Week six of Archaeology Live! started out dry and bright. While the new starters were being inducted, the continuing trainees got straight down to work.
And then it rained.
For two days.
Thankfully, there is far more to archaeology than excavation, so the team retreated to the warm and dry comforts of our site hut – which just so happens to be one of York’s finest medieval churches!
Digging in York means you can count on a lot of finds! Well over two millennia of constant occupation means that an amazing range of objects can be recovered from even the most unassuming of features – and all of these have to be properly dealt with.
Toby and the finds team took advantage of the poor weather to catch up with the sorting and bagging of clean and dry finds. This involved dividing the assemblage into categories such as pottery, animal bone, shell, and so on – it also afforded an opportunity to weed out any as yet un-noticed treasures. The sharp eyes of Taralea spotted one such thing, a beautifully worked bone object.
The worked bone plate may once have been part of an inlay, perhaps for a elaborately decorated book. When the excavation is completed, enigmatic objects like these will be sent for specialist assessment where we hope to learn more about them.
While the finds team were hard at work sorting and cataloguing hundreds of artefacts, Gary, Arran and Gus gave the new starters an introduction to all of the techniques they would be using in the trench. This meant that when the sun finally came out late on Tuesday, the team were primed and ready to go!
Jess and Sarah spent their week working on an evocative and challenging feature, an infant burial.
The Rectory that occupied the southern part of the site until the 1850s was separated from the graveyard (active 1826-54) by a brick boundary wall. For some reason, the area to the immediate north of this wall is home to a notable concentration of infant and juvenile burials.
As church records for this period have not survived, the reason for this concentration can only be guessed at. Perhaps the area was purposely set aside for younger people, perhaps we are seeing evidence of a pandemic event; while we may never know the full story, we are nonetheless left with a highly complex archaeological sequence to pick apart.
Armed only with wooden clay modelling tools (to avoid damaging the delicate bones and coffin remains), Sarah and Jess carefully revealed the remains of the infant within their grave cut and created a detailed record of the burial. With this task completed, the remains were then once again covered over.
Over in Arran’s area (That End), Kent and Linda continued to work on a sequence of structural features that were once part of late 18th century workshops.
Sitting in a small island of archaeology cut by three later graves were the remains of an unusual tile-lined pit topped with a layer of mortar. It had been hoped that excavation of the feature would offer some suggestions as to its function, however, with work on this completed, we were left distinctly none the wiser. Answers on a postcard please…
The completed pit cut freed up an earlier earthen surface for recording and excavation, a process that revealed an even earlier post hole.
Now well into their second week, Linda and Kent proved to be quite the team, making short work of the post hole and then an earlier mortar surface.
By the end of their fortnight, the US pair had recorded and excavated an impressive number of contexts and revealed the pre-burial industrial phase of activity to be very busy indeed!
Christine and Hattie spent their taster days working on a burnt, ashy deposit overlying a large piece of masonry.
As work continued, the ashy material was found to overlay a stone and mortar surface that may have once been the base of a hearth. The section of a later grave that cuts this sequence reveals that there are a number of burnt deposits that are associated with the feature. Hopefully, some material may survive that can tell us how and when this feature was used.
Ted and Pandora took over from Clive and Juliet in a slot into the site’s medieval horizon (see the Week 5 site diary). The relative depth of these deposits reveals just how much the ground level has risen over the last six centuries!
A sequence of dumps and refuse deposits were painstakingly recorded, excavated and sieved over the course of the week, yielding some interesting finds and a large assemblage of animal bone. This mass of bone can tell us a lot about past diet and animal husbandry.
The standout find of the week for Ted and Pandora was an interesting piece of pottery. At a glance, the sherd appears to be a piece of Roman Calcite Gritted Ware, but features an unusual incised decoration.
Here’s a closer look.
We look forward to hearing the specialist’s view on this one!
Over in Contrary Corner (the really tricky bit of the site), Arran’s latest victims were Katie and Lisa. They began their week by recording and excavating a widespread dump deposit that had been revealed in the previous week.
By taking this dump away, Katie and Lisa revealed a fragment of cobbled surface and rectangular feature that very much resembled a grave backfill.
