Following a successful weekend excavation, the third week of the summer dig saw the team continuing to explore the complex archaeology of All Saints, North Street. This week it’s over to York Archaeological Trust field archaeologist Katie Smith to set the scene.
Week 3 of the 2016 summer excavation at All Saints saw a continuation of the previous week’s work on a number of burials, as well as venturing into the earlier, pre-burial activities at this fascinating little site. Some of the trainees in week 3 were beginning their second or third weeks of excavation at North Street, and so their Monday action plans consisted of picking up where they left off the previous Friday. Our new trainees for week 3 were inducted and introduced to the site and were raring to get in the trench. However the weather had other plans…
Fortunately, by mid-morning the clouds dispersed and it was time to hop in the trench. New starters David and Kathryn began work in one of the earliest parts of the site sequence, within the old rectory walls. This area contains none of the 1824-1856 burials so we have been able to go further and further back in time in a small sondage (archaeology speak for trench within a trench!).
David and Kathryn made good progress in a very clay-rich deposit – clay is always hard going and clingy to dig! Despite this they managed to uncover a range of nice finds, such as animal bone and pottery, which indicated they were working in a medieval midden deposit full of domestic waste.
If the medieval dwellings that produced this material lie outside the bounds of our excavation, these deposits may provide the only evidence for what people were doing, using and eating at this point in history.
Just on the other side of the Rectory walls, we step forwards into the 19th Century, where a cluster of infant burials continued to be worked on by Jenni, Annie, Elisa and Federica.
Jenni and Annie teamed up for the week to carry on work on a double infant burial and by midweek they had fully recorded and very carefully lifted the remains ready to be put to rest in the safety of the church.
With work on the double burial completed, a trowel clean of the grave cut revealed that we had yet to reach its base – this meant that further occupants must be present below. Jenni and Annie had more work to do…
In the neighbouring grave plot, Elisa and Federica continued work on an infant burial which also had a very well preserved, albeit delicate coffin. Once the remains had been removed they meticulously collected all of the coffin fragments down to the tiniest splinters so they could be kept with the burial when it was relocated to the church.
All four trainees produced quality records and carried out the excavation and lifting with such care and attention to detail. We always take pride in our trainees as all carry out high standards of work regardless of previous experience and how delicate or difficult some archaeology may be.
Further down the trench Emily and Kaylan began their third weeks as trainees by finishing the recording of an adult burial who was the third inhumation in this particular grave, indicating a likely family plot. By Tuesday they had already exposed, recorded and re-covered the adult. Whether there are more burials lower down is unclear, as we are not lifting adult burials at this point because of their depth and therefore low risk of damage by development.
By working on this difficult inhumation, Kaylan and Emily were able to improve on many of the skills they have been taught over the past few weeks. For a new challenge, the intrepid pair moved to a new area to focus on pre-graveyard archaeology.
The theory goes that, prior to becoming a graveyard, the main section of the site would have contained a series of roughly built dwellings or open-fronted workshops that would have been somewhat haphazard in their construction and appearance. One of the most striking pieces of evidence for this is a rather large post pad that has been left in-situ for the past two seasons at North Street.
With the later deposits now cleared away, we set Emily and Kaylan on the job of excavating the post pad which comprised some fairly hefty masonry! The structure would have provided a solid foundation and would have been capable of supporting considerable structural timbers.
After the post pad construction cut was recorded the pair moved on to a post-medieval levelling deposit that immediately pre-dates the structure and recovered some lovely finds.
Kaylan found part of a glazed floor tile that is similar to other examples from the site and presumably originally made up part of the church floor.
Along with glazed floor tile, we’ve also found bright green glazed roof tile at North Street, which presents an image of a very colourful medieval church.
Emily also had a nice find, a lead seal similar to one found in week 1 by Marie in a nearby grave backfill. These seals can be used for anything from textiles to correspondence as a means of authentication, perhaps after work on the corrosion by our conservation department we might be able to suggest exactly what was happening at North Street that required authenticating!
Close to Kaylan and Emily, work on University of Newcastle students Hope and Hannah’s well preserved juvenile burial continued as they created a detailed plan drawing of their skeleton.
The detail which goes into the recording done by our trainees is always to a professional standard – even if it takes a while!
Thankfully, you don’t need to be an artist to draw intricate plans of seemingly tricky things such as skeletons. After a lot of careful measurements, Hope and Hannah were rightly very pleased with their drawing of this particular skeleton.
The drawing even met the exacting standards of our placement Alice!
