Archaeology can be an unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving creature. One site can see you immersed in a fascinating story with finds practically pouring from the ground, another can see you overjoyed by even the tiniest sherd of pottery.
There is, however, something special about faire olde York.
Whether it’s down to the city’s important position in British history or just the simple fact that people have been continuously living here for over two millennia, the archaeology that still lies undiscovered beneath the busy streets never disappoints.
With the first month of the summer excavation having been a wild success, week five had big boots to fill! We really shouldn’t have worried though, there were some great surprises in store for us!
A cool, grey Monday morning was brightened by the return of two Archaeology Live! legends, Clive and Juliet. This redoubtable pair have become a familiar sight, both having worked on every season of the training dig since its inception in 2001.
As a way of rewarding them for their continued support of the project, we naturally put them into the site’s deepest and trickiest holes.
Two cells within the mid-19th century shell of All Saints Church Hall have particularly deep concrete foundations, providing a solid edge that permits us to safely sink two deep sondages into earlier deposits. Week five had a lot of climbing in store for Clive and Juliet!
In Clive’s cell, previous work had identified an intercutting sequence of medieval pits beneath the post-medieval horizon. His first task was to clean up the area and establish which of these features was the latest to occur; as we dig features in reverse chronological order, this would be the first one to excavate.
For the Tuesday of week five, Juliet was joined by Georgina, who spent her taster day helping with the excavation of a medieval dump deposit. Georgina’s first exciting find appeared in no time, as she unearthed the handle of an ornate medieval jug. You can’t help but wonder how many libations would have been poured from this elaborately decorated vessel!
As the week progressed, Clive continued to pick apart his complex sequence of pits and dumps, while Juliet made a rather different discovery – a beaten earth surface.
Sitting over a metre below the present surface of Church Lane, this surface gives an indication of how much the ground level has built up over the last 500 years!
Interestingly, as Juliet recorded the newly discovered surface, it was found to sit at the exact same height as the ground level within the church. This serves as a reminder that the church will have originally been built on a spur of high ground, with a naturally dominant position over its surroundings. Over the intervening centuries, however, the streets of York have continually risen, leaving All Saints has remained frozen in its turn of the first millennium position.
With the records complete, Juliet began to take up the surface and revealed an underlying occupation layer of ashy material.
This deposit occupies a space between Church Lane and All Saints Rectory, both of which have medieval origins. It is possible that the ashy layer represents the medieval inhabitants of the rectory building throwing ashes from their hearth into their front garden. If archaeology proves anything, people have always been lazy!
While Juliet was revealing the changing landscape of the past half millennium, Clive was in the middle of a real lucky streak! In the 44 years since his first excavation, Clive has never personally unearthed a coin. In something of a personal milestone, he was delighted to notice a tiny circular object hidden amongst a medieval deposit. The object proved to be far older than the context it had ended up within, being a Roman minim.
These tiny coins were the small change of their day and occur quite frequently in York. Nonetheless, the coin adds to a growing assemblage of Roman coinage unearthed at All Saints; the sheer volume of residual Roman material suggesting that the site was busily occupied two millennia ago.
Minutes later, lightning struck again as a second cheer rang out across the site! This time, Clive had unearthed a medieval treasure – a beautifully made copper needle.
Alongside the many pins, spindle whorls and loom weights that have been recovered from the site, we are beginning to piece together a picture of the crafts that were taking place on the site during the Middle Ages.
While it’s always wonderful to come across forgotten buildings and misplaced treasures, it is the little things like these that bring us closest to our predecessors. These artefacts tell us about the tasks that filled peoples’ days, the chores that must have seemed never-ending and the often mundane realities of life in the past.
Up to now, the excavation has mainly been illuminating the lives and events of the past two centuries, but Clive and Juliet’s discoveries have allowed us to look deeper into the past. We are beginning to glimpse a time when the church truly dominated the landscape as opposed to nestling down within it. We are seeing that, despite all of this high-medieval architectural splendour, the parishioners of All Saints needed to be far more self-sufficient than we are today.
It’s amazing what two small holes in the ground can tell you…
Elsewhere in the trench, Kristine and Ted were firmly in the 19th century as they tackled a highly complex sequence of tightly packed infant burials.
Much of the site was used as a graveyard between the years of 1826 and 1854 and the area just to the north of the Rectory walls has a distinct concentration of infant and juvenile burials.
The area is particularly difficult to pick apart as many infants have been buried in shallow graves over earlier, deeper adults. As a result of this, locating the edges of burials is a complex process that requires a lot of delicate troweling!
Over the course of the week, Ted and Kristine located, exposed and recorded a pair of infant burials and demonstrated some real skill with a trowel in doing so!
Over in Arran’s area, Linda and Kent began their fortnight on-site by taking up a small fragment of a cobbled surface. Dating to the late 18th or early 19th century, the surface would once have been the floor of a roughly built workshop, although numerous later pits and burials have destroyed the majority of these buildings.
With the cobbles lifted, Kent and Linda revealed an earlier mortar surface overlaying a roughly laid tile surface that was earlier still! Clearly, the workshops were in use for some time, with wear and tear requiring numerous replacement surfaces to be laid.
With the sequence of surfaces fully recorded and excavated, Linda and Kent turned their attention to an enigmatic feature close-by. Despite a great deal of later truncation, enough of the feature survived to see that medieval roof tile fragments had been used to line the edges of a pit that was then backfilled and topped with a skin of mortar. Quite why an early modern individual would do this, we hoped excavation would provide the answer!
