself…
Of course, we had to name him Captain Jack.