York is a wonderful maze of winding streets and hidden snickleways. Those who take the time to look above modern shop frontages will see an incredible array of historic architecture, where Roman soldiers, Elizabethan merchants and Victorian industrialists vie for your attention. The remarkable survival of the ancient fabric of York does, however, make finding spaces for archaeological investigation rather tricky!
Thankfully, this has never stopped the Archaeology Live! team from finding amazing sites to host our training excavations. The All Saints, North Street dig is one of the most significant excavations on the south-western bank of the River Ouse in recent memory and the 2015 season has seen the better part of two hundred people getting involved!
Over the last eleven weeks, the site had yielded many of its secrets and the team had made some remarkable discoveries. With just five days of the 2015 season left, we were keen to go out on a high!
Over weeks 10 and 11 a 19th century burial in the centre of the site had become something of a conundrum. While one side of a timber coffin with decorative brass fittings was clearly visible, its counterpart was proving very difficult to find. The task of finishing this challenging feature fell to Virginia who, after five seasons of Archaeology Live!, is very handy with a trowel!
While carefully excavating the backfill of the grave, Virginia unearthed a remarkable artefact! The object is made of copper alloy and is in excellent condition. With a hook at one end and a decorative head at the other, the artefact is similar in appearance to a modern crochet hook and appears to be a crafting tool.
Specialist analysis will hopefully give us a date for the object, although we already know that it is at least 161 years old!
The finds that we have unearthed in our first two years at All Saints are providing a wonderful insight into the kind of tasks that filled the days of the area’s former inhabitants. With finds from the Viking period onwards associated with crafting, it is clear that the making and mending of fabrics was part of daily life.
Finding spindle whorls, pins, needles, loom weights and Virginia’s possible crochet hook gives us the chance to hold the tools that people in the past would have been all too familiar with. These crafting objects come in a variety of forms and materials; some are highly decorative while some are plain and functional.
As the week progressed, Virginia continued to discover some terrific finds, including a beautiful piece of moulded Samian ware.
Disturbed from its original context by a 19th century grave digger, the pot sherd would once have been part of a cup or bowl owned by a resident of Roman York’s colonia (civilian settlement). By the week’s end, Virginia went on to make one more unexpected discovery – the reason why the northern side of the coffin had proved so hard to find!
After locating the foot end of the coffin, the line of a second coffin became visible, running directly underneath the one Virginia had so carefully exposed. It was now apparent that we were looking at another grave with multiple occupants, where the coffins of relatives were placed one on top of the other within a family plot.
In the years following their burial, the timber of the coffins would have decayed and eventually given way, resulting in the upper coffin collapsing down towards the lower one. It was this collapse that made the coffin so hard to define. With the mystery solved, Virginia delved deeper into the grave and revealed the remains of a young woman. Once these remains had been recorded in detail, they were once again covered over.
At the northern end of the trench, Alistair began his second week on-site by completing the records of a juvenile inhumation discovered in week 11.
Clear signs of disease and malnutrition had made the excavation of this burial an emotive experience and one that certainly helped to bring home the tough realities of 19th century life. With the remains recorded and re-buried, Alistair took over the excavation of a nearby burial with an unusual brick-built grave marker.
This burial is the only grave so far to feature a surviving monument and it seems that whoever built the structure was not terribly concerned about their work. The un-mortared structure comprised of a stack of recycled medieval brick laid over a large limestone block which had been placed directly over the head end of the coffin. When the coffin rotted and gave way, the stonework slid down into the grave, badly damaging the skull of the individual it had been laid to commemorate.
With the grave marker cleaned up, drawn and photographed, Alistair was then free to dismantle it.
While excavating the remainder of the grave backfill, Alistair spotted an unusual object. Made of copper alloy, the object was hollow, with a decorative head and a ribbed shaft. While opinion in the trench remained divided, it is most likely to be some form of decorative fitting and certainly one we’ll look forward to hearing specialist feedback on.
By Friday, Alistair had fully exposed the line of the coffin and the remains within. This individual proved to be a robust adult male with rather bad teeth. The records were completed, the remains were re-covered and we were able to reflect on meeting another 19th century parishioner of All Saints, North Street.
Over at the southern end of the trench, Anne and Paul’s week got off to a similarly evocative start as they recorded and excavated the burial of an infant. Being a small and fragile feature, this called for some delicate excavation!
Despite dying in infancy, the individual within the burial was still furnished with a coffin and, remarkably, Anne and Paul were even able to reveal surviving timbers.
After completing work on their burial, Anne and Paul’s next task took them much further back in time. Over the course of the season, structural elements associated with an 18th/19th century re-build of All Saints Rectory have been carefully recorded and removed. This process has slowly revealed an area of intact medieval archaeology that pre-dates the Rectory structure.
The first deposit to deal with was a dump deposit that contained evidence of nearby domestic activity.
Anne and Paul’s fine trowel work revealed a thin but distinct lense of ashy, charcoal rich material that was most likely cleared out from a domestic hearth. More evidence of medieval activity was present beneath the layer of ash and charcoal in the outline of a pit containing more burnt material and domestic waste (animal bone, pottery, etc.).
