Portland Street Sewer Upgrade, York Archaeological Excavation

North Yorkshire

Client

Yorkshire Water

Services

Excavation

Finds

Consultancy

In 2012–13, NAA carried out archaeological investigations in several areas during the construction of a new sewer to the north-west of the walled City of York. Archaeological finds were mainly limited to areas within the grounds of Bootham Park Hospital, to the north of Bootham (the A19), and included Roman enclosure boundaries and pits, medieval and post-medieval agricultural features, and deposits of rubble that may represent footings for temporary buildings constructed for the York Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition held in 1866. After the Roman period, the general area seems to have remained as agricultural land beyond the edge of the city. It was still laid out in medieval strip-fields until the area was developed during the later 19th century, and the area of the excavation has been retained as parkland to the present day.

A human skeleton was encountered during machine-excavation of the trench for the new pipework across this area. Fortuitously, this lay at one side of the trench and was barely disturbed by the machine. It proved possible to protect the remains during construction work and they have been left in place, except for some displaced fragments. Who was this person, when were they buried there, and why? Analysis of the few bones recovered established that the person was an adolescent, aged between 12 and 18 years, although their sex could not be determined. The body lay on its right side on top of a layer of ceramic roof-tile fragments, with its head to the south. A radiocarbon date obtained from one of the bone fragments indicated that the person had died between AD1483–1648 (95.4%), and quite likely between AD1520 and AD1592 (53.2%).

Why this person was buried where they were is harder to answer. The orientation and position of the skeleton were atypical of a Christian inhumation of this period when individuals were normally interred lying on their back with their head to the west. Conversely, the lining of the base of the grave with roof-tiles does suggest that some care was taken with the burial. The funeral seems to have taken place in open farmland but only a short distance from nearby churchyards, such as that of the former St Giles’ Church on Gillygate. Was this person a member of one of the groups excluded from churchyard burial, such as a suicide or executed criminal? Or was their family too poor to afford the fee for burial demanded by the Church? Another question is whether they were buried alone, or do more graves lie close by? Only future investigation will be able to provide further insight into the circumstances of this mysterious burial.

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