Excavations and attractions: Half a century with the York Archaeological Trust

Having recently celebrated its 50th birthday, the York Archaeological Trust manages one of the oldest commercial units operating in the UK today, as well as several heritage-themed attractions within its home city, including the famous JORVIK Viking Centre. David Jennings explores some of the key projects that the Trust has been involved in, and the innovative ways in which it has presented the past to the public.


The York Archaeological Trust (YAT) was born from a moment of crisis. In the early 1970s, Inner Ring Road proposals in York brought the threat to the city’s archaeology into sharp focus – as was being seen elsewhere across the UK, increased development was raising both awareness and alarm at its impact on historic remains – and YAT came into existence in 1972, emerging from the same impetus that created RESCUE. From its earliest days, the Trust had its work cut out, being faced with the imminent destruction of numerous archaeological sites in a city well known for its rich heritage – as witnessed by the contemporary major excavations at the Minster in 1967-1972 – but from the beginning YAT was also involved in some extraordinary discoveries. Its founding director, Peter Addyman, was soon called to a construction site in Church Street to be confronted by a deep hole that led into part of an extensive intact Roman underground sewer system. This network had served the legionary bathhouse of the Roman fortress and yielded artefacts both pungent and personal, from evidence of sponges used in Roman latrines to numerous small items that had been lost by visitors to the baths, such as intaglios from signet rings.

One of the York Archaeological Trust’s most famous excavations is the Coppergate dig, which uncovered vivid insights into Viking Age York. Here we see two post-and-wattle buildings (with their central hearths demarcated by tile and stone surrounds), part of the first phase of buildings uncovered on the site

Peter Addyman inspecting the Church Street Roman sewer in 1972.

That initial year also saw YAT’s first substantial investigation of the city’s well-preserved Viking Age deposits – something that would come to dominate its work for many years. At Lloyds Bank, Pavement, up to 8m of these deposits were found in what had been the heart of the known commercial centre of Jorvik (the Viking name for York). The latest layers, dating to the 11th century, lay just beneath the modern cellar floor, and due to waterlogging, which created anaerobic conditions, the preservation of organic materials was exceptional. We were able to explore a succession of timber buildings and deposits that went back to at least the middle Anglian period (8th-9th centuries); in the Viking Age, their occupants had clearly been engaged in the leather industry: tanning and making shoes, belts, and elaborately decorated knife and weapon sheaths. One particular discovery, however, still generates significant interest: a large Viking Age human coprolite, better known as the Lloyds Bank stool. Scientific analysis revealed that its ‘producer’ had eaten a diet dominated by meat and bread, while the additional presence of hundreds of eggs of parasitic intestinal whipworms and maw-worms suggested that they may also have experienced some chronic gastric discomfort.

The ‘Lloyds Bank stool’, a large human coprolite that was recovered during the Coppergate excavations. Today, it is on display at the JORVIK Viking Centre.

Visiting the Vikings

Some of the organic finds from Coppergate’s extraordinary anaerobic conditions: a silk cap dating to c.875-950, which was imported from Iran; a selection of Viking Age leather shoes; and a series of wooden platters, bowls, and cups.

A number of subsequent observations only confirmed the richness of York’s Viking archaeology, but these were just glimpses of what lay beneath the modern city – the opportunity for a fuller excavation finally presented itself at Coppergate. Between 1976 and 1981, this project explored the city’s anaerobic deposits at an unprecedented scale and led to the utter transformation of the Trust (see CA 58 and 340). Our archaeologists were able to unpick the development of four properties that had been defined by fence lines in c.AD 900, within which a total of 17 timber structures were excavated, some still standing almost 2m high. They were principally arranged gable-ended onto the new street of Coppergate (thought to derive from an Old Norse name meaning ‘street of the cup-makers’), and further exploration offered vivid insights into how this part of Jorvik had evolved. The building sequence began in the early 10th century with post-and-wattle structures constructed on each property. Then, after a brief period of abandonment in the mid 10th century, these buildings were replaced by semi-sunken plank-built structures, which also lasted for approximately 50 years until they were replaced by surface-built structures whose poorly conserved remains were only found on a single property.

