With a quarter of the summer 2015 excavation already behind us, week four saw the team really beginning to hit their stride. Numerous trainees were into their fourth week and were quickly becoming a lean, mean archaeology machine! With the addition of a group of new and returning trainees, hopes were high for an exciting week – and we weren’t disappointed!
Throughout the first three weeks of the season, Matt and Bri have forged a great partnership, picking apart the myriad structural features and alterations of a much-rebuilt rectory building that occupied the southern end of the site until the 1850s. As later walls, surfaces and drains have been recorded and taken away, more and more of the building’s older elements have been revealed, including tantalising stone footings that may even be medieval in date.
With all additional elements fully recorded, Matt and Bri’s first task of the week was to finish emptying out the construction backfills of the Rectory’s north-east walls and to record the walls themselves.
Once the 19th century walls were recorded, Matt and Bri could then get on with the fun bit: demolition!
Careful, controlled demolition of course…
What had been thought to be a continuous stretch of brickwork proved to be two separate walls joined by a rough patch of mortar and rubble. As the mortar was chipped away, more of the early stonework was revealed, proving to be more substantial than had been thought. The newly exposed stonework survives to at least two courses in height and is finely finished, with one stone exhibiting a chamfered edge.
As happens so often, exciting archaeological discoveries can pose more questions than they answer. The presence of this high status masonry suggests at least two intriguing possibilities: do we have surviving fragments of a high-status medieval rectory, or did the medieval building use recycled masonry from the church in its construction? As many parts of the building post-date this stonework, we will have to wait a little longer to solve this medieval mystery. For now, Matt and Bri turned their attention to a highly truncated fragment of the Rectory’s brick floor.
Surviving on a tiny island of archaeology between the 155 year old walls of the Church Hall and a Victorian drain trench, the fragment of floor wasn’t the most impressive structure!
Appearances, however, can be deceptive – the brick floor had a secret! With the floor lifted, Matt and Bri realised that there was something unusual about the material. Some of the fragments turned out to be re-used glazed floor tiles and one proved to be part of a chamfered mullion brick. All of the material was medieval and distinctly high-status, clearly the Rectory was making use of disused tiles from the church and part of a medieval window.
Matt and Bri’s discovery serves as a reminder of the very different lives that can be lived by artefacts and that objects can often have quite the tale to tell. It seems that our medieval Rector was distinctly Yorkshire – why buy expensive brick pavers when you can make use of your surroundings and source material for free?
The pair brought their stay with Archaeology Live! 2015 to a close by beginning to excavate the remainder of a mid-19th century drain trench. The plan had originally been to leave the drain in-situ, although as the area around it descended, it was beginning to get in the way. It didn’t take long for some nice finds to emerge!
Within the backfill of the trench was a plethora of Victorian treasures, including an ornate copper button and a decorative lead weight. Matt and Bri can congratulate themselves on an excellent month’s work! We are beginning to piece together more of the Rectory’s story and finding that it no doubt has many surprises still in store for us!
Matt and Bri weren’t the only trainees to be ending a four week run on site. Joining us all the way from San Francisco, Sue’s first three weeks had seen her tackle a number of interweaving deposits and an infant burial. For her final week, a bigger task was in hand – an adult burial.
In a small world moment, Sue was partnered with a new starter named Gill who, as it turned out, had dug with Sue the previous year at the Burrow Hill excavations!
Sue and Gill proved to be a great team and made fantastic progress over the course of the week, recovering some fascinating finds along the way. As well as a copper strap end and a sheet of lead (stained glass repairs?), a nice range of ceramics were discovered. Gill found a decorated sherd of Roman Greyware in her first ten minutes of troweling!
Despite being a primarily utilitarian ware, this fabric often comes with incised decorations, typically in a diamond pattern.
A good amount of medieval pottery was also recovered, including some lovely sherds of locally made Brandsby and Hambleton wares.
It quickly became apparent that this was going to be one of our deeper burials, forcing Sue and Gill to adopt some gymnastic digging positions!
At a depth of around 500mm, the first fragments of a collapsed coffin began to appear, one of which offering a genuine surprise!
