A medieval miscellany… Medieval finds highlights from Archaeology Live! 2014.

Last week, we took a closer look at some of the Roman finds that were uncovered during our 2014 excavation at All Saints, North Street. By the end of the season, we had excavated over two centuries worth of archaeology and uncovered deposits dating to the late 1700s.

A wonderful thing about urban archaeology is the variety of finds that it provides. As our site has been in constant use for two millennia, a wealth of earlier material can be found re-deposited in later contexts. The sheer volume of re-deposited Roman material uncovered so far strongly suggests that intact Roman archaeology is present at All Saints, buried beneath countless layers of later activity.

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The 120ft spire of All Saints adds a touch of drama to the beautiful 14th century All Saints Cottages.

While we can only interpret so much with finds from secondary contexts, we can still get a thrilling sneak preview into the Roman world beneath our feet; with glimpses of legionary tile production, imported luxuries like wine and oils and evidence of high status buildings, jewellery and ceramics uncovered already.

These artefacts are exciting, but they remain only echoes of a landscape that has since been radically and irrevocably changed. With one or two rather stunning exceptions (i.e. the Multiangular Tower in the Museum Gardens), York’s wonderful Roman heritage is now entirely below ground.

When we consider medieval York, we are lucky enough to be brought a little closer to life in the Middle Ages by the wealth of medieval architecture that still stands today. It is easier to visualise and understand a lost world, when you are able to see fragments that have survived the intervening centuries. A 15th century time traveller visiting our site today would see a lot that they would recognise. The magnificent church tower was completed in 1410, and the beautiful cottages pictured above were under construction in 1396. While they would see a world much changed, they would have reference points with which to orientate themselves.

A decorative, twisted medieval jug handle.

A decorative, twisted medieval jug handle.

The remains of York’s medieval cityscape allow us to share experiences with people who lived centuries ago; an experience that is made even richer when we discover the objects that these people owned and used. Archaeology is all about adding flesh to the bones of history. The lives of kings and queens are well documented, but archaeology allows us to learn more about people like ourselves.

The recent Hungate project featured the largest modern open area excavation to have ever happened in central York. The dig uncovered a wealth of wonderfully human moments; occurrences that we can easily relate to today. These came in many forms, with themes continuing over many phases of activity. We found the spoons that Victorian children had used to try and retrieve lost marbles from drains, we also found the marbles! Rewinding 1,000 years, we found leather shoes, beads and ornate metal objects that had been lost down Viking cesspits. It seems there are some things that never change…

At All Saints this year, we have been lucky enough to find an array of medieval objects that add more of these wonderfully personal details to our knowledge of medieval York. These finds aren’t always particularly glamorous, but they do tell a story to anyone who cares to listen.

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Joan and a large fragment of a medieval vessel.

Mysterious creatures…

The medieval world was alive with symbolism and meaning. Medieval parishioners of All Saints would have often seen religious processions making their way along nearby Micklegate, with priests and visiting dignitaries arrayed in rigidly defined hierarchies. The allegorical tales of the mystery plays would have been imbued with far greater meaning to those of a medieval mindset than can be appreciated by you or I in the 21st century.

This was a world where monsters and evil spirits would have seemed very real and the threat of hellfire and damnation weighed heavy on every mind. But these layers of tradition and symbolism were not limited to the glorious stained glass and monumental architecture of the church, they also appeared in everyday life.

Katie's fantastic Hambleton pot sherd.

Katie’s fantastic Hambleton pot sherd.

Joining us for her third season of Archaeology Live!, Yorkshire lass Katie made a particularly wonderful discovery when she spotted something green in the fill of an 18th century refuse pit. The object proved to be a sherd of Hambleton ware, most likely dating to the early 15th century (this date will be tightened up following a specialist assessment of the ceramics). It was immediately apparent that this was an unusual find. Unlike the numerous utilitarian fragments of bowls, jars and jugs that had already been found, this pot sherd was clearly a more decorative object. Initially thought to be part of an elaborate lid, a spot of research has revealed Katie’s find to be a fragment of a lobed cup or bowl.

