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2017 Site Diary: Weeks 1 & 2

The ancient streets of York can be a bustling melee of tourists and locals, battling for space beneath the jettied floors of listing medieval buildings. As with many such cities, however, there are many hidden snickleways down which one can briefly escape the clamour of modern life. Tucked between the imposing church of All Saints, North Street and its neighbouring row of 14th century cottages, the well worn paving of Church Lane is one such place to find quiet and sanctuary in the heart of the city. That was, of course, until the archaeologists arrived…

Church Lane hiding in the shade of All Saints, North Street. Image courtesy of David Dodwell

In 2014, the Archaeology Live! training excavation broke ground away from the familiar surrounds of the Hungate development for the first time in almost a decade. While the Hungate project had been a whirlwind tour covering two millennia of York’s past, the time had come for a change and the All Saints, North Street excavation proved to be an excellent successor. Three years, hundreds of archaeological contexts and thousands of finds later, the team returned to the trench for one last hurrah before once again moving to pastures new.

Here is the tale of our final adventure at All Saints, North Street and it all began with… weeding. LOTS of weeding.

Trench of the Triffids.

Abandoned for nine months, the newly verdant trench had taken on a life of its own, leaving site manager Arran the unenviable task of clearing away the greenery. Predictably, this task was carried out on the hottest day of the year but several gallons of mud, sweat and tears later, the site was back to its sparkling self and the stage was set.

Week One

The 2017 season marked a big step forward for YAT archaeologist Katie, as it marked her first season as an Archaeology Live! supervisor. This was a well deserved benchmark for Katie, who had dug at All Saints successively as a trainee, a placement and, finally, professional staff.

With rain forecast, Arran and Katie flew the new team through the rigours of the site induction and got straight to work!

Katherine, Molly, Calum and Adrienne set to work.

Katherine, Molly, Calum and Adrienne set to work on a pair of burials.

Grave Concerns

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, York was faced with a rapidly growing population, a development that placed extra strain on the city’s already burgeoning churchyards. Churches like All Saints and St Crux, Shambles were forced to acquire additional land in which to inter their deceased parishioners and much of the current excavation area was consecrated in 1826. By 1854, all of York’s churchyards were closed by order. Reports of wells being tainted by liquids draining from burial grounds were rife and reform was badly needed. Despite this relatively brief lifespan, the burial ground has proved to be densely occupied.

Discussions with the church over the close season had brought about a change to our approach to the site’s 19th century burials. Three years of excavation had brought about a good understanding of the site’s deposit model and over seventy separate burials had been identified and recorded. In 2015 and 2016, the team had been requested to carefully lift shallow lying infant and juvenile burials for re-interment within the ossuary of the church, while deeper lying adult burials had been recorded, re-covered and left in-situ.  This new knowledge of the depth and location of the burials proved that the proposed re-development of the site would effectively destroy all of the site’s inhumations. In response, permission was granted by the church authorities to exhume the remains of all individuals buried on-site with a view for them to be temporarily housed within the church. Prior to any future construction work taking place, the remains will then be re-buried in the same site, but at a greater depth. This considered solution will allow for the site to enter a new chapter of occupation, whilst also respecting the remains of the individuals who chose to be buried there and protecting them from any damage.

This process will also allow for the remains to be studied archaeologically, revealing tell-tale signs of age, gender, illness and lifestyle. With scant historic records regarding the burial ground surviving, it was down to our trainees to learn as much as possible about the lives of the parishioners of All Saints, North Street.

Steve, Catriona, Andy and Stephen excavating a pair of neighbouring graves.

With the further investigation of the burial ground being a primary goal of the 2017 season, the whole team set to work on four of the site’s burials. Each of these individuals had been at least partially exposed in previous seasons, before being re-covered beneath a cushion of sieved earth and a protective wooden board. The first task at hand was to remove our own 21st century backfill material and to fully clean the delicate remains below. With a mix of experienced and brand new trainees, Arran and Katie were delighted by the team’s suitably patient and considered trowel work.

Working with human remains demands a high level of care and respect and each inhumation will come with its own unique challenges. From a young person in their early teens to a very elderly female, the four burials under investigation in week one allowed the team to get a good grasp of the varied ways that skeletal remains can tell us their stories.

The well preserved remains of a timber coffin.

Cleaning the well preserved remains of a timber coffin.

A defining character of practically all of the burials at All Saints has been the ubiquity of timber coffins, the majority coming complete with decorative metal panels. All four burials from week one featured clear evidence of these coffins, with remains of timber surviving remarkably well after around 160 years in the ground.

Molly and a freshly unearthed button.