The implications of a grave being located at this point in the sequence were very interesting. The dump of domestic waste excavated in week 5 must have dated to the use of the graveyard – the 19th century residents of All Saints Cottages were literally emptying their bins onto recently occupied graves!
Clearly our Victorian forebears were not particularly respectful of the burial ground on their doorstep, something which in itself throws up further interesting possibilities – were the local population against the demolition of the workshops and conversion of the site to a graveyard? This will, of course, remain pure conjecture but still highlights the power of archaeology to recover such detail about past lives from the ground.
The finds highlight of the week from Contrary Corner was an unusual sherd of burnt Samian ware.
Beautifully decorated with a leaf design, the sherd is one of many pieces of Samian to have been found scorched. These residual finds from earlier layers hint at the possibility of burnt Roman refuse deposits lying in wait beneath us.
Over in her slot through the surface of Church Lane, Taralea spent her fourth and final week of the season investigating a linear feature pre-dating the pipe trench that runs down the centre of the lane.
Joined by Mancunian archaeology student Liss, Taralea finished the records and got cracking with the excavation! Alongside pieces of disarticulated human bone, a range of ceramics from Roman to early modern were recovered from the backfill.
By the end of the week, the function of the linear was discovered – it was a utility trench containing a pair of cast-iron gas/water pipes.
While this discovery was a slight disappointment, not all of the archaeology beneath Church Lane had been destroyed by services, the section of the cut was revealing a multitude of earlier layers. Unfortunately, this would be a job for week 7.
In her four weeks on-site, Taralea did some excellent work and the team were all sorry to see her go. With a lot of archaeology moved, the Church Lane slot was almost ready to reveal its pre-19th century secrets.
Back in Gary’s area (This End), Pete, Tomasz and Noel had a very productive week working on deposits surrounding our site mascot Planty the Plant.
While Planty has now gone to seed and looks a little tired, the hardworking trio made a real impact on the area. A landmark moment was the lifting of the Rectory’s brick floor, something that had become a very familiar sight!
Below the remaining layers of make-up, Pete and Tomasz came across a burnt layer of industrial waste. Whether this represents the opportunistic sourcing of levelling material or evidence of in-situ industrial activity will be something to investigate in the coming weeks.
Noel also made a discovery beneath the floor; the clear outline of a post hole. With the end of the week approaching, there was just enough time to get the new deposit recorded.
Back in That End, local acupuncturist Manda spent a productive two day taster session working on a 19th century burial. Building on discoveries made by Rheba in week 5, Manda clarified what had been a somewhat non-commital edge and revealed some tantalising early stratigraphy in section!
Lots of diligent trowel-work was rewarded by the discovery of a large sherd of Roman Greyware!
Beneath the Tree of Finds, the finds team continued to make inroads on reducing our backlog of artefacts.
While washing finds from Steve and Terry’s ‘seafood deposit’ and Ed and Rheba’s pipe trench from week 5, some unexpected objects were encountered! The most curious of these finds was a corroded but recognisable pocket watch!
Looking at the side, it was even possible to see the cogs within!
How this object ended up in a Victorian drain is anyone’s guess!
Another highlight was the paw print of a dog in a medieval roof tile.
The end of week 6 saw us exactly halfway through the summer 2015 excavation. While it’s hard to believe we’ve already reached this milestone, the site has really started to change! Familiar sights are disappearing, exploratory sondages are growing ever deeper and the flood of fascnating finds is showing no signs of abating!
The week 6 team worked cheerfully through rain and shine and made reaching the halfway point of the dig a lot of fun! Thanks to everyone for coming along!
As ever, we must also thank our team of placements for their tireless efforts to help make Archaeology Live! run so smoothly. Cheers guys!
As a wise mullet enthusiast from New Jersey once said, ‘whooooooah, we’re halfway there!’
Despite this, I’m happy to report that we are by no means living on a prayer. We’ve had an amazing six weeks of archaeology and still have six more to go.
So, without further ado, onwards and downwards!
PS. After coming straight on to Archaeology Live! from YAT’s Dig York Stadium excavation, it was a real pleasure to have three DYS veterans on site again!