The majority of our timber coffins have been in a very poor state of preservation, surviving only as an organic stain in the ground. With delicate excavation, it is possible to reveal the outline of a coffin, allowing us to record the size and shape of the structure, as well as any decorative features that may have survived. Beyond this, however, little more can be gleaned about the grave fittings.
Thanks to a quirk of preservation, Sue and Gill were able to learn a little more about their burial. A fragment of the collapsed lid of the coffin was lifted and found to contain not just a tiny copper pin, but also a fragment of preserved fabric!
Proximity to metallic objects often impedes the decay of organic materials such as wood and fabric, and by pure fluke, the presence of an iron nail and the copper pin has made it possible to ascertain that this individual was buried within a shroud as well as a coffin. As the pin perforates the fabric, we can also learn that the shroud was held in place by pins.
Archaeology is unrivalled in its ability to pull such minute details of past lives from the ground. The discovery of this scrap of fabric serves as a reminder that we are spectators of a very solemn moment, separated only by the better part of two centuries.
By the end of the week, Sue and Gill’s delicate work really paid off as the outline of the intact edge of the coffin began to appear in the base of the cut. This discovery was a nice way to round off a very successful four weeks for Sue, who is already making plans to return next year!
Week 4 was the final week on-site for Alice from northern Italy. At the end of week three, she had just discovered the clear outline of a coffin within a grave cut on the trench’s northern edge.
Alice’s first task of the week was to record the coffin and to locate the remains of the individual within.
Like Sue and Gill, Alice discovered a great range of pottery, from Roman to early modern. Scraps of lead sheeting were also recovered from this grave backfill that may relate to a suite of repairs to the stained glass of All Saints that occurred in the mid-19th century.
Alice’s coffin proved to be our best preserved example yet, with much of the timber of the northern edge still in-situ!
After four weeks, Alice was recording and excavating to a professional standard. She quickly exposed and recorded the remains of an adult individual within the coffin before backfilling the burial with a cushion of finely sieved earth.
The next challenge was to look at the final possible burial in this part of the trench.
Alice took to the task with her usual brand of care, speed and efficiency. By the end of the week, the coffin of a small child had been exposed and fully recorded, allowing work to begin on revealing the skeleton. A touching discovery came in the shape of a cluster of copper pins around the skull, it seems that this infant was buried with a bonnet pinned to their hair – a highly evocative and very personal discovery.
Over four weeks, Alice recorded and excavated no fewer than 28 contexts, an achievement that must be an Archaeology Live! record!
Joining us from the USA and Belgium respectively, Kristine and Koen’s week began with the excavation of an accumulation of material that dates to the use of the graveyard. This revealed the outline of several new burials and gave ‘This End’ supervisor Gary a chance to better understand the most densely occupied part of the burial ground.
With a grave backfill recorded, Koen and Kristine were free to excavate. Slowly, the remains of a small child were revealed, adding to a growing trend in this area of the trench. There appears to be a distinct concentration of infants and juveniles to the immediate north-east of the Rectory’s yard wall and while the graves do not intercut, many infants appear to have been placed in shallow graves over existing adult burials.
Whether this trend is the result of a well-used family plot or a pandemic event may well remain uncertain as church records do not survive for this period – it remains a fascinating puzzle to piece together.
With the remains fully exposed, Kristine and Koen then recorded the burial in detail before cleaning up a new area to find yet more burials.
Close-by, returning trainees Iain and Anne teamed up to tackle what appeared at first to be an infant burial.
As excavation progressed, the grave grew ever deeper and it became apparent that this was not an infant burial after all.
By mid-week, Gary’s area was a hive of activity, with the whole team working on delicate features. This made for cramped working conditions as much of the site can’t be walked upon due to the shallow nature of many of the burials, nonetheless, the team coped admirably!
As the week progressed, Iain and Anne could have been forgiven for thinking that they’d never reach the base of their burial but, thankfully, there was eventually a breakthrough moment!
At a considerable depth, the remains of the individual within the grave cut were finally exposed and, intriguingly, the person had been buried face down. Historically, the northern side of the churchyard was reserved for less desirable members of society. Many medieval burials in York churchyards north of the church have been found buried face down or on unusual alignments, but this trend was dying out by the early modern period due to changes in belief and a pragmatic response to overflowing graveyards.