Alongside the fascinating insights into burial practice, the backfills of the graves were also yielding some interesting discoveries. As a grave is usually backfilled with the earth that was upcast from its excavation, this material will contain evidence of what was happening in years prior to the cutting of the grave.

The provenance of individual objects recovered from these backfilling deposits can therefore be quite varied. For example, a 19th century individual digging a grave may accidentally drop something a contemporary object such as a coin. It is, however, equally possible that the digging of the hole may unearth much older artefacts within spoil that is briefly piled beside the grave and ultimately used to cover the coffin.

Fittingly, week one saw some very interesting objects discovered within grave backfills.

Keen-eyed Molly spotted a lovely little button that had been skilfully crafted from a piece of animal bone. It is even possible that the object could have been manufactured in one of the workshops known to have occupied the site in the decades prior to its consecration!

 

Stephen and a rather lovely architectural fragment.

In the centre of the trench, Stephen and Andy’s grave yielded a beautifully worked piece of medieval masonry that may once have adorned part of the church.

As everyone knows, there is far more to archaeology than just digging, and the team’s week was broken up with training in other important aspects of the discipline. Alongside seminars on pottery, small finds, stratigraphy and conservation, the team also processed finds and learned survey techniques. With unpredictable weather, the team were grateful to have the church as an impromptu site hut and teaching space!

Transferring benchmarks with a dumpy level.

Catriona and Katherine transferring benchmarks with a dumpy level.

Katie walking Steve and Catriona through the compilation of detailed context cards.

Katie walking Steve and Catriona through the compilation of detailed context cards.

After the long wait for the digging season to start, week one seemed to fly by in a blur! By the end of the week, one individual had already been lifted and the coffins within the other three graves were being recorded.

Thanks to the hard work and professional attitude of the week one team, the 2017 season got off to a flying start!

The week one team.

The week one team.

Week Two

In the second week of the summer excavation, we were joined by a mix of new starters and a few familiar faces. Alongside the new intake of trainees, Arran and Katie were joined by Archaeology Live! legend Dave (The Dig), who became the first placement to join the 2017 team.

A busy trench!

A busy trench!

Work continued on the four burials from week one and as the grave cuts grew ever deeper, the team were forced to employ increasingly unusual digging positions to reach the delicate remains within.

It's all a bit of a reach for Calum and Molly.

It’s all a bit of a reach for Calum and Molly.

While Calum and Molly carefully exposed an adult individual within a well-preserved coffin, returnee Jan and new starter Tony recovered the remains of a newly empty coffin and began to clean up the grave cut for recording. In doing so, they became the first archaeologists of the season to ask what would become a frequently asked question – is another individual buried within this grave plot?

Jan and Tony squeezing into a tight spot while investigating a grave cut.

Jan and Tony squeezing into a tight spot while investigating a grave cut.

Many of the burials at All Saints have been laid to rest in communal plots, with coffins buried one on top of the other. In some cases, it seems multiple individuals were interred at once, while in other cases graves seem to have been intermittently re-opened. The graves with multiple occupants may represent family plots or efficient use of the site’s limited space.

With their skeleton and coffin lifted, Jan and Tony would now have to carefully clean the base of the grave cut to ascertain whether anyone else was interred below. In this case, the pair were met with firm, intact stratigraphy at the base as opposed to looser, more mixed grave backfill – this was a single grave.

Molly lending a hand to Jenni and Sam on a complicated burial sequence.

Molly lending a hand to Jenni and Sam on a complicated burial sequence.

Elsewhere in the trench, 2016 veterans Sam and Jenni were dealing with a particularly tricky burial. This was at the very least a double inhumation and when the coffin of the underlying grave had eventually decayed and collapsed, the individual had slumped downwards into the earlier cut.

As a result of this, the skeleton was laid in a very unusual position with the right arm and the right side of the torso suspended awkwardly up to 200mm above the rest of the body. Furthermore, the remains of the lower individual were situated directly beneath those of the one above; Jenni and Sam would have to clean the skeleton with great care to avoid any confusion over which bones belonged to which person.

Calum, Jenni and Sam hard at work on a double inhumation.

Calum, Jenni and Sam hard at work on a double inhumation.

With the help of Calum and Molly, Sam and Jenni were able to expose the entirety of the skeleton and were well underway with the recording by the end of the week – a very impressive achievement! The burial was clearly of an adult individual, but damage to the skeleton during the collapse of the coffins made it very difficult to define its sex.

Sam beginning a detailed skeleton plan.

Sam beginning a detailed skeleton plan.

