Dig deep into the past

Archaeologist Jim Williams admires a tegular tile, the first Roman find at the undercroft excavation

Jim Williams with the collection of human bones uncovered in a charnel pit at York Minster

The last excavation inside the Minster in 1972

Ian Milstead and Jim Williams finish clearing the pit yesterday afternoon

First published in Features

For the first time in 40 years, a dig is being carried out inside York Minster. As MATT CLARK discovers, the first find wasn’t quite what the archaeologists expected

HIDDEN in the bowels of York Minster, Jim Williams is sifting through what most of us would call a pile of mud. To Jim, though, it’s a treasure trove and who knows what it will yield?

“Look at this,” he calls out. “I think it’s Roman.”

Only minutes before, colleague Ian Milsted said he hoped the pair might discover something from the fifth century. But they weren’t expecting anything until they had dug down another metre or so.

Jim and Ian are members of York Archaeological Trust and are excavating the undercroft before a new lift is installed as part of the work connected to York Minster Revealed.

The pair struck gold straight away: 50 bodies buried in what is called a charnel pit, or repository for disturbed human bones.

“It was really nice to go through 40cm of concrete straight into this,” says Jim.

“I’ve seen charnel pits before but never with bones laid out long ways like this. And I have never seen this much human bone disturbed and put back in a foundation.”

It is rare for permission to be granted to dig inside the Minster. The last time archaeologists were allowed to unearth its secrets was when the Central Tower’s foundations needed back-filling to stop it collapsing.

This will be the only full-scale dig as part of the York Minster Revealed project and Jim and Ian are the first archaeologists to work here for 40 years. Indeed, they may well be the only ones this century.

“We’re in the 13th century and the charnel pit is probably 12th,” says Ian. “Once we’ve removed it we’ll get into the earlier deposits and might also come down to the Roman layers as well.”

Jim already has. It turns out his find is a piece of fifth-century roofing tile, probably from the Roman fortress which stood on this site.

The bones are more of a riddle. Ian is sure they predate the Minster in its present form and that makes them 12th century at least. So he and Jim are the first to see the bones in 800 years.

“The wall here has been built in a trench and the builders have cut through an earlier charnel pit,” he says.

“This is almost certainly Norman and relates to their cathedral. They are either clearing their own graveyard or cleared the Saxon graveyard and reburied the bones in this pit.”

That could mean these bones were originally in the Saxon cathedral. The trouble is no one knows for sure where it was and no trace of it was uncovered on the last dig, How significant the new find is will depend on who the bones belong to, once tests are done. If they do turn out to be Saxon, it will be the first such discovery in York for many years.

“They may have been important people if they were associated with the Minster, but equally they could be ordinary local people who happened to use the church.

“Because they have been disturbed twice, there are no attendant grave goods so we can’t be sure who they are,” says Ian. “They are not surviving as individuals but a mass of bone.”

It is common in archaeology to have more questions than answers. Another conundrum is the wall against which the bones are laid. It is in the South Transept and dates from 1225.

However, the pair has discovered that the foundations are substantial, with more than a metre of rubble and that suggests it may have originally been an external wall.

“I don’t think anyone expected to see that because it would mean the transept was built without an aisle,” says Ian. “It is a possibility, though, and the builders may have thought, let’s extend instead.”

What is certain is the footing was cut through a trench and disturbed the bones, so they were put to one side and packed back into the foundation trench.

“There is something very human about it,” says Jim. “The builders obviously wanted to do their best. They’ve got a job to do in building the Minster, but they still want to have the bones associated with the Minster.”

And once the researchers have finished, the same thing will happen again, except the bones will be labelled and packaged before being buried once more, with a dedication service held in the Minster, in the same way they were 800 years ago to keep the bones within sanctified ground.

“What’s nice is the huge amount of interest. People in York want to know about the city’s past,” says Ian. “I feel as though I’m digging through their history and I have a responsibility to tell them about it.”

Those wanting to know more include Minster staff, who once used this area for their tea breaks, oblivious to the treasure trove a couple of metres beneath.

Ian takes his remarkable find with more than a pinch of salt.

“This is what we do every day,” he says. “Later I will produce a report and that is why we’re irritatingly cautious at the moment.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the finds and it will take a while to get our heads round it all and know definitively what we are saying.”

Yesterday the charnel pit was cleared of bones, which are now bagged and with the researchers. Ian says he thinks they have now reached the foot of the foundations and what they are left with is even earlier – hopefully Norman at least.

“The charnel pit has cut through earlier layers and it’s been very helpful, like having a window into the past; a preview of what we will be doing next and an idea of how much there is left to do.”

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