Ancient secrets unearthed by top team digging deep into remains of the past

Jonathan Finch, Lectuer in Historical Archeology takes a closer look at one of the pottery finds.Picture by Gerard Binks.
Jonathan Finch, Lectuer in Historical Archeology takes a closer look at one of the pottery finds.Picture by Gerard Binks.
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In one room a student is analysing limpets from northern Spain. In another, soil specimens from Turkish burial grounds are being put under the microscope. Across the courtyard, an ancient cellar is home to endless boxes of everything from bone fragments to shards of Roman pottery.

When York University’s archaeology department moved into King’s Manor back in the mid-1990s, they couldn’t have asked for a better location. The 16th century building, once a royal palace and headquarters of Henry VIII’s Council of the North, is an archaeological project in itself.

However, behind the arched gateways and stone walls, lies pioneering technology and groundbreaking research which has helped map more than 10,000 years of history both in this country and abroad.

It’s one of the reasons why members of the department will travel to Buckingham Palace next month to receive a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. It’s the fifth time in 15 years the university has won the accolade, but the first time an archaeology department has been recognised. For head of department, Professor Julian Richards, it’s welcome recognition of their attempts to blow the dust off the often fusty world of academia.

“I was hooked on archaeology ever since I saw an excavation as a child,” says Prof Richards, who as a student at the university worked on the famous Coppergate dig which saw more than 40,000 objects unearthed along with a series of Viking age buildings. “As an archaeologist, seeing the pewter brooch you dug out from a trench on display in a museum is a nice feeling, but archaeology has to be about more than just personal satisfaction.

“The main thing we had to prove to even be nominated for this award was that our work had an impact outside the walls of the department. Historically, I think it’s probably true that archaeologists operated within their own bubble, but over the last 10 years that’s something we have worked hard to change.”

One of the department’s showpiece finds has undoubtedly been the work carried out at Star Carr, near Scarborough. The site, Yorkshire’s answer to Stonehenge, was first identified by an amateur archaeologist back in the 1940s and a number of early excavations seemed to confirm the presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers.

However, a team from York University, led by senior lecturer Dr Nicky Milner, rewrote the history books two years ago when they discovered the country’s oldest surviving house beneath the waterlogged landscape. Dating to around 8,500BC, the building, together with a wooden platform – the earliest evidence of carpentry in the whole of northern Europe – suggested the ancient inhabitants were a much more settled tribe.

Despite the recent cuts to funding streams, the university has recently secured another £1.5m to fund five more years of research at Star Carr. With the site having degraded significantly over the last decade, that work is likely to prove crucial.

“We really are in a race against time at Star Carr,” says Dr Milner, who devoted her PhD to the study of oysters. “We are not entirely sure why, but the water level has dropped, rain patterns have changed and the soil conditions have altered dramatically. Partly it’s a knock on effect of modern farming practices and drainage systems, but the end result is the peat has become very acidic, it’s like working in the stuff from car batteries.

“In the first set of excavations we quite quickly found a dark area on the site which contained a lot of remnants of flint. Often on excavations you can spend hours digging in the rain and find nothing, so that in itself was a bonus. However, when we then found the remains of holes where the posts would have been and then the actual timber structure, it was an incredible moment.

“I suspect I will see nothing like it again, although I haven’t given up hope. We know that they moved between different small islands and while they may have just swam, if we could find evidence of boats, it would take the story of these people onto yet another chapter.

“The reality is that when we go back this time a lot of the bone and wood remains will have disintegrated, but the site still has a lot to tell us about the life of ancient Britons. If we don’t record what lies beneath Star Carr now it will be lost forever.”

New computer systems developed at the university means when the Mesolithic house does disappear it will be preserved as a 3D model and it’s not the only development which is changing the face of archaeology . In another corner of King’s Manor the analysis of tiny fragments of bone can for the first time determine which animal they came from and residue from pottery bowls can now be broken down into individual cooking ingredients, detecting the presence of everything from honey to mustard seeds. While trowels and brushes may still be the tools of the archaeologist’s trade, it’s the advances behind the scenes which have not only shed new light on many previous discoveries, but have also brought the discipline to a much wider audience.

“A lot of the equipment I dreamed of being able to use 10 years ago is now available right here in the university,” says senior lecturer Dr Jonathan Finch, who is currently working on the remains of Gawthorpe Hall on the Harewood estate. “Before the current house was built in the 18th-century, the estate was home to a medieval manor house.

“The building had been completely demolished and over the intervening centuries its original site had become obscured.

“However, we have pinpointed the location and already uncovered some massive medieval walls and foundations as well as some of the floor surfaces in the house.

“There have been some interesting curiosities like the wall against which a bottle of red wine had been smashed or the silver ring lost under the debris. However, the excavation is not just about uncovering an historic building, it’s about charting how country estates came into being and developed. The Lascelles family made their money from sugar plantations and one of the other strands of research has been to look at what was going on in the colonies at the same time.”

As a result, Dr Finch has spent some time in Barbados helping the country’s own archaeologists preserve and record their own history before it disappears under a rash of modern building developments.

Records are something they know a lot about. York University was the first to make its archives available online and welcomes involvement from the public. While metal detecting enthusiasts are often seen as a scourge on the art of precise and careful excavation, at York they receive a much warmer welcome.

“A lot of potentially interesting sites look completely anonymous, they don’t come with some great signpost,” adds Prof Richards. “If a hoard of coins is unearthed by metal detectorists, it gives you some indication that it might be a site of much greater archaeological interest.

“While we are always advancing and becoming better at preserving our archaeological past, the fact is many sites are still at risk from both environmental and man-made threats. Many of the projects we carry out here are in effect unrepeatable experiments and ones which we will be able to learn lessons from long into the future.”

sarah.freeman@ypn.co.uk