At the northern end of the trench, Steve and Catriona also managed to fully expose a skeleton, revealing some fascinating information about person’s health. The skeleton was clearly male and unusually robust, with exaggerated muscle attachments  suggesting that the person would have been highly active. With these skeletal abnormalities and railways, sawmills and flour mills close by, the man was clearly employed in a physical job.

Catriona cleaning a skeleton.

Steve planning a skeleton.

Steve planning a skeleton.

In spite of this active lifestyle, however, evidence from the teeth and pelvis would suggest that the person was only around 45 at the time of death – a sobering reminder of the low life expectancy of the time.

No cause of death was apparent, but the joints were extremely worn and there were many issues with the teeth. Clearly, this individual would have lived with a great deal of pain.

 

Steve and Catriona’s burial was in such a good state of preservation that the pair carried out a photogrammetric survey as well as creating a traditional plan drawing. Watch this space for the results when they’re processed!

Conservator Charlotte leading a tour of YATs conservation lab.

Conservator Charlotte leading a tour of YAT’s conservation lab.

The week two team kept up to the excellent standard of work set by the previous team and dealt admirably with some challenging conditions. Many questions were answered and the week ended on a real high when Molly was offered her first ever professional contract by Cotswold Archaeology! Over her three weeks as an Archaeology Live! trainee, Molly has learned a lot and we wish her the best in her career!

Good luck Molly!

Good luck Molly!

Week two succeeded in bringing us closer to the lives of the people we are studying at All Saints, reminding us of the unimaginable difficulties that people would have faced and none of this would be possible without the hard work of our trainees.

The week two team.

The week two team.

So, there we were. Two weeks down and it was like we’d never left. After three years, the chance to interact more directly with the human remains had proved to be highly evocative. Archaeology’s unique ability to recover intricate details of peoples’ lives can be astonishing. After just two weeks, the careful work of our team was already revealing the incredible amount of hard work that made up the lives of some of All Saints’ 19th century parishioners. We were able to learn more about the health worries that would have weighed on their minds, even down to the particulars of aches and pains. While the excavation of a burial ground obviously tells us mainly about how peoples’ lives ended, the remains can also tell us how they lived.

Over the coming weeks, there would be no slowing down. Watch this space for further updates!

In the meantime, onwards and downwards!

-Arran

 

 

Site Diary: Summer Week 7

Officially past the halfway point and hurtling towards the end of the summer, Monday of Week 7 was as hectic as expected! While the previous week had been largely sunny, rain clouds loomed ominously for much of this week, though luckily we escaped the worst of it and the team soldiered  on admirably. Having said goodbye to some of our longer term trainees and placements the previous week we were happy to greet some new additions to the team.

There may be trouble ahead... A dark cloud just missed the site.

There may be trouble ahead… A dark cloud just missed the site.

Put straight to work on our longest running burials, Charlotte (an undergraduate student from Leicester university) found herself dealing with one of the tallest individuals we’ve come across so far,  appearing to be over six feet in height! The height, robust build and a decidedly masculine skull made Charlotte pretty confident that we were dealing with an adult male. Her careful work guaranteed that both the skeleton and the beautifully decorated coffin remains were left intact, which was no easy task as the rest of the skeleton was very poorly preserved. We’ll be watching this one for a future career in archaeology!

A six+ foot skeleton is no difficulty for our trainee Charlotte.

A six+ foot skeleton is no difficulty for our trainee Charlotte.

And now from one of the largest burials on site, to one of the smallest. Intrepid trainee Janet had gradually been picking apart a sequence of burials throughout  her time with us, and every time we thought we’d found the latest in the series another would appear!

Towards the end of week 6, Janet made a real breakthrough with the discovery of a tiny infant burial in a very well preserved coffin. Armed with her trusty clay modelling tools Janet did an excellent job of exposing the coffin first, and then, very slowly, revealing the burial itself. The reason for the confused stratigraphy was now clear: two neighbouring grave plots had clearly become fully occupied, forcing this infant individual to be squeezed into the gap between. This act of repeatedly reopening graves and then straying outside of the defined grave plot had led to a multitude of overlapping cuts that had to be placed in the correct order by Janet. She did a fine job!

It has been a step-by-step process to untangle the sequence of burials that led to this tiny one on the top.

It has been a step-by-step process to untangle the sequence of burials that led to this tiny one on the top.

Janet has carried on her work away from site, researching the history of All Saints and the surrounding area- watch this space for a report from her on some of the discoveries she made (it may include a few sordid details!).

It was Janet's last week and we would miss her enthusiasm in week 8.

It was Janet’s last week and we would miss her enthusiasm in week 8.

