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Sites Review: Bedern and Blake Street 1975

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


During the summer work has continued through Anglo-Scandinavian to Roman deposits in the deep trench on the Bedern site, together with further excavation of the late medieval levels in the open area begun in 1973. Over the past months the site been supervised by Ryszard Bartkowiak, who provides the following details.


The 1973 season demonstrated the continuity of settlement in our open area during the 16th to 18th centuries; in 1975 the original form of these small properties was unravelled and traced to an origin c 1500. Four small domestic properties including a bakery, all served by an alleyway to Goodramgate, were inserted into a pre-existing large single property over 20m long whose side passage then became an alley. The original building had been used for bronze-casting on a large scale in the 15th century.


The most complete of the new structures visible within the excavated area are two buildings extending along either side of the alley, whose heavy use necessitated periodic bumping of limestone clippings to remake the surface. The northern building occupied the western part of the original property, retaining the lower parts of its stone walls even after they had toppled over along their whole length, to support new 60cm - wide clay and cobble walls, within the thickness of which were two keyholes ovens of 50cm diameter. Successive rebuilding of these ovens and dense floor deposits of raked-out charcoal within the building served to illustrate how Bakers’ Lane, the adjacent alleyway, came by its name. To the east signs of occupation are vestigial. This area has probably relegated to storage after the adjacent stone-lined coal-hole acquired a new uncongenial use as a cesspit during the 16th and 17th centuries and to judge from the many coprolites round about, it became a favourite resort of the local canine population.


In contrast, the clay floors of the timber-framed house to the south of the alley were completely lacking the debris of everyday usage and were worn down until each room had a great hollow at its centre. Mortar splashed at the base of its walls preserved the outline of its sleeper beam as a cast, showing it to have been 18 to 20cm wide.


At its east end the alleyway learned to the north where it entered a strip of gardens and yards extending from the bakery to what is possibly the garden and orchard or the Vicars Choral where excavation will begin this winter. Rather unexpectedly, the site of this all of the alley was not built upon, but used as open space, probably because the signs of severe subsistence over a large filled-in pit must have detered even the sixteenth-century speculative builder.


In compensation the plot abutting the lane further north was most intensively used at this period. A continuation of the toppled stone wall was completely rebuilt in large ashlar blocks, then a fine curved stone wall (alas mostly destroyed by a modern storage tank) was constructed. This had a radical of c.2.5m and may have been a kiln of some sort, or even a bow-window. Slightly later a small oven was put in against part of this wall big then demolished in the latter sixteenth century, judging from pieces of a ‘puzzle jug’ found within it. Sometime during this 50 years or so of hectic activity, someone had blocked-off this property from the alley by a stone wall; perhaps the occupants of the nearby College of the Vicars Choral desired greater seclusion for their garden and orchard.


In the deep trench, below tenth-century clay floor levels and a beamslot, the all-too-tantalizing pre-Viking levels of York were removed this summer to reveal a 6.5m long dry-stone revetted earth wall some 1m wide, possibly from an Anglian building, but no floors were visible. This wall rested against a more massively built wall which may have been late Roman in date, and overlay a steeply-sloping cobbled surface presently being excavated, which may be the edge of the Roman interval's road. From its surface has come a pierced late-Roman strap plate.


With excavation on the Roman well carried down nearly 10m our pumps could no longer cope with the pea-soupy liquefied silt oozing in, so digging was halted. It has now been drawn and arrangements are in hand to retrieve some of its timbers to provide comparable material to that from Bishophill (INTERIM Issue 2-3).


The primary stages of excavation inside the former City Garage in Blake Street were reported in INTERIM Issue 3-1. Since then one additional feature of medieval date has been investigated, a timber-lined well. At first thought to be simply the base of a medieval rubbish pit, a badly rotten plank lining hinted that it was something more, and it was with some trepidation, bearing in mind the depths of 6m and more recently encountered in Roman wells at Bishophlll (INTERIM Issue 2-3) and Bedern (INTERIM Issue 3-1, and infra), that excavation proceeded. Fortunately in this instance the confined conditions enforced both by the well shaft itself and by the shoring of it as a safety precaution had to be endured for a depth of only 2m, but this was sufficient to allow the recovery of a representative section of the panel did split-log lining, which survived in good condition at the base. The method of construction was much cruder than that used by the Romans at Bishophill and Bedern - simple saddle Joints, with no bracing at the corners. Nevertheless, whatever may have caused the backfilling of the well, failure of the shaft was not to blame.