A medieval lobed cup (right). © Image Copyright University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 2000

A complete medieval lobed cup (right). © Image Copyright University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 2000

These lobed bowls were popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, being used as communal drinking vessels that would be passed around a group of people. As the contents were drank, figures of mythical creatures, biblical characters and animals would emerge from the liquid. This period saw a nationwide shift in material culture; drinking vessels which had mainly been made of wood up until this point were now occurring more frequently in ceramic forms. However, it seems that older, communal dining traditions were being maintained, as these lobed bowls remained popular into the early 16th century. Pictured below is a charming example of a somewhat eroded, but clearly human figure from a similar vessel.

A Medieval pottery fragment, the anthropomorphic figure from a Coarse Border ware lobed cup (14th century AD) Image copyright The British Museum.

A Medieval pottery fragment, the anthropomorphic figure from a Coarse Border ware lobed cup (14th century AD)
Image copyright The British Museum.

Katie’s example has provoked a great deal of debate. Is it a cockerel? Is it a dog? Could it be some form of serpent? Final confirmation will come when the specialist pottery assessment is carried out next year. The figure has clearly lost its ears or horns and does seem to have stylised legs of some sort. If parallels have been found elsewhere, we may be able to say exactly what we’re looking at, but for now, it will remain open for debate. A suggestion that it is an early representation of Dino from The Flintstones has been met with a sensible degree of scepticism…

Yoshi? Dino? Hmmm...

Yoshi? Dino? Hmmm…

While Katie’s pot sherd will remain enigmatic for now, it can certainly be agreed that it is a wonderful find. Whether it was used during celebrations or ceremonies (or both!) is an entertaining question to ponder. This find has a certain frivolous charm, allowing us a glimpse into this medieval world of mystery and symbolism. It reminds us that life in the middle ages could have a more jovial side, which gives a warm contrast to All Saints air of piety and devotion.

Family ties

Joining us for his fourth season of Archaeology Live!, Barry didn’t waste any time in adding a new piece to our medieval puzzle. In a deposit associated with the 1860s church hall, he noticed a sherd of medieval pottery.

At first glance, there was nothing immediately remarkable about this find. However, now we are learning to decode the imagery of medieval York, it is possible to find a very personal story behind this artefact.

Barry and his medieval seal.

In the 11th century, carved bone or metal seal stamps came in to common use. These stamps were used to create impressions in wax to authenticate documents with a recognised seal, a tradition that had become firmly established by the 13th century. While medieval potters were somewhat lower down the social scale than those who created beautifully illuminated manuscripts, they were nonetheless influenced by the religious and heraldic symbolism that surrounded them, particularly in their parish churches.

This influence of medieval symbolism on the ceramic tradition is something that we can clearly see in the archaeological record. In York, the 13th century saw an influx of seal jugs; vessels that featured at least one applied cirucular motif. A reflection of imagery seen on documents, high status metal vessels and in church architecture, the seals on these jugs fall into three broad categories; personal seals featuring the owner’s name, seals containing the maker’s name (medieval branding if you will) and those with motifs of animals, floral decorations and anthropomorphic images.

A complete medieval seal jug from the Yorkshire Museum collection.

A complete medieval seal jug from the Yorkshire Museum collection.

The variety of seals that have been found on these jugs suggests something far more complex than simple decoration. As we have discussed, medieval people were far more in tune with the significance of the myriad images and symbols that punctuated their world. These jugs clearly carried social, cultural, religious and political messages, as well as being beautifully crafted objects. Barry’s sherd is a perfect example of this tradition.

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A closer look…

A closer inspection of Barry’s sherd shows that we have the majority of a seal bearing the image of a bird. The stretched legs and raised wing create an image of imminent motion; our bird seems ready to take flight! Around the perimeter of the seal is a worn, but visible legend. At a glance, YAT ceramics specialist Anne Jenner instantly recognised the significance of this seal. Fragments of identical and similar seal jugs have been found at Wellington Row, Micklegate, Coppergate, Low Petergate and as far afield as Gilling East and Wharram Percy. Clearly, Barry’s vessel was one of a batch that would go on to spread across York and North Yorkshire.

Comparison with the more complete examples reveal this to be part of a jug with two bird seals on one side, and two featuring a lion on the opposite side. The lion is a ‘lion passant’ with its head looking back and its tail upright. Around the image of the lion is the text, “S. TOME:FILLI:WALTERI”, while the the bird is surrounded by the legend, “SIGILL.TOME.P-WA”. The survival of these seals means that we can actually link Barry’s pot to a particular individual, a very rare occurrence in archaeology!

A lion passant (left) and a complete bird motif .(right)

A lion passant (left) and a complete bird motif (right). Image copyright York Archaeological Trust.