These structures were associated with backyard deposits that provided a rich testimony to local living conditions, as well as the domestic and industrial activities that had happened within each property, uncovering evidence of blacksmithing, precious metalworking, woodturning, dyeing, weaving and, more surprisingly, coin production, which was hinted at by the presence of two coin dies. One of these was for a Sword St Peter penny dated to c.921-927; the other, broken, had been used by the moneyer Regnald of York between c.930-939, during the reign of Athelstan. Other traces, from exotic items like a counterfeit dirham, silk, and a cowrie shell, through to more everyday items like pottery and stone objects, attested to Jorvik’s role in a vast interconnected world. Coppergate had one more surprise to reveal, however: following the main excavations, during the pre-construction watching brief, YAT uncovered one of the most spectacular finds from the Anglian period – the Coppergate helmet. Found in a pit, this 8th-century helmet is one of just six Anglo-Saxon helmets known from England and by far the best preserved.

Dating to the 8th century, the Coppergate helmet is one of just six Anglo-Saxon helmets known from England.

As the Coppergate excavations proceeded, YAT’s accompanying publicity campaign made the investigation known across Europe and the USA, while the site itself became a tourist attraction with almost half a million people visiting the ‘Viking Dig’ (as it was called). This high level of interest ultimately led to the development of the JORVIK Viking Centre, which opened in 1984. Travelling in a time-car, visitors were immersed in a meticulous reconstruction of Viking Age Coppergate, using painstaking analysis of the wealth of evidence that had come from the excavations to present as true-to-life an experience as possible, accompanied by authentic smells (see CA 399). For some people, this presentation of archaeology was initially controversial, but JORVIK proved phenomenally successful
from the beginning, welcoming almost 1 million visitors in its first year and having now passed 20 million visitors as it approaches its 40th year of operation.

JORVIK Viking Centre is approaching its 40th year of operation. Showing above its first generation ‘time car’

We see the redeveloped ride after the floods of 2015 – note that the woman is wearing a replica of the silk cap shown above

For the Trust, this departure into the world of attractions was profound, unifying its research objectives with a commitment to popular public presentation and embedding a whole set of new skills in the organisation. The success of JORVIK saw YAT develop two further attractions. One was the Archaeological Resource Centre, now called DIG, which opened in 1990 and enables schoolchildren to gain direct experience of archaeology. The other, Barley Hall, is a medieval townhouse that, until investigation in the 1980s, had been hidden within later buildings and facades. It opened as an attraction in 1991, and displays the house as it might have been in the 15th century, using archaeological and documentary evidence to furnish the property with replica furniture, artefacts, soft furnishings, and – a personal favourite – windows made of animal horn.

Roman remains and an Iron Age brain

Looking beyond the Vikings, the later 1980s and early 1990s saw the Trust engaged in a series of important excavations that explored York’s Roman and post-Roman archaeology. In 1989, a redevelopment opportunity at the Queen’s Hotel on Micklegate exposed the challenges of a planning system that placed no obligation on developers to fund archaeological investigation. It was a similar situation to that of contemporary excavations taking place in London, which revealed the remains of the Tudor-period Rose Theatre – here, too, significant archaeological remains were encountered but an appropriate archaeological strategy could not be secured (although, following public outcry, the Rose Theatre was subsequently preserved – see CA 115 and 124).

 The Barley Hall, a medieval townhouse, laid out for a 15th-century feast.

