All good archaeologists know that our discipline is not a science. While there is a definite overlap with the scientific process, our findings are always tinged with a degree of subjectivity. We are storytellers at heart, modern day bards collaborating with specialists and supplementing our tales with detailed evidence and diligent recording. The real art of excavation is taking layers of earth and stone and extracting the stories of those who occupied that same space before us.
The tales are rarely complete. The pesky 1950s pipe trench has always removed the key piece of evidence; that industrious rabbit will, without fail, enthusiastically burrow in precisely the wrong place. Nonetheless, we nearly always find enough to piece together at least some of the lives that were lived in our trenches and the All Saints excavation has been a fine example of this. The last 10 weeks of digging have allowed us to discern an unexpectedly complex 19th century sequence, producing along the way some incredibly human moments. Week 11 continued this theme.
In Gary’s area, Rob and Nick cleaned up and recorded the wall footing discovered last week by Iain and Rose. One of the most exciting discoveries of the whole dig, we hope to find more evidence for what this structure was.
Up to press, our understanding of this area in the early 19th century has been of a busy yard becoming a graveyard. Only now are we beginning to see the first glimpses of what land uses pre-date that sequence.
First things first though, we have to make sure we have located, excavated and understood all of the 19th century features before we can further investigate the earlier material.
With the wall footing recorded, Rob and Nick worked to clean over the whole of ‘contrary corner’ and check for any 19th century stragglers. A rectangular deposit of dark, clayey material had been noted in the base of a pit excavated during our August training weekend. Thought to be an infant burial, this was the next feature to investigate.
With the records complete, Rob and Nick began to gently remove the backfill of the feature, taking care not to disturb the fragile remnants of a tiny coffin. Some interesting finds quickly emerged, with Rob having a particularly good week! An early 19th century clay pipe bowl was discovered, fitting our suspected date of the feature perfectly.
As the week pressed on, Rob was lucky enough to find a truly wonderful object – a bone dice. This tiny object is somewhat cruder than the medieval example found by Gina in the second week of the summer season, leading us to suspect it may be somewhat earlier in date. Similar objects have certainly come out of Viking deposits elsewhere in York, so there is a strong possibility that this object may be the best part of a thousand years old.
Unlike Gina’s example, the sides of this dice do not add up to seven, the numbers seemingly being cut at random.
It is a genuinely wonderful object that could have been owned by someone who knew the area before the current church was even standing. One can’t help but wonder what games this dice may have played and whether or not it brought success to a gambling owner.
With objects like this being discovered, the signs are good that medieval and Viking occupation deposits survive below us.
As Rob and Nick excavated the backfill they noticed an abrupt change, with the dark clayey material giving way to a stoney, mortar rich deposit; they had reached the base of their cut and found no evidence of any human remains. This left us with something of a mystery.
As ever, the true reason why a seemingly empty coffin was buried here will never be known for sure. We can however put forward several possible explanations, the first of which being a quirk of the soil’s chemistry in this area of the trench – acidic soils can easily dissolve juvenile human remains and leave very little trace. It is also possible that the coffin could have been something of a symbolic burial, perhaps for a child lost very early in a pregnancy.
While this mystery will remain unresolved, it is clear that someone in the early 19th century was driven to bury a tiny coffin in the corner of a small graveyard. Nick and Rob’s painstaking excavation of this feature allows us to witness a solemn moment in York’s story that would have otherwise been lost to history.
Elsewhere in Gary’s area, new trainees Sara, Anna and Liberty worked together to clean a large area of ‘that end’. Numerous edges were visible; the challenge now was to ascertain which of these features was the latest to occur.
On sites as complex as this, this process can take some time! However, Sara struck gold when the edges of a sub-circular feature began to emerge.
Cutting a possible fragment of cobble surface, we were keen to see whether this feature was part of the early 19th century yard or something even earlier.
The deposit was photographed and recorded and the team got started with the excavation. This proved to be hard work! The deposit had clearly been trampled during the early 19th century, making it very difficult to trowel.
Good progress was made on this feature, which pre-dates the adjacent ‘horn pit’. While it didn’t produce the same density of cattle skull fragments, a lot of horn core and bone was still present. This indicates that some tanning by-products were being deposited in this feature, alongside general domestic waste. This fits well with the idea that the yard space was used for numerous purposes between c.1800 and 1823.
Working with Becky, Lori and Dom continued work on a pair of burials close to the northern wall of the old church hall. This required a lot of work in tricky, deep features and a lot of recording. The first task was to record the infant remains uncovered at the end of last week by Lori and Joan.
With the records completed for the infant burial, a cushion of sieved soil and wooden boards were placed over the remains to protect them from any damage. Lori and Dom’s attention then turned to completing the excavation of a burial started several weeks ago by Katie and Beverly.
When the upper elements of the skeleton were revealed, it became clear that the foot end of the grave hadn’t been fully excavated. Lori and Dom amended the records for the deposit and began work on removing the last of the backfill.
Significantly deeper than the infant burial, this adult inhumation had surviving evidence of a wooden coffin and was very well preserved. The remains were recorded and covered over.
While this was underway, Lori exposed a fascinating feature cut by both graves. On the slither of archaeology that survived between the two grave cuts, a fragment of an edge-set tile hearth with brick edging was exposed. While the date of this feature will be confirmed later, we do know that the materials used to build it are medieval in date.
This could be one of our first definite examples of medieval or post-medieval activity in ‘That End’ and it is only by chance that this fragment of early activity has survived – if the grave cuts had been any closer, the hearth would certainly have been lost. History can indeed be a fickle mistress…
In Toby’s area, Bri and Zoe began to investigate the deposits that pre-date the two small cells within the south-west corner of the 1860s church hall.