As seems to be the case with all of the best features, the pit was only just within our excavation area, but Anne and Paul were able to excavate the uppermost layer of the material infilling the pit. The deposit contained a good amount of limestone and mortar fragments, possibly relating to the demolition of a nearby building.
Anne and Paul had made a truly intriguing discovery. We are clearly looking at relics of the day to day lives of people who inhabited the site prior to the construction of the first Rectory in the 14th century, but so far we have only found indirect evidence of this. Where were the houses these people lived in? What were they doing to make a living? As always, the best discoveries can pose as many questions as they answer – we’ll have to wait for the 2016 season to find out!
Towards the centre of the trench, Rosemin began her second week on-site where she left off the previous Friday – trying to prove or disprove one of site supervisors Gary and Arran’s theories (always a gamble!)
The theory goes that the centre of the plot served as an entranceway into the 19th century graveyard. If this is true, there should be an absence of burials while deposits of pre-19th century date should survive. So far, a number of 19th century features had been excavated, but the 18th century horizon was proving elusive!
Undeterred, Rosemin set up to excavate a sondage (a small trench within a trench) with the aim of getting a peek at the slightly deeper lying archaeology.
As the week progressed, it became apparent that the archaeology was not going to reveal its secrets quite so easily. Rosemin’s patient troweling revealed a mixed dumping deposit, but early 19th century ceramics were still present and the decision was taken to halt work on the sondage until the surrounding area has been excavated to the same phase of activity. Despite this frustration, Rosemin was rewarded with a beautiful find – a fragment of a Roman drinking vessel.
The pot sherd featured the clear image of the legs of an animal and is a classic example of what is known as a ‘hunt cup’. These decorative fineware drinking vessels were produced in the Nene Valley in the 2nd-3rd century and often depicted human and animal figures in scenes representing hunting.
While we’ll never know which Roman citizen drank from this vessel, it adds a little more colour to a growing picture of domestic life in the colonia. With evidence of heated floors, precious metals and fine jewellery, this picture is increasingly one of leisure and luxury.
At the end of the week, Rosemin shifted her attention to a second sondage in the north-east corner of the site. This slot had already revealed a number of medieval deposits that had been truncated by a 19th century linear feature. Due to the depth of the feature the linear had not been fully excavated, but with the neighbouring deposits now removed, it was now safe to delve a little deeper.
Rosemin successfully established and recorded the base of the feature and also unearthed another surprise – two burials that pre-dated the linear. As this is a small, investigative slot, only the very head end and foot end of the burials were visible. Thankfully, enough of the burials were exposed for Rosemin to locate the coffins and remains within and, perhaps more importantly, to date the features. The form and material of the coffins and ceramic finds from the grave backfills proved the burials to be of the same date as the majority of our graves – 1826-54. This was a fantastic result, giving us a much clearer picture of the sequence at the very edge of the graveyard.
Long time YAT finds volunteer Jean returned to site to brush up her archaeological skills and spent the week excavating a peninsular of medieval archaeology that has been highly truncated by 19th century features.
Jean unearthed a substantial number of finds, with a real range of materials. The wealth of domestic waste mixed in with brick and tile demolition rubble suggests that this deposit was laid down as a levelling dump, utilising whatever materials were to hand to raise the ground level. The site’s position close to the waterfront, in an area that has historically been very prone to flooding, suggests that it may have been laid down in response to a particularly severe inundation.
Beneath the layer of mixed dumping, Jean began to notice a change. A layer of firmer, more clay-rich material began to emerge – we were clearly at the beginning of a complex sequence of medieval layers which will be further investigated in the 2016 season.
At the far south-western corner of the trench, archaeology enthusiasts Alex and Angela enjoyed a taster course working on a medieval pit. Having travelled all the way from Utah, the pair made great progress on the feature and successfully dated it to the 14th century.
The dating of the pit is significant as it pre-dates the earliest incarnation of the Rectory, proving that it was built in, or after, the 14th century. The pit also contained a large quantity of earlier material, with ceramics from the 11th-12th century appearing frequently. A particularly exciting find was the intact rim of a Norman Gritty Ware cooking pot.
With the pit recorded, the week drew to a close and the realisation that our fifteenth season of Archaeology Live! had ended began to dawn on the team. It had been a vintage year!
The last week of a season is always memorable and week 12 this year was no exception, with a plethora of surprise discoveries emerging from the ground. The day ended in the usual way, with a wrap up of the latest discoveries taking place in beautiful sunshine.
As ever, we must thank our marvellous team of trainees for supporting the project. Archaeology Live! receives no external funding and if it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of our trainees, none of our fantastic discoveries would ever had been made. The 2015 season ended with a great evening in one of our favourite York bars, with the team making merry and reminiscing about a cracking season!
A special mention should also go out to our amazing team of placements, without whom the project wouldn’t run quite so smoothly! Our placements often go on to careers in professional archaeology, we’re happy to say that the discipline is in safe hands.
So that’s a wrap. Thanks for following the project and watch this space for updates on the 2016 season! Until next time, onwards and downwards!