Close to the riverfront, in the heart of the Roman colonia and near the principal post-Roman river-crossing in the city (the Ouse Bridge), the Queen’s Hotel site was expected to contain waterlogged archaeological remains that might give us significant insights into the changing layout of the city and its evolution. Sure enough, as anticipated, investigations revealed a significant Roman masonry building dating from the 3rd-century, which had continued in use well into the 4th century. Its walls were preserved up to 4m high and 2m thick, and it clearly formed part of a public building, often considered to be a bathhouse, although this is by no means definitive. Importantly, the site provided evidence for Anglian modification of Roman structures, with a series of postholes inserted into the top of one of the Roman walls during the evolution of the Anglian settlement, which was called Eoforwic. Four burials of Anglian date also followed the alignment of the Roman street (which was subsequently changed in the Viking period with the laying out of Micklegate, Old Norse for ‘the Great Street’).

This, however, must remain a partial account of a very important site, as it was not possible to secure time to excavate the site comprehensively, nor to secure post-excavation funding. While at the Rose Theatre the site was subsequently preserved in situ, at the Queen’s Hotel significant archaeology was removed to make way for a semi-underground car park. A foundation scheme based on 60 piles ultimately resulted in 147 bored intrusions into the archaeology, as piles hit substantial Roman masonry and had to be relocated on multiple occasions, which might lead one to consider the effectiveness of such schemes as a conservation strategy.

At the same time as the Queen’s Hotel project, excavations at Wellington Row, close to the location of the Roman bridgehead, were providing us with the only complete plan of a Roman building within the colonia. Earlier investigations at nearby Tanner Row had also revealed deep waterlogged Roman deposits and tantalising glimpses of well-preserved Roman timber buildings. Taken together, these excavations provided a wonderful wider context for Roman York, known to its inhabitants as ‘Eboracum’ – and this part of the city has been the recent focus of a new project proposal, which seeks to undertake the first major excavation of the Roman city in more than 30 years, with a proposal to build a cutting-edge Roman attraction (EBORACUM) that will replicate the impact of the JORVIK Viking Centre.

Roman remains on the site of the Queen’s Hotel; archaeologists are standing in the postholes of an Anglian building that was inserted onto the top of a substantial Roman wall.

Beyond the Roman city walls, the Trust also made some major discoveries of Eboracum’s cemeteries, most notably in 2004-2005 when we excavated a part of the larger south-western extramural cemetery at Driffield Terrace (CA 397).
There, 82 burials ranging in date from the late 1st/early 2nd century to the 4th century presented a highly atypical ‘population’ dominated by males, with only one definite female burial, seven non-adults (neonates to juveniles), and no one over the age of 45. Even more unusual was the discovery that 40 of the men had been decapitated, while osteological analysis revealed a particular group that displayed evidence of heightened levels of interpersonal violence – predominantly through fractures,
but there was also a bladed injury. One individual also had what looked like a bite through his pelvis from a large carnivore. Further work on isotopes and DNA revealed a population of some diversity, with one individual’s DNA testifying to him having origins in Palestine. All these factors fed into an interpretation that this was a gladiator cemetery; the site has been the subject of several TV documentaries, and while this hypothesis is not proven, it is tantalising and demands our engagement with the evidence.

The remains of a post-and-plank Roman building excavated at Tanner Row in 1983.

One of the Roman ‘gladiators’ buried at Driffield Terrace had what appeared to be a bite mark from a large carnivore through his pelvis.

We also hit the headlines with a different aspect of burial archaeology in 2008. While excavating in the hinterland of the city for the new University of York Heslington East Campus, an Iron Age pit was found to contain a skull with the brain still well preserved inside (CA 227). Radiocarbon dated to between 673 and 482 BC, it belonged to a man aged between 26 and 40 at the time of death, who had been hanged and then decapitated. Other deliberately placed deposits in the immediate vicinity and the atypical treatment of the individual mean that this activity may have had a ritual motivation. While the scenario surrounding the man’s burial remains unclear, however, his is the oldest preserved brain in Eurasia and various reasons have been put forward for its exceptional survival.

