Remarkable new finds below York Minster
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found evidence of a previously-unknown settlement below York Minster, dating back more than 1,000 years.
Experts working at the Minster say the finds – including a ninth-century coin – help to plug a gap in York’s known history, between the departure of the Romans in the fifth century and the arrivals of the Normans in 1066.
The period is referred to as the Dark Ages due to the lack of knowledge about the time, and although Viking finds have increased awareness of York history from 866 onwards, broader understanding is scarce.
Now, a team from York Archaeological Trust working in a pit below the Minster say they have made priceless finds, including evidence of a local mint.
Stuart Harrison, Cathedral Archaeologist for York Minster, said: “When you consider the scale of the digs that were undertaken at Coppergate, Fishergate and Hungate in the last 50 years, this comparatively tiny pit was rather a gamble.
"Although we knew that the archaeology around here generally offers rich pickings, a three-metre cube of soil might simply not have been large enough to find anything exciting.
“We actually struck gold – and silver – by finding Viking-Age human bones, Norman foundations and an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon coin that reveals a huge amount about York during the early ninth century.”
The dig took place last year in the Minster Undercroft, during work on a new lift shaft into a new underground visitor attraction. The work involved removing concrete laid in the 1960s as part of an emergency project to save the central tower, and the team dug down a further two metres than the shaft.
The coin found is a ‘sceatta’, a silver coin about the size of a five pence piece. Unusually, it was found in mint condition, with clear markings that enabled the moneyer to be identified as Eadwine, who is known to have minted coins for the Northumbrian royal court.
The coin was minted for Archbishop Eanbald, who had connections to the famed court of Charlemagne, say the archaeologists.
A Minster spokesman said: “Even more importantly for scientists, its unique metal content and condition confirmed the date of its manufacture and its loss as the beginning of the ninthcentury, allowing them to date the sealed deposits of dark earth (rotted organic material) around it.
“Its condition indicates that it was probably never used – and given how quickly valuable coins were re-melted, this means it is likely to have been dropped close to where it was originally minted, very shortly after it was made, providing evidence for a mint very nearby – at this period of history, a rare commodity.”
YAT archaeologist, Ian Milsted, who directed the dig, said: “This tiny coin really helps us to understand what was happening in York at this period, which remains very mysterious. The presence of a mint confirms York’s position of power and authority in the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria and, indeed, the country, during what has been thought of as a period of decline between the end of Eboracum and the start of Jorvik.
“This mint, and the wealth that would have surrounded it, may well have bankrolled the Anglian city and possibly the establishment of the Viking city – perhaps attracting the Vikings who stole the money even as they burned Alcuin’s famous library, and then settled here and traded with the Anglo Saxon natives, eventually creating York’s famous Anglo-Scandinavian communities.”
Other sceattas were found during the 1960s excavation, but none of the same mint quality as the 2012 find. An expert from the British Museum initially discounted the coin as a Victorian fake, before authenticating it.
The team also found a pair of human feet from a mid-11th century burial, the later era of Jorvik. They were part of a body from a stone tomb, the rest of which was destroyed during the laying of foundations for the medieval Minster in AD 1220.
The Minster spokesman said: “Whilst there have been many finds of burials from this era around the city, the positioning of this body suggests an answer to a question that had puzzled archaeologists – whether the Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery on the site followed the line of an earlier Anglian cemetery.
“These buried feet cut into the disturbed remains of earlier burials, suggesting that the cemetery was one continuous, extensive burial ground for generations regardless of whether the occupant was Anglo-Saxon or ‘Viking’.
This reinforces the assertion that this part of York still had a substantial population from the fifth century, and that, through flood, fire or invasion one of the earliest of Britain’s religious sites flourished at the heart of its community between the seventh and eleventh centuries.”
On February 22, Mr Milsted will lead a family-friendly talk about the new discoveries and how they fit into existing knowledge of York’s history. The presentation is free with admission to York Minster (£9 for adults, £8 for concessions and accompanied children go free), but places should be reserved in advance at www.yorkminster.org
The discoveries will also feature in Revealing York Minster, new interactive exhibitions to be launched in the new Undercroft in the summer.
The Dean of York, Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, said: “The underground chambers will tell the 2000 year story of this site, from Romans through to the modern day, and it is wonderful that we’re actually making new discoveries to add new details to the story even as the attraction is being created – the story of York Minster truly is the story of York.”
The sceatta will be on display alongside other York treasures, including the Anglo-Scandinavian Horn of Ulf and the Anglo-Saxon York Gospels.
Further information on the archaeological discoveries beneath York Minster will be revealed in 2014, as archaeologists continue to research and interpret the finds to add more colour to York’s rich story.