Excavating the CA archive: Yorkshire 2

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

In my previous column (CA 370), I examined Yorkshire’s prehistoric archaeology. This month, I am moving forward chronologically to explore the Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon, late medieval, and modern archaeology of this region’s four counties. This is ground that I have covered in part before, in reviews of CA’s coverage of Viking Jorvik (CA 341, August 2018) and medieval Wharram Percy (CA 340, July 2018), but there are many other treasures to be found across the counties too.

Dug in deep in Roman Britain

Examining CA’s coverage of Roman Yorkshire over the years is the simplest of tasks: one begins at the beginning, with CA 1 (March 1967), which featured Rudston Roman Villa in the East Riding, between Driffield and Bridlington.

right The cover story of CA 359 featured the excavations along the A1 in North Yorkshire, which revealed an astonishing wealth of Roman sites.
The cover story of CA 359 featured the excavations along the A1 in North Yorkshire, which revealed an astonishing wealth of Roman sites.

The villa, noted for its mosaics (now in the Hull and East Riding Museum), was first excavated in 1839, re-excavated in the 1930s, and re-excavated again in the 1960s-1970s, when CA visited. At that time, the focus was on the excavation of a huge well, 99ft deep and varying in width between 9ft at the top and 6ft at the bottom. The health- and-safety implications of excavating such a feature bring me out in a cold sweat, and in the modern day would most likely not be allowed, so this is an early indication of the literal and metaphorical depths that archaeologists in Yorkshire will reach in search of the past.

From the oldest edition of CA, I turn to one of the newest: the cover story of CA 359 (February 2020) was on Roman sites along the A1. With extensive upgrades to this historically important route, major excavations were necessary both at the known Roman sites flanking its course, such as Cataractonium and its satellite settlement at Bainesse, and at other areas affected by the road improvements. Fieldwork began in earnest in autumn 2013, and staff from Northern Archaeological Associates spent three years in total at a range of sites, both previously known and newly discovered, including a previously unidentified roadside settlement at Scurragh House, 3.5km north of Cataractonium, and another new contact-period site at Scotch Corner. At Cataractonium itself, well-preserved and deeply stratified sequences up to 3m deep offered insights into the chronology of the site from its foundation around AD 70, through 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-century Roman development, and right up to a ‘post-Roman’ settlement that continued into the mid-5th century AD.

CA 296 reported on the recent dating evidence from Ingleborough, which found conclusive evidence for an Anglo-Saxon settlement in the western Yorkshire Dales for the first time.

The Roman city of York is one that requires no introduction to the readers of CA. Its foundation in AD 71 by the Ninth Legion, its development by the Sixth Legion, its formalisation as capital of Britannia Inferior in the early 3rd century AD, and, the ultimate accolade, the proclamation of Constantine ‘the Great’ as Emperor in the city in AD 306 – all these and plenty more indicate its significance. I could devote an entire column to York alone, but as a taste of its riches over the years, CA 227 (February 2009) revealed a pre-Roman/Iron Age human skull found during excavations on the University of York campus that included the earliest brain material yet discovered in Britain; issue 242 (May 2010) reported on a 4th-century AD burial of a wealthy individual of North African origin that showed the cosmopolitan nature of the city in this period; and issue 245 (August 2010) gave an update on a site first examined by Time Team in 2006, when 30 decapitated skeletons were discovered in what, it turns out, was a gladiators’ graveyard. In total, more than 80 young men were buried on the site, all with the telltale asymmetrical musculature of a gladiator, reflecting the stronger development of the fighting arm. One skeleton even had bite-marks from a lion, tiger, or bear.