From the fill of the shaft a group of objects of the period c 1300 was recovered. These included fragmentary wooden bowls and leather shoes, but the most impressive of the organic finds were undoubtedly fragments from a leather sheath for a dagger. This had been decorated with panelled designs including fleur-de-lys, confronted birds, and lions passant. Equally interesting was the recovery of a virtually intact, though deformed, riveted bronze cooking pot, which seems originally to have hid a tinned surface, presumably to make it look spick and span. Metal vessels of this period rarely survive, perhaps because most may have been consigned to the melting pot after they had outlived their usefulness.


The efficacy of the well was never in doubt, as it had to be pumped continuously during excavation. Over the whole site the water table has been encountered at a higher level than anticipated - the interface of redeposited soils big relatively impermeable natural clays acts almost as a spring line, and any cut into natural is quickly inundated. Indeed, the remainder of the excavation will be beset by the problems of keeping the water at bay.


Description of the site has been simplified by the recognition of a narrow passageway traversing the area; it was from the uppermost surface of this that an important bone comb came, commented on in INTERIM Issue 3-1. This passage, only 2m wide, was resurfaced on at least four occasions, although none of the surfaces was of particularly good quality.


The building to the north of this, i.e. nearer the principia, is that covered by dumps of yellow sandy clay. Three separate lumps and been laid down one above the other, on top of an opus signium (concrete with crushed tile) floor. It seems that these are not just dumps making up one phase, but were deposited individually, and each represented, for some time at least, the actual Roman surface.


Below these layers, the building was found to have been divided into four rooms, three of which, each measuring approximately 3.5m square, were excavated. All of the wall fronting on to the passageway had been robbed out, as had most of the back wall, except where it had slumped into an underlying depression caused by earlier features. However, the internal walls survived up to three courses high, and had several layers of wall plaster remaining in some small patches. Unfortunately it was impossible to come to any conclusion about the style of decoration (cf. INTERIM Issue 2-1).




Whatever function this arrangement of rooms served, there were several indications during their uncovering that they had been formed by the insertion of walls into a preexisting floor. These hints includes the presence of a small stump of opus signinum outside the southern wall, the fact that the opus signinum did not lap right up to the base of these partition walls, and the recognition of a patch where one corner had been overrun and then repaired during the insertion.


The southern wall of the earlier phase has now been duly recovered where the opus signinum indicated it might be. The contrasting foundations of these various walls also differentiates them into the work of two periods: the front, rear and side walls rest on sticky clay incorporating large cobbles, whereas the partition walls rest on superimposed sandy clay and small cobble layers.


The date of these phases is not yet certain, but one find which will doubtless be commented on in a future issue may help to date the second (partition) phase of the building. And may provoke a rethinking of the date at which stone buildings were first erected in the fortress. From the foundation of a partition wall came a coin hoard of thirty five silver denarii: although not yet all cleaned, provisional identifications suggest that they include a few Republican issues, the earliest being 68-66 B.C., several coins of Augustus, and a range of later emperors, ending apparently with Vespasian (A.D. 69-79).


At present, following the removal of the opus signinum floor, the first vestiges of timber buildings are coming to light in the form of beam slots and post-voids, and several earlier layers are known to lie below.


Behind the line of the rear wall of the building ran a stone-lined and tile-capped drain. Beyond, from the latest pre-dump phase, an ashlar big mortar water cistern partially survives, walk impressions of some of the plank shuttering used during its construction visible in the mortar. This overlay the corner of another building, but only a small part of this structure lies within the area available for excavation.


To the other side of the small passageway, another building has been gradually revealed. Three parallel robber trenches, and one shallower trench at right angles, seem to define parts of six rooms. However, no floor levels have been uncovered, and all material so far collected here is of late third or fourth century date.


Near the western limit of the site, between the first and second robber trenches, another road surface has been revealed. It is composed of limestone rubble did sandstone slabs, is 3m wide, and is a much better surface than that of the passageway. Its precise chronological relation to this is not yet understood; it may predate the building represented by the robber trenches, but this is not yet certain.


In the space between the two thoroughfares, an area of severe burning as now being investigated, in which rows of stake holes, perhaps representing insubstantial divisions of a room here, are coming to light. There are also indications of an earlier phase of stone building below, on a diverging alignment, and possibly timber structures below that again. It is thus fortunate that the deadline for excavation to end has now been extended to November.


In an area south of the main site, in the open air, members of York Excavation Group have been working at weekends on a spatially small but nonetheless important trench nearer to the line of via praetoria, the main road from the river entrance to the principia. Below levels badly disturbed by medieval pits, substantial Roman walls and footings have been found on alignments comparable to those in the main area. More important, further areas of opus signinum flooring have been discovered albeit in small patches, and this will allow, it is hoped, comparison with the building sequence encountered inside. Y.E.G. men and women deserve congratulations for their persistence in the face of conditions which render this almost underwater archaeology!


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

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