Urban archaeology and expansion

Brain of (Iron Age) Britain: found inside the skull of a man who had died c.673-482 BC, this is the oldest preserved brain in Eurasia.

At the same time as the investigation described above, back in the city centre the Trust had embarked on the largest area excavation ever undertaken in York. This was at Hungate, where between 2007 and 2012 we explored the greater part of two medieval parishes ahead of the redevelopment of some seven acres of the townscape. This uncovered a sequence of activity from the city’s Roman origins; Anglo-Scandinavian activity reminiscent of Coppergate; two medieval parish churches and their graveyards; and extensive deposits of later medieval rubbish disposal (CA 250).

It is not these remains that I want to discuss here, however – rather, in reflection of the increased recognition of industrial and modern archaeology since the Trust’s foundation in 1972, I want to note the rather more recent archaeology that the project also uncovered: the 19th-century tenement housing built for the workers of nearby factories and grain mills. As a neighbourhood that was recognised as one of York’s main slum areas, Hungate’s community was a key part of a major, highly influential sociological study, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, published in 1901 by Seebohm Rowntree, a Quaker industrialist, social reformer, and sociological researcher (CA 215).

This groundbreaking study applied social-scientific methodology and statistics to the analysis of poverty. It challenged the view that poverty was the result of some form of moral dissolution or fecklessness, rather emphasising the links between low pay and insecurity of employment. The study also demonstrated comparable levels of poverty to that seen in London, contradicting a widely held view that abject poverty was a metropolitan problem not seen across the rest of the UK. Rowntree’s analysis is credited with influencing the subsequent development of ideas for the welfare state, and his writings described the dire conditions experienced by those that lived in Hungate. Our project provided an opportunity to explore the expression of urban poverty in terms of its material culture, and spatial development and adaptations. As many of the houses had only been cleared in the interwar period or later, the initiative also provided opportunities for oral histories to be collated from those that had lived there.

It was during this period that YAT underwent a fundamental change, expanding its archaeological operations to Sheffield, Nottingham, and Glasgow. Our first new office (in Sheffield) was established in 2009, and offered a skill-set emphasising cutting-edge digital visualisation and survey techniques, which provided opportunities to make new discoveries even on some of Britain’s most-studied monuments. Most notably, in 2012, we were involved in the analysis of laser-scanning data from Stonehenge, in collaboration with Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark. This research exceeded all expectations, revealing the presence of numerous ‘new’ early Bronze Age carvings of axe-heads on the stones’ surface, increasing the count from 44 to 115. Furthermore, traces of stone-working were revealed on almost every stone, and the differences in tooling patterns across the site permitted new interpretations of how and when the different parts of the monument were built. Finally, the project enabled the detailed conservation management of the stones, documenting all of the graffiti, weathering, damage, and restoration to a level not previously achievable.

YAT’s Sheffield office were involved in laser scanning the stones of Stonehenge.

Over in Nottingham, we came together with Trent and Peak Archaeological Trust. This unit had been initially established in 1967, and has unrivalled experience in the archaeology of the River Trent valley and the urban archaeology of Nottingham. This office is located closest to the southern centre of development-led archaeology in the UK, and it currently has our largest team of archaeologists, employing around 60 people. They have made some fascinating discoveries across the region; in 2016, our Nottingham team undertook excavations in and outside the Roman fort (and later town) at Little Chester in advance of Derby’s new £95-million flood defences, revealing much of its origins, character and development.

The fort had been founded in c.AD 80, and the civil engineering of the Roman army was immediately apparent within the archaeology, with clear signs of areas of boggy ground being deliberately reclaimed. Major replanning during the 2nd and 3rd century added urban defences, including a circuit of stone walls, and outside these our excavations also revealed the remains of stone buildings lining Ryknield Street, the Roman road that went from Derby to Chester. Intriguingly, we demonstrated that there were never any ditched defences on the western side of the fort and town; rather, a natural harbour on the river Derwent formed its ‘fourth side’. Later, a more formal quayside was installed, indicating the significance
of riverine provisioning and trade at the site.