Two of our youngest trainees , Steffi and Hope, joined us this week and enthusiastically took to work on a pair of infant burials. The pair were very quick to pick up the rigours of single context recording, especially planning and levelling – leaving us older people shamefully putting our phones away while they calculated everything in their heads. That maths GCSE seems like it was a long time ago…

By the end of the week Hope and Steffi had successfully excavated, recorded, and begun to lift their burials- rather impressive for two sixteen year olds on their first trip away from home. Hopefully we’ve inspired these two to continue to pursue history- though maths seems a pretty good bet too!

Imogen was visibly joyous at how quickly Hope and Steffi took to planning!

Arch Live! placement Imogen was visibly joyous at how quickly Hope and Steffi took to planning!

Our second set of youngsters, Corinne and Kat, had an equally successful week. They were rather prolific in the small finds stakes and it seemed every other moment we were getting called over to inspect some new find. The two were carrying with work on a burial sequence from the previous few weeks and took to it like ducks to water (aided by the shiny things they kept finding I expect).

Sometimes you get into interesting digging positions in the name of archaeology!

Sometimes you get into interesting digging positions in the name of archaeology!

 

Corinne and her (possibly Roman) silver coin.

Corinne and her (possibly Roman) silver coin.

On Tuesday Corinne found the holy grail of archaeological finds (apart from the actual Holy Grail, obviously)- A COIN! Spotted during sieving, the purple-ish hue of the corrosion suggests that Corinne had found a silver coin that appears to be Roman in date – a wonderful find all round.

Kat got in on the action next with a lovely bone button, possibly from the burial itself, and Corinne’s discovery of a matching one within minutes cemented these girls as the treasure finders of the week.

The buttons were particularly lovely as they added a more personal side to the story of the burial, as did four coffin studs from a decorative plate on the lid that had collapsed onto the skeleton’s sternum.

 

 

Corinne and Kat and their matching bone buttons.

Corinne and Kat and their matching bone buttons.

By the end of the week the Corinne and Kat team had successfully uncovered, recorded and lifted their burial, recovered some amazing finds, and had time to prove that another burial was laying in wait underneath. We wish we had the energy of these youngsters!

Imogen, Linda and Chris hard at work recording.

Imogen, Linda and Chris hard at work recording.

Week 7 was Christine’s second week with us and she continued to bring her cheery Australian disposition to everything- even Contrary Corner! Working with Linda, a regular returnee, Christine spent the week troweling  diligently in the north-east corner of the site to uncover the remainder of a burial that was started last week. Completing this burial was another important step towards freeing up the archaeology between the graves for excavation, so congratulations to Chris and Linda for getting us there with their unwavering enthusiasm and continuously growing pottery collection- washing their finds should be great fun in the future!

Chris with her Masonic pipe bowl.

Chris with her Masonic pipe bowl.

As a bonus Chris also found a whole clay pipe bowl, complete with Masonic symbols- a wonderful find to finish off her time with us.

Linda showing off just some of the pottery from their feature.

Linda showing off just some of the pottery from their feature.

Archaeology Live! Placement Jess continued to guide two week trainee Colin through the trials and tribulations of the archaeological process. They were joined by Sam, a new trainee, on exposing some of the earliest deposits on site. The pair spent the week carefully picking apart a sequence of dumps and levelling deposits that pre-date the  graveyard, giving us tantalising hints about the area before it became consecrated ground in 1826. The two made a formidable team in investigating medieval archaeology, quickly identifying a medieval post hole and several overlapping dump deposits. In fact, the only thing slowing these two down was the sun making the photos rather difficult to take. Sunshine also meant certain red-haired site supervisors took to clinging to the side of the church to save their pale, quickly turning red, skin…

Sam works on getting the photo of a medieval post hole perfect.

Sam (right) works on getting the photography of a medieval post hole perfect. (Note site supervisor Arran hiding in the shade…)

Colin also made the rather remarkable discovery of a copper object within a medieval layer, one of the first small finds from a confirmed medieval deposit. Despite poor preservation, Colin did a wonderful job in delicately excavating the object, probably some kind of decorative fitting originating from the 14th-16th century.

Colin and his mysterious copper alloy object.

Colin and his mysterious copper alloy object.

As Colin and Sam made progress delving into medieval layers in one area of site they had competition from some of our tasters as to who was the furthest back in time. Sam and Jonah, two two-day tasters, were excavating a medieval dump in our sondage, within the remains of All Saints’ long demolished Rectory and made excellent progress in sifting through a fair amount of rather sticky clay. It was hard work but they managed to get through the layer to uncover a clear edge for a medieval pit. An earlier evaluation trench in this area showed that if we get down far enough we’ll encounter intercutting medieval pits – could Sam and Jonah’s find be the first indication of this? This little corner of the rectory is looking increasingly exciting and the pottery is also looking increasingly ancient. The dark brown-green of later medieval pottery has made way for the bright green and splashed variety- hints we are in early medieval deposits? It will be exciting to see what the pit has in store for us.

