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Sites Review: Bishophill I

Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 9 years, 11 months ago


The past months have seen the completion of two excavations, Bishophill I and the W.H. Smiths site at 39-41 Coney Street, whose progress has been charted through previous issues of INTERIM. At both sites, deadlines set by the developers have been honoured, even though this has curtailed total investigation in some cases. Once again, however, the Trust has shown that when allowed access to a site, it can recover large quantities of fascinating archaeological information at no risk to other parties whose immediate interests are more in the future than the past.


On the BISHOPHILL I site, south of the River Ouse in Skeldergate, SARA BISHOP, aided principally by Ryszard Bartkoviak and David Evans, has been forced to cease overall excavation at tenth-twelfth century levels. Instead, three final projects rather more limited in scope have been undertaken during the winter, and these have shed considerable light on the earlier development of the site.


The first was concerned with a small area at the site’s northern extremity, where today the edge of the River Ouse is only about 30m away. The possibility that wharves and other manifestations of York’s importance as a trading centre might be found here had always been in the excavators’ minds, and so excavation was continued here down to the bottom of the occupation sequence.


A soil resistivity survey carried out by Bradford University’s Department on Physics had suggested that major anomalies were present, possibly taking the form of massive stone walls, and the initial hope was that part of a river wall on the Roman colonia might be encountered.


An east-west aligned stone wall of perhaps eleventh-century date, which had been robbed in the twelfth century, was found to lie above the stone footings of an earlier wall. This had been abutted by a post-built timber structure, whose posts rested in beam slots or individual post holes. The building had a clay floor, and was dated by the presence of six shards of Tating ware, a distinctive type of pottery made in server centres in Germany during the period c.750-c.850.


Below the building with which the Tating ware was associated lay another post-built structure, this time with beam slots containing packing stones for timber uprights. This building seems to have been burned down. Under it, the earliest feature encountered within the confined space was a compact surface of limestone slabs, dated to the late fourth century, and running east-west on an alignment which was continued outside the excavated area where it was located by boring. The surface may have served either as a roadway, or possibly as a ‘hard’ on the Roman foreshore where boats could be beached.


Whatever its function, it was only the latest of four almost superimposed stone alignments, which were seen at the north end of the second winter project, a machine-cut trench along the whole length of the site’s north-south axis, designed to give a glimpse of the character of early activity over the entire area. The second surface encountered in the road/hard sequence was of cobbles packed in gravel, with a mortared upper surface; the third surface was of rammed orange gravel and the earliest of mortared blocks of magnesian mechanical excavator failed to penetrate it.


This surface had been laid immediately above a layer of redeposited sands and clay, mixed with building debris, and on average 50cms thick. This probably represents an attempt by the Romans to form a building terrace, since the natural gradient down to the river is quite steep.   


At the southern end of the trench, wall footings of cobblers packed in clay, and fragments of opus signium (crushed tile and mortar) flooring suggest two buildings, whose common boundary may have coincided with the later tenement boundary of the Saxon and medieval periods. Could this boundary have had its origin in the Roman period and remained static for well over one thousand years?


Under the redeposited sand and clay terrace was a charcoal layer and a buried soil horizon, and it is suggested that these indicate a clearance of scrub-land vegetation, before the primary occupation. It is hoped to obtain a radiocarbon date from the charcoal layer.


Not content with the signal achievement of tracing the site’s history over almost two thousand years, the grand finale for Bishophill I came with the discovery and excavation of a late Roman timber-lined well, preserved in outstanding condition. Posts at each of the corners may represent a superstructure for a bucket hoist of some kind; and this was surely necessary as the well is about 6.5m deep. An initial examination suggests that oak was used throughout, and once again it is hoped to bridge gaps in the dendrochronological sequences being built up for York. (See INTERIM Issue 2-1).


The shaft is 1.2m square, made from jointed planks averaging 30cms in depth and the upper eleven courses are braced at the corners with struts. A further strengthening device shows in the centre of each face, where nail heads are visible, presumably attached to a major structural upright behind. The base of the shaft is reinforced by an inner plank lining held at the corners by four massive posts bolted to the lining.


