Training Excavation with YAT at Dig Hungate York Part 1

I am absolutely exhausted, in a good way. I have just returned from a fantastic one week course with Archaeology Live! run by the York Archaeological Trust at Dig Hungate. Yes, the days were 9-5 (okay, 9:30 – 4:30, you get what I mean!) but I was definitely given a comprehensive insight into the procedures and practices professional archaeologists employ when working on a site to properly excavate and record data for future study (and it was also a lot of fun to work with such lovely people!) But first a little on my first impressions of the marvelous York…

The home of Nestle…did you see that?!

After a pleasantly quick and painless two hour train journey I had arrived at the station where I embarked on a slightly exhausting walk to the centre of town. As I got closer to the centre, I was visually struck by what I would call a plethora of unimaginable things – first, a man painted entirely in purple from top to bottom riding a purple bicycle, second a band of dancing Yorkshiremen wearing tassles and bells whacking sticks to the tune of an accordion and thirdly a Native American playing electro pan pipes. Where on earth was I?! None other than York of course!

And of course I must add a little bio…

The city of York is believed to have found its roots between 8000 and 7000 BC when it was first settled by Mesolithic peoples, however, it is unsure whether or not these settlements were permanent or temporary. By the Roman conquest, it was most definitely inhabited by a tribe known to the Romans as the Brigantes. It was officially founded in 71 AD when the Ninth Legion conquered the Brigantes. Today it is home to 198,000 people and spans 105.00 square miles.

I wasn’t kidding about the folk-stick dancing!

Newgate Market (sells wonderful all natural cosmetics!)

Purple man! (you can follow him on twitter here!)

After my random amble through the town I had to decipher which bus was indeed the correct number to get to my accommodation in Heslington. This was not so hard to find it was in fact the arrival at my bus stop in Heslington that proved problematical in terms of navigation (think giant sports fields and lots of houses); however, after a lot of persistence and walking backwards and then forwards again, I managed to navigate myself through the maze to my cosy accommodation.

I grabbed an early night as I had to rise bright and early at the crack of dawn (okay, not quite crack of dawn, bit of an exaggeration – 7:30) to grab the bus into the centre of town to the excavation site. We were introduced to our project manager Toby who gave us an induction into the rules and regulations to working on site. As expected, personal protective equipment (PPE) consisted of steel-toe capped boots, hard hats and safety specs to minimise accident risk whilst digging (hello builder chic!).

Prior to beginning work on site we were given a background on the history of the trenches we would be working in. In summary, we were excavating small houses/cottages that had been inhabited by tenements and poorer workers of York during the 1900s. The houses were deemed not fit for human inhabitance (the tipper toilets present were considered insanitary when it was not raining) and therefore were ordered to be demolished. The fronts of the houses were well presented but the backyard and main parts were cramped and small.

It wasn’t long until we were allowed on site to work on our trenches. I was introduced to my supervisor, Rosie, to help with mapping some brick work. This was done using two tape measures – one suspended by the person measuring and another attached to a metal stick and a plumb-bob (a drop weighted pendulum) to connect the ‘points’. The measurements were then plotted onto a graph paper (drawn to a 5×5 square). The measuring rule was suspended at a 90 degree angle to the tied measuring tape. Measurements were taken at four points on each brick (and in the case of bricks that were damaged a curve was drawn to indicate loss).

Diagram showing the method used to measure the co-ordinates of a context required for planning

Although this method could prove to be quite trying in practice, it is the only suitable way to produce a more accurate account of the trench beyond mere sketch drawings. As one digs deeper, revealing new layers to a trench, it is vital that records are kept of the previous. In archaeological excavation, destruction is effectively what occurs (calculated destruction) and so recording data is intrinsically necessary in understanding the full historical picture of a site. Typically, a profile or diary of a site is produced by working from most recent findings to earliest findings using various dating techniques including light exposure and carbon dating.

In addition to planning, sea level readings were taken by observing a staff with measured lines through a device at a known as a dumpy level. First a reading at a known height above sea level point was taken (known as the benchmark) and subtracted from the known height to calculate device height above sea level. Three points from the trench were then measured and recorded. It is important to record sea level heights for trenches as it aids in understanding a more comprehensive look at the trench under consideration as the further down a trench is excavated the older finds and materials will be. Archaeologists can also use the height above sea level at which a context was uncovered as an indicator to which time period it originated from.

Diagram to show Dumpy level operation

Measuring the height above sea level for a point on a context

A second sheet was used to record the specifics of the bricks under analysis. Sketch drawings of the front and profile of the bricks were made to supplement the photographs taken (complete with context number and measuring scale) to aid recording.

Measuring scale used to indicate relative size of context

A ‘context’ is effectively an event that has occurred in the site area. These can be either positive (such as a deposition) or negative (such as a cutting). An example of a positive deposition context would be that of the bricks being examined (as they have been lain there for a purpose) and a negative cutting context might be the obvious loss of some of the bricks as water or silt may have leaked through and removed/dissolved material.

As what we were examining was remains of brickwork, the pattern in which the bricks were lain had to be identified and thus recorded. Bricks that are lain in particularly elaborate patterns are associated with more expensive and wealthier constructions whereas the bricks we were examining today (as mentioned above ) were tenements housing from the 1900s and therefore very simple in construction.

The ways in which a brick can be lain are as follows:

– Bedding (long side on top of one another)

– Stretcher (long side)

– Header (shorter square)

In addition to the brickwork found, we uncovered a network of pipes dating mostly from the 1900s and one from an earlier time period. We were told that the wider pipes were used for sewage and human faeces while ones that are smaller in diameter are used for water.

Part 2 to come: analysing soil types, identifying inclusions, pottery and more!

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