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Uncovering the Archaeological Bounty of York

by Sara Polsky

York archaeological siteWith its varied and likely continuous occupation from Roman times through the present, York is an excellent spot for the archaeology enthusiast to gain fieldwork experience. The city is home to many already-excavated sites of archaeological interest, and visitors may also immerse themselves more thoroughly into the city's history by participating in a training dig.

Some scholars argue that York was inhabited prior to the arrival of the Romans, but archaeologists know for sure only that the Romans, under Cerialis's legion, founded a city at York in 71 AD and built a fortress, which was known as Eboracum, at that time. The fortress, originally constructed out of timber and then reconstructed from stone in the second and third centuries, served as the center of Roman Britain's road network. The immediate post-Roman history of the fortress area is still somewhat in dispute among historians and archaeologists. Historical records, like Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, suggest that Prince Edwin of York ordered the construction of a wooden church, which later became a stone church, on the former fortress site sometime during the seventh century. Archaeological records provide less definite evidence of such early post-Roman use, but do suggest that the site was used later, during the late Anglo-Saxon period, after the Viking invasion, and through the Norman Conquest of 1066. By 1472, the building had achieved the shape of the present York Minster.

After the Romans' departure from Britain, York was called Eoforwic and then, during the Viking period, Jorvik. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a 7th-9th century settlement to the south of York's walls. According to information provided by the York Archaeological Trust, people began to move into the area just outside the former fortress toward the end of the ninth century. From that time, the present-day street system developed. Medieval York had more hospitals than London and served as a port. Members of all four medieval monastic orders resided there. Through the 16th and 18th centuries, York served more of a social function than its earlier religious and mercantile purposes. Well-preserved structures survive from both of these periods, including the Merchants Adventurers' Hall of 1357 and the Georgian period Fairfax House, and are open to visitors.

York's Many Archaeological Strata

Jorvik Viking
CentreAlready-completed excavations in York have led to the creation of exhibits and museums for the archaeologically-intrigued who would prefer to bypass excavation. Many excavations have been completed by the York Archaeological Trust, which has excavated over 1000 sites in the area since its founding in 1972. Perhaps the best-known result of these excavations is Jorvik, a museum devoted to York's Viking past.

The Vikings conquered York in 866 AD, and they had established their Jorvik settlement by 876. Though pre-Viking York had flourished as an ecclesiastical center and a center for learning, it had been a fairly small community by later medieval standards. Following the Viking settlement, though, York grew: the post-Norman Conquest Domesday Book records the York population as the second-largest of any settlement in England. As an archaeological site, too, Jorvik proved flourishing. The museum contains numerous well-preserved artifacts, including wood, a notoriously perishable archaeological material. From November-March, Jorvik is open from 10 AM to 4 PM. From April-October, the museum is open from 10 AM to 5 PM. Visiting the museum costs £7.45, or £5.25 for children ages 5-15.

St Mary's Abbey, York

The York Archaeological Trust is currently undertaking numerous other archaeological and historical investigations in the York area, including an oral history collection related to World War II, recording work at Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire, and an examination of the Ripon Horn, a cattle horn said to have been given to the city of York by King Alfred the Great. Though these projects provide less visible material for interested visitors, the Trust does hold lunchtime lectures, Saturday workshops, and longer-term exhibits about its recent work and broader archaeological topics.

The York Archaeological Trust

Those interested in participating in excavation in York may also turn to the York Archaeological Trust, which runs a training dig every summer. The current site under investigation is the precinct of St. Mary's Abbey. The site dates from the Roman period, and in fact sits next to a Roman road, though the abbey itself was constructed in 1088 for the Benedictine order. The abbey suffered one serious religious upset, when a group of dissatisfied monks left St. Mary's to found Fountains Abbey as a community for members of the Cistercian order. But the abbey remained functional until the 1539 Dissolution of the monasteries, according to the Trust.

As an archaeological site, St. Mary's is unique because it is an urban site of the kind rarely open to volunteer excavators. Students, who are required to be over 16 years old unless they make special arrangements with the Trust, may attend one- or two-week courses or one to two-day "tasters" to learn excavation basics. Both of the longer courses include full days of excavation, broken up by lectures or seminars on ceramics, stratigraphy, and artifacts. "Taster" classes focus on excavation, recording, and methods of cleaning archaeological finds. Those with prior excavation experience may qualify for free placements at the site, and will be required to assist in running the project. Though the dates for the current field season are not yet available, the 2005 excavation ran from June 20th through September 9th. The one week course costs £195 (or £285 with accommodation), the two week course costs £370 (£495 with accommodation), and the tasters cost £50 for one day and £95 for two days (plus £40 per additional day). Placements are free, plus £70 per week for accommodation and a £20 administrative fee.

For other work in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, volunteers can contact Humber Field Archaeology, a professional group that sometimes accepts volunteers on its excavations and for artifact cleaning and analysis.

Related Articles:

Jorvik: The Viking City of York, by Brenda Lewis

The Treasures of York, by Pearl Harris

Timeline: York, by Darcy Lewis

More Information

York Archaeological Trust

Jorvik: The Viking City

St. Mary's Abbey Precinct Training Excavation

Humber Field Archaeology

York Accommodations

Sara Polsky's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Christian Science Monitor, Renaissance Magazine, Student Traveler, and other publications, and she has participated in archaeological excavations in New Jersey and Massachusetts. She is a 2007 graduate of Harvard University.
Article © 2006 Sara Polsky
Excavation and St. Mary's photos © Moira Allen; Jorvik photo courtesy of Britainonview.com


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