Sam and Jonah have been working to expose the dark grey edge of a medieval pit.

Sam and Jonah have been working to expose the dark grey edge of a medieval pit.

Sam and James, a mother and son team have done what some of us have been waiting two years to do- lifting the cobble yard surface that has been visible since early 2014! “Locked in” for two years due to surrounding later archaeology- namely that pesky horn core pit that became a sequence of burials. The pair updated the record of the cobbles as the full extent of the feature has has only recently been revealed. They then carefully lifted the surface to reveal… another surface! The plot thickens.

Mother and son team Sam and James work on removing a cobble surface.

Mother and son team Sam and James work on removing a cobble surface.

This is where Georgia and Roy, a father and daughter pair, join the story. They have perhaps been the most enthusiastic tasters of the summer and the two worked on exposing and recording the rough tile surface that appeared beneath Sam and James’ cobble surface. We hope to see more of these two in the future.

Georgia and Roy have removed their tile surface and started cleaning - what a smile!

Georgia and Roy have removed their tile surface and started cleaning – what a smile!

At the end of the week we were joined by Leanne and Tracy, two lovely ladies, who were working on the last remnants of a 19th century trample layer dating to the construction of the church hall in 1860. The aim was to locate the last unidentified burial plots on-site. They managed to do this and more as they quickly found a veritable hoard of finds, ranging from pottery, to ironwork, to bone and back again from all periods.

Tracy and Leanne with finds galore!

Tracy and Leanne with finds galore!

We do more than dig and record at Archaeology Live! – we wash and sort our finds as well! This week when sorting and bagging under the watchful eye of placements we found a rather unique animal bone. Unlike many of our best bone finds, it hasn’t been worked, but it still has a story to tell. The bone in question is a sheep/goat metapodial, a bone that is in the hands/feet of humans, but in the lower legs of four-legged animals as they effectively walk on tiptoes. The point of interest is the rather lumpy area in the centre of the bone, a distorted area where bone has regrown following a break or infection. The fact that the bone has healed indicates that this animal was lucky enough to have a caring owner!

A sheep or goat metapodial with evidence of a healed break/bone infection.

A sheep or goat metapodial with evidence of a healed break/bone infection.

Urban excavations throw up a lot of finds, and while keeping on top of Finds Mountain can be a challenge, it’s always nice to come across a previously un-noticed gem!

Placement Katie laying finds out to dry in the sun - these are only from the past week of washing!

Placement Katie laying finds out to dry in the sun – these are only from the past week of washing!

The week 7 trainees also enjoyed our specialist sessions on pottery, conservation, small finds, and stratigraphy. Undoubtedly some of the finds from this week will make it into future small finds talks- especially the coin and copper object!

Arran takes our trainees through the finer points of stratigraphy under the stratigra-TREE.

Arran takes our trainees through the finer points of stratigraphy under the stratigra-TREE.

The Thursday Wander(™) took a tour of the Roman fortress this week as we followed the outline of the walls and finished at the centre of the fortress, York Minster (before we went to the pub, of course). The wander is always a must as our venerable leader Toby shows us how archaeology is still visible in a modern urban landscape, from tilting buildings due to the earth rampart of the fortress sinking, to the Minster being built in the same place as the most important buildings in Roman York.

The centre of the Roman fortress.

The centre of the Roman fortress.

Of course this is only if you can keep up with Toby’s impressive walking speed. It’s a known fact he walks faster then he runs.

By the end of the week, through a flurry of recording at the end to finish up the many, many features that we’d excavated, we had an exhausted but pleased team. This week has especially shown the broad appeal of archaeology- from 16 year olds barely done with their GCSE’s to retired folks that are following a passion they’ve had all their lives. And all the recording was in tip top shape per-normal!

The Friday afternoon round up.

The Friday afternoon round up!

Thanks to all our trainees and placements who made this a fabulous week! As we stumble, somewhat sunburnt and frazzled into the latter half of the summer we’re grateful for such amazing and enthusiastic people.

-Becky

P.S. Maintaining attention for the group photo was a bit more difficult this week, possibly due to passing cyclists almost taking Toby out as he tried to get a good picture. This was actually the best one – that probably says a lot about the others!

The week 7 team.

The week 7 team.

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