The images above bear the personal seal of Thomas FitzWalter, a member of one of York’s more prosperous medieval families that are known to have been patrons of the arts. Historic records for the FitzWalters in York are scant, but the imagery of these seal jugs leave us with some tantalising possibilities. The fact that the legends contain a ‘P.’ (Pater, or father) and ‘FILII’ (son) over two separate seals could suggest that these jugs were commissioned to celebrate a marriage and the birth of a son. The widespread nature of the vessels may represent them being given as gifts, or becoming dispersed family heirlooms.

The cross above the head of the bird acts as both a grammatical indication of the legend’s beginning and a symbol of religious devotion, adding yet another layer of meaning to the seal.

Whatever the case, Barry’s find is a wonderful example of how archaeology can bring us closer to the past. Holding the vessels that people would have drunk from is always exciting, but being able to tie them to particular individuals is a rare and wonderful pleasure. Further research may yet reveal more about this fantastic artefact, but for now we can enjoy being very late guests to the FitzWalters’ happy day.

Fingerprints

A recurring theme of the 2014 season was objects featuring fingerprints. While this is not uncommon in ceramic objects from busy, urban sites, it is always highly evocative. Placing your finger in the mark left by the person who made the object you are holding many centuries ago is a vivid experience. It reminds us that archaeology is the study of people, not just sweeping historic events. Here are some of the finer examples from this year’s dig.

Medieval fingerprints.

Medieval fingerprints.

Pots and tiles were often dried before firing, but they would remain very pliable. Finger and thumb prints can be used to apply decoration, but they can also be accidental. The medieval roof tile below features the fingerprints of either a very slight individual, or a small child.

Child fingerprints in a medieval tile.

Child fingerprints in a medieval tile.

These are just several examples of similar finds, although people weren’t the only ones to make their mark…

Fingerprints in a decorative late medieval pot rim.

Fingerprints in a decorative late medieval pot rim.

As roof tiles were dried in the sun before firing, it is not uncommon to find that pesky dogs or cats wandered over the still-wet clay, accidentally immortalising their paw prints. These wonderful finds give medieval York’s animal population the chance to make their mark on the archaeological record.

Fido's signature on a medieval roof tile.

Fido’s signature on a medieval roof tile.

Medieval paw-prints.

Medieval cat paw-prints.

Fun and games

While life could be challenging in medieval York, we have found evidence that people were taking the time to have a little fun. Local lad and regular Archaeology Live! trainee Rob had a bumper year for finds; one of his finest was a tiny bone dice.

Rob having a good finds day.

Rob having a good finds day.

Dice with the traditional arrangement of opposite sides totalling seven have been around from Roman times, made in bone, metal and antler. Rob’s example has a more irregular layout that appeared in the 13th century, most likely dating it to the second half of the medieval period.

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It is a beautiful object which has clearly been worn from use. The games it played, whether it proved lucky in gambling, and how long it remained in use will never be known, but it is a fun thing to ponder. The particular joy of this artefact is its simplicity. There is no palimpsest of meaning here, just an instantly recognisable object that could be used just as easily today as it was centuries ago.

Happily, this wasn’t the only evidence of gaming to be found this year. Early in the season, Geoff was delighted to find a worked bone counter. Initially thought to be a button, closer inspection showed it to have no perforations. Instead, a small hollow had been made on one side of the disc that perfectly fits an index finger. The reverse was worn smooth, making it likely to have been a gaming piece. Its date is uncertain at present, specialist analysis may tell us more.

Geoff and his bone gaming piece.

Geoff and his bone gaming piece.

Music

It’s one thing to recreate the sights of medieval York, but one find from 2014 gives us a clue to how the area may have sounded. This medieval object is made of bone and would have been used to tune stringed musical instruments. Tuning pegs are common finds in medieval York and reveal that music would have been part of life for people of all classes. Quite what instrument this peg would have tuned is uncertain, although one possibility is the rebec, predecessor of the modern violin, which was a popular instrument in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A medieval tuning peg

A medieval tuning peg

Style and wealth

Status was of high importance to the people of medieval York. Those with a little wealth to their name would want to be seen to be fashionable and rich. Several objects discovered this year tell us about the ways medieval people chose to decorate their clothes and possessions.

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A tiny copper alloy buckle or clasp.