Little Chester’s 2nd/3rd-century wall circuit, and the excavation team.

We have also seen a resurgence of archaeological investigation in the City of Nottingham itself. Notable highlights have included archaeological investigations in advance of the construction of Nottingham’s tram system, which identified a potentially Neolithic enclosure and associated landscape at Clifton Park & Ride, and a medieval market site in the precinct of Lenton Priory. More recently, we have completed major investigations during the £29.4-million redevelopment of Nottingham Castle, including an investigation of the original medieval moat, and delivered a training and community dig focused on an annual summer excavation of the Outer Bailey. This latter project provides a rare opportunity to explore this iconic site – not least because much of the castle’s medieval appearance was lost when it was razed following the English Civil War, and its character was subsequently further changed by the construction of the Ducal Palace (or Mansion) by the Dukes of Newcastle in the late 17th century.

As for Glasgow, there our organisational structure and strategy has evolved, operating over the past five years as Inherit, an institute explicitly focused on heritage and sustainable human development – how archaeology can improve people’s lives. It was initially funded by a generous donation for the first two years of its operation, which has allowed the Trust to explore the potential for archaeology to deliver public benefit to communities in places as far spread as Scotland, northern Greece, China, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. These projects allow us to reflect on the broad arc of the discipline’s development over 50 years, which allows us to explore how archaeology is, in its broadest sense, an engagement with people’s culture and their environment.

Wider impact

In 2022, our Cultural Corridors of Peace project – working with the Bedouin communities of Lebanon, Jordan, and the wider Levant – was selected to be one of 60 projects from across the world to be showcased at the Paris Peace Forum. This is a multilateral gathering, akin to the Davos Economic Forum, which is attended by multiple heads of state and senior government representatives; its purpose is to promote solutions to major global challenges, such as climate change, conflict, and deepening inequalities. Cultural Corridors of Peace promotes community action to safeguard Bedouin living heritage and to use it to improve people’s lives. This includes promoting peace and post-conflict collaboration using the memory of historic nomadic routes, which serves as a way of building cultural relations across modern borders.

 The Cultural Corridors of Peace project is funded by the British Council Cultural Protection Fund in partnership with DCMS; this is a poster advertising the London Exhibition of Bedouin heritage as part of the initiative.

A similar focus on the social and wider public value of archaeology can be seen in another new initiative developed by the Trust since 2021. Archaeology on Prescription, which won the national Museums + Heritage Award for community engagement in 2022, is a social-prescribing programme that uses archaeology as a vehicle to assist those with mental health needs. Working with the NHS and partners across York, we provide a programme for people to participate in archaeological excavation and other activities as a way of improving their health and wellbeing and to assist in their recovery from substance dependency.

These final two examples of our work show how YAT has responded to the changing world (something that, as archaeologists, should not surprise us), but I would also contend that they also hold true to its foundational values of research, education, community, and innovation. As a charity, YAT is profoundly committed to pioneering new ways for everyone to enjoy and benefit from archaeology. Over its
half a century, the thousands of people that have contributed to its success – whether as trustees, members, staff, volunteers, partners, friends, or supporters – can be justifiably pleased with its achievements.

That said, it is clear that in this rapidly sketched history, far more will have been left out than included and, as such, it is not intended as history – more an opportunity to spend a few brief minutes reflecting on selective vignettes. The approach has been akin to intermittently turning on a torch beam in a dark treasury. Fortunately, Peter Addyman has written York Archaeological Trust: 50 Years On as a review of our first half a century – see the ‘Further reading’ box below for more details. Here’s to the next 50 years.

Further reading

Peter Addyman, York Archaeological Trust: 50 Years On, £16.50; available from the JORVIK Viking Centre online shop: http://www.jorvikshop.com/books.

All images: York Archaeological Trust