These deposits proved to be very similar to the pre-church hall trample layers exposed elsewhere in the trench. Like Lori’s tile hearth, these small islands of archaeology seem quite lucky to have survived numerous later truncation events!
A great mix of finds were discovered within these deposits, including medieval ceramics and a piece of post-medieval(?) chain. With attachments at either end, we’ll have to wait for specialist analysis before we know what this enigmatic find was used for.
As Zoe and Bri worked together to record and lift a number of contexts, something quite exciting became apparent. Ubiquitous until now, 19th century ceramics had ceased to occur. Not only that, the latest finds to be encountered were medieval in date. It seems that Zoe and Bri have exposed our first confirmed layers of medieval archaeology!
This exciting prospect will be further investigated next week.
Steve and Sarah had a week of challenging archaeology, beginning with a search for good edges around a suspected infant burial. Once these edges were clarified, the backfill was recorded and the pair got started with the excavation.
As we’ve seen across all of our grave backfills, an interesting mix of finds are generally present within them. Steve found a rather lovely fragment of pressed glass. Finely made, this was clearly part of a very decorative object.
With the expert guidance of our resident bone expert Tess, Steve and Sarah patiently removed the backfill to expose the coffin and remains of a small child. These are very evocative features to work on and it is of paramount importance to keep in mind that these are the remains of a human being and should be treated accordingly.
Once fully exposed, these remains will be recorded, re-c0vered and left in-situ. Steve and Sarah’s delicate work has added to an increasingly complex picture of this corner of the site.
Whether the concentration of infant burials in this area relate to re-used family plots or historic pandemic events will be resolved in the fullness of time, the key aim at the moment is to locate all of the burials on site and ensure that they are protected from any future intrusive works.
Joining us for a taster day, Maggie continued work on a grave backfill that has been worked on by a number of people this season. These things cannot be rushed and Maggie quickly mastered the art of delicate troweling, finding an intriguing flint object that may be a 19th century striker used to create sparks.
Elsewhere in ‘This End’, Jo and Liz continued work on the brick chamber attached to the north wall of the 18th century rectory.
The plot continued to thicken in this area. As a post hole was recorded and excavated, it became apparent that earlier structural elements were beginning to appear.
A small fragment of stone wall was revealed that clearly pre-dates the 18th century brickwork. While a number of later contexts will have to be removed before we can expose this stonework, it is distinctly possible that Jo and Liz have revealed a fragment of the medieval rectory that was incorporated into the post-medieval re-build. A very exciting find!
The cobble-based cesspit (upon which Donald is standing in the image below) now seems to have been brought to construction level, sitting atop a mortary deposit. Jo and Liz recorded the wall and the deposit below it and ended their week by investigating the earlier deposit.
Week 11 has seen some exciting developments in this area, with the small brick chamber exhibiting a more complex sequence than had been anticipated. As the dig continues, we will continue to expose and record the various alterations to the structure and, once these are removed, we will finally be able to see exactly how much of the medieval buildings survive. Watch this space!!
An eventul week in the trench was mirrored beneath the Tree of Finds where a number of exciting artefacts were cleaned up and looked at in more detail.
While washing what was assumed to be another muddy fragment of medieval roof tile, Rob noticed some markings on the fabric of the tile. Closer inspection revealed part of a legionary stamp, clear evidence that this was actually a Roman tile!
The letters ‘VIC’ were faintly visible in the side of the tile. This stamp most likely relates to the Legio VI Victrix (Sixth Victorious Legion) of the Roman army. In 119AD the legion was despatched to northern England to help repress an uprising and eventually replaced the incumbent IX Hispana to garrison the fortress of Eboracum (Roman York).
Finding such direct evidence of the area’s Roman past was a real privilege, which was only made sweeter when the thumbprint of a Roman potter was noticed beside the stamp. Being able to put your thumb into an almost 1900 year old thumbprint is a unique perk of archaeology. What a find!
Another interesting find was a toe bone from a rather unwell cow. We’ve had numerous examples of diseased cattle bones from features associated with the tanning industry. This 19th century example exhibits clear evidence of bone infection and would have been of sufficient severity to render this foot completely useless.
Week 11 saw us continue to build on the findings of the previous week and to better understand a fascinating 19th century sequence. It seems that our first season at All Saints will be best remembered for demonstrating the merits of early modern archaeology, a period that has been criminally under-valued until now.
We have uncovered moments of early 19th century heartbreak, with numerous juvenile and infant individuals being interred along Church Lane, but we have also found evidence of more carefree times with Rob’s fantastic bone dice. Next week, we hope to add to this picture of 19th century York and wrap up the remaining loose ends. We also hope to reveal more sneak peeks of the earlier archaeology that will be the focus of next year’s excavation.
The tantalising glimpses of the Roman, Viking, and medieval deposits that lay beneath us highlight what an exciting site this is. Massive thanks go out to the week 11 team for their patient, careful excavation and fine company.
On a less jolly note, week 11 saw us say goodbye to two placements who have been absolutely invaluable to this year’s excavation, Becky and Tess. This pair of Arch. Live! veterans have very bright futures ahead of them! Huge thanks go out to Becky and Tess from all at York Archaeological Trust, we’ll see you next time.
It’s been a vintage year for the Archaeology Live! project in our new home on North Street. Now we head into the last week of the summer with a thousand questions and a lot of excitement for more thrilling discoveries. Best get cracking then, onwards and downwards!
PS. One amusing moment to share. Archaeology Live! placement Jack was late for the group photo on Friday, assuming he was ill we were forced to improvise a replacement. I think we truly captured his essence!
Cheers Jack! 😉