The 2014 team uncovered a number of small strap ends, clasps and buckles. These decorative objects could have added a little flair to items items of clothing, saddlery and furniture. By their decorative nature, they reveal a certain degree of wealth. They were clearly owned by individuals who could afford more than simple, functional items.

Ellen's brooch.

Ellen’s brooch.

These objects will be cleaned and analysed in late 2015/early 2016 by the YAT conservation team. Who knows what more we will be able to learn about these intriguing objects.

While it is tempting to clean these finds on site, they are often highly corroded and very fragile. The buckle pictured below may even have surviving fabric, preserved within the corrosion. Treated properly, this may give us direct evidence of the kind of attire people would have favoured in the medieval period. Watch this space for further news on the metal finds!

Anne's medieval buckle.

Anne’s medieval buckle.

All Saints

It is impossible to look at every medieval find from 2014 without writing a rather lengthy tome! With that in mind, we will conclude our look at the medieval assemblage with a look at the finds that tell us more about the church itself.

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While the church is a wonderful example of high-medieval architecture, it is a building that has been in near constant flux for much of its existence. The changing demands and fashions of each century have seen swathes of structural and decorative alterations. Pews, floors, windows and walls have been entirely removed and re-modelled. However, the finds of this year’s excavation provide us with evidence of the church’s previous incarnations.

The Lady Chapel in All Saints has recently been re-floored with hand-made tiles recreated using medieval techniques to create an authentic middle ages appearance. We have been lucky enough to find examples of the original medieval floor that has since been so lovingly and faithfully restored. A wonderful moment this year, was laying a newly discovered medieval tile over the replica floor. It fit the traditional dimensions perfectly!

A medieval tile reunited with the church floor.

A medieval tile reunited with the church floor.

Our tile, while complete, shows evidence of a long life, with the glaze on the upper surface all but worn away. There is no doubt that this object will have witnessed the church in its medieval heyday, a fact which is as frustrating as it is fascinating! If only tiles could speak…

Working on a 19th century burial, Archaeology Live! regular Belle made a wonderful medieval discovery – a fragment of stained glass.

Belle's window glass fragment.

Belle’s window glass fragment.

While this wasn’t the first fragment of medieval window glass to be found this year, it is the most complete and features two complete edges that give us an idea of its original shape. The cut edges even bear the marks of the grozing iron – the tool used by medieval craftsmen to shape the glass.

All Saints is famous for its wonderful stained glass, but not all of the medieval windows have been lucky enough to survive the intervening centuries. Belle’s shard fits tantalisingly well in a current window of the church and once it is cleaned by the conservation department, we will find out whether any of the paint still survives.

The cliche that this provides a window into the medieval world is a guilty (but true!) pleasure…

A little speculation never hurt anyone...

Placing the glass over a window that survives gives an idea of its possible appearance when new.

A final find type to look at reveals even more about the church’s former appearance. This year, our team have found numerous fragments of beautifully made glazed roof tile. Made between the 13th and 16th centuries, these tiles were expensive and would only have graced the roofs of prosperous secular and religious buildings. Their lead and copper glaze gives the tiles a bright green hue that would have looked spectacular in the sun.

Anne showing off her glazed roof tile.

Anne showing off her glazed roof tile.

Some examples have a darker, more purple tinged hue.

Tah dah!

Tah dah! Jen presenting her latest find.

The combined evidence of the glazed floor and roof tiles present an image of a vibrant, colourful building. Much of this colour would fall victim to the tumult of the 16th century reformation, but the finds made by our 2014 team make it possible to see a little more of the church’s high medieval splendour.

Vivid green glaze.

Vivid green glaze.

This brief tour of just some of 2014’s finds highlights serves as a reminder of the power of archaeology to enrich and humanise the past. Adding these pieces to the medieval puzzle removes some of the distance between ourselves and the people who lived through the times we are studying. We are so close and yet so far from truly understanding the world they would have lived in.

The medieval finds from the 2014 season allow us to place our fingerprints in theirs, to decode the meanings of the ways they decorated their possessions and to roll the dice and hold the gaming pieces they would have played with.

2015 will see us reach the layers that were deposited during this age of medieval mystery. Who knows what secrets the parishioners of All Saints will have left in wait for us.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to join us in 2015 and add your own discoveries to our growing collection, email trainingdig@yorkat.co.uk to book a place on the dig or to find out more.

We can’t wait to get back on site, but until then… onwards and downwards!

– Arran

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