A history of Archaeology Live! Year one: St. Leonard’s 2001

With the 2014 summer season almost upon us, it seems like a good time to take a look back at the sites we have excavated in previous years. As a charity, a main aim of York Archaeological Trust’s work is to promote public engagement with the past, allowing people the opportunity to do more than view a site from behind a fence and there is no better way to do this than getting people in trenches making discoveries of their own. The archaeology of York is an amazing source of potential new knowledge and has to be dealt with in a careful and thorough manner, with this in mind the Archaeology Live! training dig was born. The excavation work and subsequent analysis and publication that make up each season of Archaeology Live! is entirely funded by the trainees. In essence, the project has been ‘crowdfunding’ since long before the term was coined.



14th century stained glass. One of the first finds recovered from the site. Not a bad start!


The site chosen for the inaugural season had an excellent archaeological pedigree. The excavation was located in the west corner of the Roman legionary fortress of Eboracum, bounded on two sides by surviving fortress walls. The area continued to serve a defensive function throughout the Anglian and Viking periods and became the site of St. Leonard’s hospital in the medieval period. The Victorian era saw the site used as an archaeological garden, housing finds from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society before again resuming a defensive purpose with the construction of a Second World War air raid shelter. On Wednesday 13 June, the site was formally opened by the Lord Mayor of York, Councillor Irene Waudby and work began.



The official opening of the site attracted a great deal of press attention.


Three trenches were excavated during the 2001 season, all uncovering a diverse range of fascinating finds and features. In fact, a total of 600 individual contexts were recorded and excavated over the 13 week dig! As is typical of York, deposits were uncovered representing an unbroken sequence of activity covering two millennia.



Trench locations.


A short blog post isn’t sufficient to detail the full findings of the 2001 dig, but here are a few highlights. The World War II air raid shelter proved to be an evocative reminder of a dark time in York’s past. A number of personal items were recovered, including coins, pins, marbles and beads.


Finds from the air raid shelter.

Finds from the air raid shelter.


A curious collection of archaeological features were found to be ornately laid as part of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society’s archaeological garden. A large column base proved to be one of the more impressive artefacts on display.


Re-used archaeological materials were displayed in the Yorkshire Philosophical Society's garden.

Re-used archaeological materials were displayed in the Yorkshire Philosophical Society’s garden.


The dig took place in the infirmary area of the medieval St Leonard’s Hospital. This was founded as St Peter’s Hospital in 936 and transferred to its present site in the 11th century. The hospital, one of the largest in medieval England, once supported 225 beds. In the 14th century it maintained up to 18 clergy, 16 female servants, 30 choristers, 10 private boarders and 140–240 poor sick people. This gives some idea of the range of religious, spiritual, medical, social and charitable roles undertaken by a medieval hospital. Parts of the hospital can still be seen, including a vaulted entrance passage, an undercroft to the infirmary and a chapel, all of 13th century date. Other remains of this once vast hospital survive inside the nearby Theatre Royal. 

An unanticipated discovery was an impressive medieval stone lined drain. This proved that the hospital had a substantial and complex drainage system, taking sewage and run-off away from the infirmary.


Investigating the interior of the medieval drain.

Investigating the interior of the medieval drain.


The impressive interior of the drain.

Substantial stone wall footings relating to the hospital allowed for new insights into the construction and development of the medieval buildings. An array of exciting finds were uncovered from the hospital, with masses of pottery, bone, glass, etc delighting the trainees. These gave an idea of the activities going on within the hospital complex and the lifestyles of the people living and working there. One particular highlight was a beautifully preserved medieval bronze seal ring.


A medieval bronze seal ring, the type used to imprint a person's seal into the wax on a document.

A medieval bronze seal ring, the type used to imprint a person’s seal into the wax on a document.


Evidence was found of earlier structures being incorporated into the medieval hospital buildings. Week seven of the dig revealed the north-west wall of one of the Roman legionary fortress interval towers. Known as SW6 because it is the sixth tower along the south-west side of the fortress, the wall was left upstanding within the cobble foundations of a wall belonging to the medieval hospital, re-used in order to form part of the medieval foundations. Clearly the medieval builders were aware of the quality of Roman construction, making good use of the surviving wall. 


Roman interval tower footings surrounded by medieval cobble foundations.

Roman interval tower footings surrounded by medieval cobble foundations.


The site was open to visitors throughout the season, with thousands of people flocking to see the discoveries as they were made. Events were held to give local children a chance to lend a hand with finds processing and learn more about York’s past. As has become normal for Archaeology Live! trainees came from across the globe to get involved with the dig and the team ranged in age from children to pensioners!


Local children washing finds.

Local children washing finds.


The 2001 excavations set a great standard for what training digs can achieve. At Archaeology Live! we believe that with the right training, no archaeology is too complex or difficult for members of the public to work on, with or without prior experience. The team of staff, placements and trainees made a great start to what would be a number of seasons at St. Leonards. We’ll be posting about the findings of those digs in the coming weeks. As we enter our fourteenth year of trainee funded archaeology in York, we look forward to many exciting discoveries to come!

Watch this space!

– Arran


Archaeology Live! trainees at St. Leonards, 2001.

Archaeology Live! trainees at St. Leonards, 2001.


PS. I’ve found no explanation for this picture of Toby and a bird, but it seemed vital to include it.

Toby and a bird.

Toby and a bird.

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