Once recording was completed, Hannah and Hope were able to carefully lift the skeleton and collect the remaining pieces of coffin ready to go into the church for reburial. Needless to say, they did a wonderful job and were able to clean up the grave cut and get it fully recorded by the end of the week.
At the bottom end of the trench, new starters and University of York students Molly and Meg began work on a somewhat inaccessible burial. This inhumation was particularly difficult to dig because the lower two thirds of the skeleton lay directly underneath the north east wall of the old Church Hall. Having identified the outline of a grave, they dug steadily downwards until they came across the coffin.
In several cases on this site the decorative metal plates of the coffins have been preserved to an extraordinary level, and Molly and Meg’s grave was no exception to this. Meg very carefully cleaned up a particularly nice section of surviving plating on her side which clearly showed the tapered hexagonal shape of the coffin.
Unfortunately, the preservation wasn’t quite as good on Molly’s side but she was still able to recover some small loose fragments of decorative plating and a lovely copper alloy button from the grave backfill.
With the midweek addition of one and two day tasters Sue and Robert the trench became a hive of activity from one end to the other.
Both tasters worked on quite different burials; Sue’s was an infant burial and Robert’s was a much deeper adult burial.
It has been a common theme across the site for infants and juveniles to have some of the most beautiful coffins, and Robert and Sue’s burials followed this trend.
Robert’s coffin was again well preserved and fragments of the elaborate decorative plating had also survived in places. Carrying out careful excavation while reaching into deep cuts is no mean feat!
In Sue’s burial, she was pleased to have recovered a number of tiny pins which may have held a shroud in place. A concentration of pins around the skull may also suggest that the infant was buried with a bonnet pinned to its hair.
Little things like these are so important because they provide insight into how, even at times of high infant and juvenile mortality rates, families would put a great deal of money and care into the burials of their lost loved ones. When the church records for the burials haven’t survived, the excavations at All Saints and the diligent work of our trainees allow the forgotten to be remembered again.
On Friday the new trainees enjoyed Arran’s usual stratigraphy masterclass, and needless to say Molly, Meg, Kathryn and Hannah did not disappoint, providing abundant bizarre suggestions for the fictional archaeological sequence. There was also a game of spot the placement going on…
Friday came around all too quickly and concluded a very busy week on site. The team had done some great and poignant archaeology and added some new star finds to the increasingly impressive collection. Looking back on the week the stand out find was a fragment of a lead ampulla, found by Jenni.
An ampulla is a type of vessel used to store holy water or oils from pilgrimages, particularly in the Middle Ages. Amupllae were originally a type of Roman vessel but were adapted for this later function from the 6th century onwards. The later types relating to pilgrimages were made out of tin, lead and sometimes silver. More extravagant examples featured religious imagery and beautiful decoration.
A complete example of a decorated ampulla was found during York Archaeological Trust’s recent excavations at Hungate and was dated to the 14th-16th centuries.
The handles visible on both Jenni’s and the Hungate example would have been for stringing a cord or chain through in order for the ampulla to be worn around the neck.
Jenni’s find could very possibly be a fragment of another such decorated example, like the Hungate ampulla. It’s an interesting thought to imagine that one of the medieval patrons of All Saints could have been the person who made a pilgrimage to Rome or who knows where, and returned with this precious and tiny holy cargo.
This wonderful artefact may have travelled across Europe and seen Rome at the height of its medieval splendour. Furthermore, as all that remains of Jenni’s ampulla is the corner, having been snipped off from the body of the vessel, we also know that the contents were decanted and used.
All in all to say it was only week 3 of 12, immense progress had been made by our fantastic trainees on so many areas of the site.
We can’t do this dig without the trainees and they do make everything such good fun, so thank you again to all of you for making Archaeology Live! possible.
As the Saturday at the end of week 3 marked the beginning of the Festival of Archaeology, we held an open day at All Saints where members of the public were able to come and look through our finds, have talks on what the archaeology was telling us about the site so far and tours around the stained glass within the church (it is some of the finest medieval stained glass in the country!).
We had lots of people of all ages and from different countries pop in to have a look around the site and it was a pleasure to share our discoveries with so many. It was particularly encouraging to meet our younger visitors who were very tenacious and keen to know what everything was!
Thank you to everyone who came along, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did! Also, thanks for reading my first Archaeology Live! site diary, there’ll be more to follow very soon!
PS. There was one more… unusual artefact discovered in week three. Found in a 1990s intrusion, meet ‘Princess Head’.