In short, the more likely explanation for this unusual burial is that it was carelessly loaded onto a cart for transport and that the simple nature of the coffin (and lack of a ‘this way up’ stamp…) made it impossible to discern whether or not it was upside down.
Alongside this interesting discovery, Iain also had a great find – a medieval silver penny. This marked an exciting end to Iain’s fourth season of Archaeology Live!
Back in ‘That End’, Arran’s team were joined by tasters Louisa, Sophie and Annie who continued work on a 1m square slot aiming to provide a window into earlier deposits.
The tasters recorded and excavated a deposit that pre-dates Sue’s linear feature (see the Week One site diary) and discovered a mix of finds from Roman to 19th century.
The mixed nature of the deposit makes it likely to be a levelling deposit, laid down in the 19th century to smooth off an area of rough ground.
In the new extension to the trench, Taralea was beginning her second of four weeks on-site. Joined by Ellen, who is herself a veteran of three seasons, Taralea continued the excavation of a drain trench dating to the 1860s.
As far as earthmoving is concerned, this area proved to be the most active part of the excavation. We knew that the cut would be around a metre or more in depth and that the material re-deposited within it would give us a clue in what to expect from earlier deposits.
Indeed, the trench proved to contain a great deal of disarticulated human bone, proof that the people who dug out the trench in the 19th century were disturbing medieval burials. As well as this macabre material, Ellen and Taralea were also finding more personal insights into medieval and post-medieval life along Church Lane. Ellen was sharp-eyed enough to spot a tiny copper alloy button or rivet, that may have once adorned an item of clothing or bridlery.
Taralea wasn’t going to be beaten however, as she responded with the discovery of an unusual piece of medieval pottery.
Possibly part of a chafing dish (think medieval fondu…) or a highly decorative glazed roof tile, we’re looking forward to seeing what our medieval pottery specialist thinks of this one!
By the end of the week, Ellen and Taralea had made a real dent into the drain trench backfill and filled a number of finds tubs to the brim. The discovery of numerous fragments of broken ceramic drain pipes suggest that the drain was re-laid at least once.
Once the drain trench is emptied out, we will be able to investigate the earlier features and deposits that it cuts through and maybe even be able to meet some of All Saints’ medieval parishioners face to face.
Below the Tree of Finds, Toby, Gus and the finds team continued to work their way though the thousands of finds pouring from the trench. Each of these must be cleaned, dried and bagged by type in readiness for specialist analysis. A watchful eye must also be kept out for interesting finds that may require special treatment or research.
Highlights during week four included a very literal medieval half-penny.
Dating to a time when coins were worth their intrinsic weight in a precious metal, it was commonplace for coins to be divided into halves or quarters.
Going back even earlier, a Roman coin was also discovered!
Finally, part of a beautifully worked stone spindle whorl was noticed amongst a tray of pottery, tile and bone fragments. We’ve found a good number of these items now, some beautifully made, some quite simple – all of which harking back to a time when clothes had to be made and repaired as opposed to bought and replaced.
By the end of the week, as the team headed to the familiar comforts of VJ’s (our traditional Friday night haunt), everyone was rightfully proud of a great week’s archaeology. While there are numerous burials yet to be discovered and excavated, areas are slowly beginning to be cleared as we continue to creep earlier into the site’s past.
Huge thanks must go out to all of the week four team for making the project possible and doing such great work on-site!
We should also thank our team of placements for their tireless work, boundless enthusiasm and occasional sass (Donald…)
The week’s work wasn’t done there however, as the team returned to the trench on Saturday for our first oped day of the year. The event was scheduled to tie in with the national Festival of Archaeology and we were delighted to show around a hundred people around the site.
While Arran, Gary, Toby and Gus showed people around the trench and explained the sequence, Katie and Ellen were on hand to show off all of our favourite finds.
Of course, 2014’s star find and star of the 2015 T-shirt Dino made an appearance…
It’s always a pleasure to open up our sites to the public, we hope to do it again in the autumn.
That’s it for this week, keep your eyes out for next week’s exciting instalment of archaeology at All Saints!
Until then, onwards and downwards!