Attitudes to Anglo-Saxons

As I flagged in the introduction to this column, I covered Viking Jorvik in CA 341, and wider Viking settlement across Yorkshire has also been featured in CA over the years – for example, in reports on the Harrogate hoard in issue 212 (November 2007) and on the Bedale hoard in issues 279 and 300 (June 2013 and March 2015). But Yorkshire’s early Middle Ages are a story of interactions far and wide, and some important Anglo-Saxon sites are equally worthy of mention. For instance, work at the site of West Heslerton has recurred in this magazine over the years. CA 76 (May 1981) paid the first visit there, and CA 112 (December 1988) followed up, examining the area of North Yorkshire around the former glacial lake known as Lake Pickering. Fieldwork from 1977 onwards led in time to one of Britain’s largest and best-funded archaeological excavations of this era, revealing a large settlement covering more than 45 hectares and containing the traces of more than 200 buildings, which were occupied for several centuries until around AD 800. The project, led by Dominic Powlesland, became a site of discovery and of innovation, a testing-ground for new theories in multi-period landscape archaeology ranging from the Mesolithic (it is minutes from Star Carr) through the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, into the Iron Age, and then to its Anglo-Saxon settlement.

RIGHT In CA 364, we explored the archaeological traces left behind by hermits, who inhabited some of the remotest areas of Yorkshire during the medieval period.
In CA 364, we explored the archaeological traces left behind by hermits, who inhabited some of the remotest areas of Yorkshire during the medieval period.

Thanks to excavations such as that at West Heslerton, it became clear that the eastern uplands of North Yorkshire were speckled with rural settlements in the Anglo-Saxon era. In the western Yorkshire Dales, however, the picture was for a long time completely different: no conclusively dated rural sites from this period had been identified, despite the conspicuous number of modern villages bearing names with unmistakably Anglo-Saxon origins. CA 296 (November 2014) reported on a site that broke this pattern, at Ingleborough, in the valley of Chapel-le-Dale. Here, a volunteer-led project identified a series of farmsteads at two sites situated on opposite sides of the valley. Field survey led to geophysical survey, which in turn led to excavation, but datable materials remained few and far between. Finally, charcoal was found, yielding calibrated dates of AD 653-772 and 642-709 from the lower site and AD 765-892, 766-895, and 763-887 from the upper site. The Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Yorkshire Dales had been conclusively proven. And, more recently, the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Yorkshire has been further extended, with a site identified at Laughton-en-le-Morthen in South Yorkshire, which featured in CA 360 (March 2020).

Medieval and modern mysteries

What, finally, of Yorkshire’s more- recent archaeological story? The most famous of all sites is one that I covered in CA 340 (July 2018), when I examined the magazine’s visits over the years to Wharram Percy near Malton in North Yorkshire. And another fine medieval site with a modern-day resonance featured in issue 364 (July 2020), exploring hermits and hermitages of the county, especially the 13th-century cave of Robert of Knaresborough (c.1160-1218), the ruined foundations of which survive as a small building attached to a niche in the limestone cliffs that line the north bank of the River Nidd, again in North Yorkshire.

Moving forward in time, CA 267 (June 2012) reported on an unusual find made under surprising circumstances, when a man inspecting building work in his back garden in Ackworth, West Yorkshire, noticed what he thought was a flowerpot sticking out of the ground. When he tried to pull it free, the pot broke, spilling out a Civil War hoard of almost 600 coins. After the discovery was reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, detailed analyses revealed a mixture of English, Scottish, Irish, and Dutch issues. The date of deposition is likely to have been 1645-1646, a date that coincides with the second siege of Pontefract Castle, a Royalist stronghold only a few miles away.

Finally, as the last and most-recent site in my survey of Yorkshire, I turn to ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’, reported on in issue 354 (September 2019). As ‘archaeological’ surveys go, this one takes some beating: a cottage associated with James Cook, which in 1933 was moved from Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, on the edge of the North York Moors, to Melbourne, Australia, where it still stands in picturesque Fitzroy Gardens as a visitor attraction. CA reported on fieldwork at its original location at the behest of the parish council, led by a team of local volunteers.

This seems like a good place to end my survey of an extraordinary range of communities, ancient and modern, which began with Star Carr and ends with Captain Cook – from the Mesolithic to the modern day.

Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive371. They will be available for one month, from 7 January. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI371’.