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Great Expectations

Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 9 years, 5 months ago


As this number of INTERIM goes to press, preliminary site clearance is in progress at two new Trust excavations, on the King’s Square/St Andrewgate corner, and inside the City Garage in Blake Street. There is nothing of great interest to report as yet - just piles of modern brick and concrete to be removed - but the inception of these projects gives the chance to review briefly the reasons why the sites were chosen for excavation: to summarise how they will be tackled, and to speculate on what they may be expected to produce.


The King’s Square site has been on the stocks for some time, simply awaiting the release of manpower from other Trust digs. The small area, 20 x 10m, was until recently a car park, but will eventually be put on the market for redevelopment. Archaeological investigation at this stage will 'sterilize' the site, and eradicate a possible source of delay at a more advanced stage in the scheme. Would that all redevelopers had the foresight of York Corporation, who are the owners in this instance!


This area is just outside the south-east wall of the fortress, and indeed the Roman ditch may well be encountered. If it is, excavation may have to descend to a considerable depth, since part of a dedication stone, recording the construction of a gateway by the IX Legion in A.D. 107-8, was found at the nearby Goodramgate/King's Square corner some 9m down. This may have been in the ditch, as excavations on the south side of King's Square have shown that the Roman ground level is only 5m below the present surface.


These excavations also produced finds of the Anglo-Scandinavian and the more elusive immediately pre-Scandinavian phases, and further finds of these periods may well be made in the coming months. However, as well as small finds, there is a chance that vestiges of a palace of the Viking rulers of York may exist in the vicinity.


A late source, the early thirteenth century Saga of Egil Skalla-Grimsson, mentions a royal residence of Eric Bloodaxe, who ruled York briefly in the mid-tenth century. In addition, William of Malmesbury, writing in the 3420s-1150s, but drawing others severely limit the type be upon an almost contemporary poem dealing with the English King Athelstan (925-39), records that Athelstan razed the Danish fortress at York and shared out the booty found there. This may also refer to a fortified palace or headquarters building rather than a whole fortress area.


If there was a palace, which seems inherently likely, the only clue to its whereabouts survives in the street name King’s Square, more properly King’s Court, which derives ultimately from an Old Norse name.


By analogy with, for example, the principa, or the south-west corner tower of the fortress, the Roman gatehouse whose dedication stone has already been mentioned may well have been standing to a considerable height in the 9th-10th century, and could perhaps have formed the nucleus of a palace in the vicinity. Here it would have been ideally sited to control entrance to the main fortified area from the commercial centre around Coppergate. The gate-house itself lies beyond the available site, but subsidiary forebuildings to a palace here might survive.


However, the problem will be one of recognition, since any structure at all, whatever its date, will only be seen in a narrow trench, 3 x 6m. The reason for this diminutive size is that a three-storey building on one side and roadways on two others severely limit the type of excavation that can be undertaken. Thus it will be a deep, heavily-shored trench, rather like those in Lloyd’s Bank (INTERIM vol 1 no 1). Despite this, however, it may prove extremely valuable in extending our knowledge of pre-Norman York.


The City Garage site in Blake Street is comparable to the recently dug W.H. Smith site in that while its eventual excavation was almost certain, developers permitting, its availability came upon the Trust rather suddenly. But despite the usual problems of finance and manpower, the potential of this area was too great for it to be passed over.


In the medieval period the block was occupied in part by prebendal houses associated with the Minister, and these may be found within the excavated area. Remains of Anglian and Anlglo-Scandinavian occupation may also be expected, if they have not been destroyed by later activity. The prime interest, however, is in the Roman occupation.


Although its elements can be inferred from other sites, very little is known about the de tailed internal arrangement of the fortress. A series of barrack blocks along the south-west frontage, the bath house in St Sampson's Square, the Church Street sewer system and associated buildings (INTERIM vol 1 no 1 and INTERIM Issue 2-1), the exciting discoveries in the principia area below the Minister and a few other scattered and fragmentary remains form the sum total of our knowledge.


The City Garage covers an extensive area across which, it has been calculated, one of the minor east-west streets of the fortress may run. There may also be a north-south street traversing the site. The hope is that the remains of both of these and of adjacent buildings will be recovered, and in sufficient detail for their respective functions to be diagnosed, thus filling in part of the large blank space which characterises the plan of the fortress as we know it.


The City Garage excavation will last throughout the summer season and while the excavators of the Bedern and King’s Square sites will be praying for good weather, the team in Blake Street will not be affected one way or the other, since the garage will not be demolished until after the excavation. Frequently, digging within a standing building is rather a mixed blessing – the protection against the elements having to be weighed against the poorer artificial light, the restrictions imposed in order to safeguard the fabric, the disposal of soil, etc. However, in this case the structure is a light, single storey one, thus lessening the problem.


It may in fact be feasible to open the City Garage excavation to the public; any of our readers who are likely to be in York in the coming months will be welcome to view this unusual phenomenon, an indoor excavation.



Richard Hall

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