By the end of Friday, work was still underway on this feature – we were going to have to wait for this mystery to be solved!
New starters Ed and Rheba’s first task of the week was to remove a feature that has become a familiar site – the ceramic drain pipes of the Church Hall. Laid in the 1860s, the pipes cut through the walls and floor of the earlier Rectory building and turned out to be home to a few surprises!
Now you see them…
Now you don’t!
The pipes were found to contain a silty black deposit and a number of objects that you wouldn’t expect to find down a drain! These included a complete glass bottle, an egg cup, a marble and a surprising amount of millipedes!
With the pipes lifted, Ed excavated the remaining fill of the pipe trench and made a really exciting discovery! Back in 2014, when the first of the pipe trench backfill was being excavated, Archaeology Live! regular Barry found part of a York Glazed Ware seal jug (Click here for more info!).
This medieval pot sherd featured a distinctive bird motif that we were able to link to the individual that commissioned the vessel! Thomas Fitzwalter was a prominent figure in 14th century York and a great supporter of the arts; to celebrate a marriage and/or the birth of a son, he had a number of beautifully made jugs made. Parts of these jugs have been found in the centre of York and as far away as Wharram Percy.
From the lower extents of the same deposit, Ed was lucky enough to find a second sherd that may be from the same vessel! It is a rare pleasure to find an object that you can associate with an individual person. Artefacts such as these really help to bring the past to life, reminding us that names from historic texts were people just like ourselves. Whether Thomas was happy with his jugs, we may never know, but we do know that they travelled far and wide, perhaps as gifts to remember a happy day.
While Ed was hard at work in the drain trench, Rheba took over the recording of an unusual burial that was discovered in the previous week. The remains were those of an adult individual that was buried face down. This is likely to have been accidental, but is intriguing nonetheless.
With one burial completed, Rheba defected to Arran’s area of the trench (That End) to continue work on another. Careful troweling in the partially excavated grave backfill revealed more of the remains of the coffin and that the burial extends further to the south-west than had been expected.
At the very end of the week, Rheba located the skull of the individual buried within the grave, a discovery that will make it far easier to excavate the remainder of the burial. Not bad for a first-timer!
In her slot through the surface of Church Lane, Taralea was joined by fellow American Juliet to continue work on a drain trench backfill. Part of the same drainage network excavated by Rheba and Ed, the deposit contained a wonderful range of medieval and Roman ceramics upcast from earlier deposits.
Taralea was lucky enough to find our second Roman coin of the week when she excavated another minim!
As excavation continued and the slot reached a metre in depth, a probe revealed the drainpipe to be at least another 500mm deeper down. With safety in mind, excavation was ceased and the cut recorded as it was.
Taralea and Juliet then recorded and excavated a deposit that was cut by the drain cut, a process that revealed another linear feature.
Archaeology Live! veterans Steve and Terry were chosen as this week’s Contrary Corner victims. Their first task was to record and excavate a cobbled surface that would have been part of the same surface excavated by Kent and Linda.
Next on the agenda was a dump of material cut by at two 19th century burials.
This would prove to be an interesting deposit as it contained a high concentration of fish bone and shellfish remains. All told, examples of cockle, mussel, crab, oyster, thornback ray and numerous other fish were recovered from the deposit, indicating that the area was used for the dumping of waste by the 19th century residents of the neighbouring All Saints Cottages.
Features such as buildings and burials are imbued with a sense of self-representation, coming complete with deliberate choices of style and form that show us how the people who made or owned them wished to be seen. Refuse deposits are more honest – we do not edit what we throw away. They can offer a very intimate view into past lifestyles and diet that can often be almost too detailed!
Terry and Steve’s deposit provides us with a glimpse of the dinner plates of the people living along Church Lane two hundred years ago and reminds us of York’s former prominence as a major port. This wasn’t to be the final discovery of the week however, as Terry unearthed an intriguing object – a pipe bowl with Masonic markings.
Close inspection of this clay pipe bowl reveals the traditional imagery of a compass and square over an all-seeing eye, suggesting that at least one of All Saints’ 19th century parishioners was part of the Freemasons. As we continue to pick apart this sequence of dumps and pits, we hope to learn even more about the lives of the former inhabitants of the site.
In Arran’s area, taster students Sam and Sarah took over work on a small slot into earlier deposits. They excavated a dump deposit that contained ceramics from Roman to 16th century in date.
Later in the week, Stuart and Kate from Arran’s homeland of sunny South Yorkshire carried on with the excavation of the deposit, revealing an earlier cut feature in the process.
In Gary’s area, Graeme spent a day excavating a deposit that pre-dates the brick floor of the Rectory, finding an array of post-medieval ceramics!
Week five really felt like something of a turning point in the summer excavation as, for the first time, more of the team’s time was spent working on features pre-dating the burials than the burials themselves. While a handful of as-yet undiscovered burials will no doubt be lying in wait, the bulk of them have now been found.
Discoveries such as Juliet’s medieval surface and Steve and Terry’s insights into early modern diet continue to add more jigsaw pieces to the complex puzzle that is All Saints, a site that doubtless has many more tales to tell. The week five team were a pleasure to have on-site, huge thanks go out to them from all of the Archaeology Live! team.
Until next time, onwards and downwards!