The fill of the shaft consisted of 1.5m of clay, forming a sealing layer at the top, followed that an organic, silty layer representing a deliberate back-filling. At the level of the top of the inner lining, large quantities of rubble and tile began to appear within this organic matrix, and in this layer were found, excellently preserved, a large number of objects of organic material. These included a magnificent series of shoes and sandals, amongst which were children’s shoes, one with an iron studded sole, and another with an openwork design in the leather. It came as no surprise to find the major part of the stave-built wooden bucket, and there were also the usual finds of pottery and bone.


At the bottom of the shaft was a series of fine, silty-sand layers. These produced an antoninianus of Gordion 111, minted between A.D. 240-44, and also a fine knife with gold and bronze mountings.


The well is important not so much for the finds from it, interesting though they are, but for the techniques of its construction and to display the skill in carpentry, seen up until now by only the brave few who have ventured down the heavily shored shaft, it is planned to dismantle the timbers, conserve them, and then rebuild the well for display by the Yorkshire Museum.


At the SMITH’S site in CONEY STREET work resumed in January on two areas in the cellars whose upper levels had been dug by purely volunteer labour in the summer. In the smaller trench at the street frontage a large medieval pit had removed a considerable part of the Roman stratigraphy, but a complicated sequence of Roman structures was also uncovered, with both stone and timber elements, and in the lower levels it should prove possible to correlate these with those found in the nearby Trench II. From an early phase came a commemorative denarius of Vespasian minted at Ephesus in A.D. 71, the year of York’s foundation.


In the larger adjoining area, below three Roman road surfaces, the latest of which contained in its seating, a coin of Marcus Aurelius (161-80) a line of cobble foundations was found at the northern end, sitting upon a 50cm-thick layer of burnt daub, ash and charcoal. This also contained a small number of fragments of painted wall plaster, with red and black forming the dominant elements of the colour scheme. The layer seems to be the debris from a major fire which destroyed a timber-framed building on the site.


A thin spread of charcoal below the predominantly red and orange of the burnt daub may represent the burnt timber floor of the building, and this was supported by joists set into parallel slots cut in the underlying yellow clay. Six joist slots were recovered within the excavated area, but no walls of the building were found. The slots contained a black material which on cursory inspection appeared to be charcoal but which a closer look confirmed as charred or carbonized grain. The building could have been a bakery, but in view of its predecessor, it may well have been a granary.


The clay upon which it had been erected was, below a surface trample, a very compact, sticky layer averaging 60cm thick. Hopes that is might prove to be the original ground surface were dashed when several fragments of pottery and tile were found in a test area, and so the whole layer was summarily removed to reveal a brown, peaty only a few cms thick. This meant little to those excavating it, but examination by the Environmental Laboratory showed that the small sample submitted contained an astonishing abundance of beetle remains, overwhelmingly of species known to frequent a habitat where grain is present. It is thought that such a concentration of pests indicates the storage of grain on a commercial rather than a domestic scale, and that the building must be a grain warehouse.


Structural remains again survived, in the form of timber slots comparable to those in the upper building, and on the same alignment, but more widely spaced. In addition, the trench for a sill beam forming one side wall traversed the area; part of the sill survived, thanks to the damp, clayey soil conditions, and piles which had been driven 1.3m into the clay were also recovered, and will be submitted for C14 dating and for dendrochronological study.


Below a further build-up of clay, a ditch of U-shaped section was discovered on the final day of the excavation, cutting what was probably the original ground surface. This was represented by a dark grey, finely textured layer, possibly an old turf line. Although only traced over a fraction of the already small trench, the ditch was seen to be on the same alignment as that above containing the timber sill, and for this reason it seems that it represents an early Roman phase, laid out with regard to the fortress. The material in the ditch contained no artefacts at all, and the fill, consisting of the soils through which the ditch was cut, looked as if it had been replaced almost immediately after the cut was made. The reason for this change of plan is open for speculation.


With excavation on these two sites completed, the Trust would like to thank the site owners and developers who allowed the investigations: at Bishophill I, the North Eastern Electricity Board, and at 39-41 Coney Street, W.H. Smith Ltd., whose generosity has extended beyond the original gift of £100 to include several other very useful donations in kind.


Excavations on the Bedern and Museum Chambers sites have also been progressing, and will be reported in the next INTERIM.


INTERIM Editors: A.G. MacGregor, R.A. Hall, S.A.J. Bradley

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