The biggest excavation in York was completed last year. Now we have a chance to see some of the treasures unearthed by archaeologists at Hungate. MATT CLARK takes a look.

HE died two thousand years ago. Nobody knows who he is, nobody knows what he did and it’s anyone’s guess what killed him. But one thing is for sure, this skeleton is Roman and one of more than 100 found at Hungate by York Archaeological Trust during the city’s most important dig since Coppergate.

It’s one of thousands of objects unearthed at the site and Looking Back At Hungate, which opened at DIG on Saturday, will display many of them on a rotating basis until April next year.

Sarah Maltby, the exhibition organiser, says it is the first time in York that Roman, Viking, medieval and Victorian items unearthed at one site have gone on public display.

“I think it’s really exciting. You can stand in one room and literally look back over two millennia to see how people lived and worked in this part of York.

“Following Hungate, we now have a huge resource as a trust that we are working on and researching to build a picture. So we can change the exhibits as they come back.”

The dig also yielded a hoard of rare Roman jet jewellery – the first in York for more than a century, Viking ice skates made from bone and a tiny Middle Eastern glass bead that was traded across thousands of miles at the end of the first millennium.

“We didn’t know we would get such rich Roman finds and there are some spectacular glass perfume flasks,” says Sarah. “Just think what else is out there underground and undiscovered.”

Because the Romans used Hungate to bury their dead, some exquisite grave goods have been found. Two of the most poignant finds are a child’s bracelet and a tiny coffin which contained the remains of a wealthy man’s baby.

“We know the family was of some standing because the coffin is lead,” says Christine McDonnell, Head of YAT’s curatorial services.

“There was also a jet pin inside and it would have been placed within a wooden coffin. We’ve made many Roman finds in York but surprisingly few graves, and that makes Hungate very significant.”

During the dig there was much speculation over the bodies. Archaeologists knew they were not soldiers; their cemeteries were placed prominently along the main arterial roads, such as Driffield Terrace, where the gladiators were found.

Now it now appears Hungate was chosen as a cemetery because of its prominent position on the River Foss, which allowed Roman citizens to see their ancestry as they entered the city. Naturally, the most important members of society sought out the prime spots.

Some of the graves were for children and it turns out many were for young women.

The main exhibit in the Roman room is a skeleton, which osteo-archaeologist Malin Holst says is male and aged somewhere between 36 and 45.

“You can determine the age from dental wear and degeneration of the pelvis,” says Malin. “The sex can be found from the cranial shape and the shape of the pelvis.

“We know he had some minor congenital anomalies, too few vertebrae and teeth but they probably didn’t affect him. There is also some wear and tear on the thumbs where bone has formed to compensate for deterioration.”

The five-year-long excavation at Hungate only ended last December and there is still much work to be done, but Malin says such a huge trove of skeletons has given the trust a collection of singular importance.

“This one already tells us more than we knew previously about people in Roman York and with 100 individuals we should start to see patterns and perhaps population trends such as similar congenital anomalies. “It’s all pretty exciting really.”

Not many headstones were found. There is one to “the spirits of the departed Corellia Optata, 13 years old”. But some of the archaeologists think the majority, like so many objects at Hungate, were recycled.

That is what happened to the ships timbers which were used to clad Viking basement warehouses. One was boarded with planks which scientific tree-ring dating proved to be from an Anglo Saxon ship made from timber sourced near London.

One of the most interesting examples of recycling is a 14th-century stone corbel found face down as part of a building’s foundation.

During the dissolution of the monasteries, a great deal of masonry was available and this beautifully carved piece of stone probably ended up being dumped.

Was it deliberate to hide a Catholic icon or did it make for an easier surface to build on? We will never know and archaeologists prefer not to speculate. Whatever the reason, being buried in the ground for centuries has kept the corbel perfectly preserved; now it is pride of place alongside pottery vases in the medieval room.

But it is not only early artefacts which have been uncovered. There are Victorian toilet blocks and evidence from the slums.

Hungate was a poor part of town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The housing, unhealthy sanitation and high number of pubs was highlighted by Seebohm Rowntree’s study of poverty in York in 1901.

He also wrote that “it is a common sight to see the women in the Irish quarter sitting on the kerbstones outside their cottages smoking clay pipes”. One such pipe, bearing an Irish harp and engraved ERIN, was found by archaeologists in a backyard.

“The Hungate excavation has been a once-in-a-lifetime archaeological opportunity,” says project director Peter Connelly. “Had it not been for the regeneration programme, these important historical jigsaw pieces would have remained part of York’s hidden secrets.”

• Looking Back at Hungate will run until April next year. Between April 2 to 6, visitors will have a chance to meet the archaeologists behind the excavation and hear more about the stories from Hungate.

DIG in St Saviourgate, York Phone: 01904 615505