An archaeological dig with a difference has been taking place in the centre of York all this week. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

WHEN Richard Powell heard that there was going to be an archaeological dig in the grounds of Bootham Park Hospital, he was less than impressed.

“You’re all mad!” was how he put it.

But after lunchtime on Monday – the first day of the dig – the 22-year-old was persuaded to go along.

He found himself up to his knees in a muddy trench, loosening soil with a hoe. And then he found something. “It was bits of clay pipe,” he says. “I felt buzzing! They must be 100 to 150 years old. It was the first way anyone smoked tobacco.”

Archaeological digs in York are not unusual. But generally speaking, they explore the distant past – the Roman, Viking or medieval age.

The dig taking place at Bootham Park all this week has been very different. Those delving away in three trenches tucked behind an old cricket pavilion aren’t looking for Roman or Viking remains.

They are looking for evidence of the homeless people who, for much of the last 30 years, have used this place to sleep rough or lie up in the daytime away from watching eyes.

It is very contemporary archaeology, admits Rachael Kiddey, the Ph.D student at the University of York who is leading the dig. But it is archaeology nonetheless.

An artefact is an artefact whether it was dropped five minutes or 5,000 years ago, she says.

“We’re using exactly the same methodology as if this was a Roman site. And what we’re doing is recording a part of the history of this site.

“It’s also a piece of the history of York.”

This site was chosen because it is known to have been a gathering place for homeless people in the recent past – from the early 1970s at least, up until quite recently.

Rachael’s team has been working with residents of Arc Light, the centre for homeless people based in Union Terrace. She spent some time walking around York with them, following the routes homeless people take, drawing maps, and identifying sites used by rough sleepers.

This site came up again and again, she says, which is not that surprising. It was, in its time, a popular spot for rough sleeping.

Jeremy Jones, the Arc Light director, says that in the days before the new Arc Light building went up, this was one of the places he would always come to on his regular ‘street walks’ to check up on people sleeping rough. “And you’d always find three or four people here,” he says.

The evidence uncovered during the dig reflects that.

There have been some drugs paraphernalia discovered – though not that much, Rachael stresses – as well as plenty of old cider, beer and lemonade bottles, some of which carry ‘best before’ dates. “A great way of identifying how old something is,” Rachael says.

Other finds have included an old jumper, and the remains of what seemed to be a sofa.

“I found what I think was a caster and some spongy foam, and some decomposed bits of what looked like wood.”

There was also an old chocolate wrapper, with adverts for the film Octopussy printed on it. The price was given in pre-decimal money.

“So we know it must be from about 1971.”

As archaeological finds go they’re not, admittedly, up there with Sutton Hoo. But they all tell a story, Rachael says. What really makes this dig unique, however, is that in piecing together the history of what went on here, archaeologists can actually call on the testimony of eye-witnesses.

In some ways that is an archaeologist’s dream. “If we could work with Roman and medieval people, we would,” Rachael says.

Here they can even go one better. Not only can they talk to Arc Light residents who remember using this place: some of the ‘archaeologists’ digging here are Arc Light residents themselves and remember coming here.

Dan is one of them. Now 49, he first became homeless when studying history at the University of York more than 20 years ago.

A grant failed to come through in time. He ended up crashing on people’s floors. Then he got into drink and drugs. It all got out of hand. He ended up spending some time at Bootham Park as a patient; and also became homeless for a while.

He never slept rough here, in this hidden corner behind the cricket pavilion. But he often came to sit here during the day, away from prying eyes, he says; drinking and smoking with the other homeless people.

It was a good place. There is a south-facing wall to lean against. “And it’s secluded, but as close to the middle of town as you can get. A really good place, apart from the trains.”

It was also useful for stashing what you didn’t want to carry around all the time, he says. “If you’re carrying everything you own, it’s a good idea to have somewhere to stash things.”

All that was 20 or more years ago. For much of the time since, after overcoming his early problems, Dan held down a decent job. He even bought his own place to live. Then, three years ago, he was made redundant: and he lost everything.

Now he’s living at Arc Light. Coming back here after all this time and looking at this place as an archaeologist feels weird, he admits: but fascinating.

Richard Powell agrees. He’s lived in York most of his life. But he got into what he calls a ‘bit of trouble’ and now lives at Arc Light.

He is too young to remember coming here to sleep rough himself. But nevertheless, coming on this dig has inspired him. “I want to do more,” he says. “Maybe go to college. It’s really good.”

And then he climbs back into trench three to continue sifting through the muddy soil.

From thinking archaeology is mad to wanting to study it in just one week. It seems that in some cases, archaeology really can change your life.