Archaeologists who saved York Minster from collapse return to the Undercroft 50 years on

Fifty years ago, they were the young, crack team of archaeologists who worked through the night to save York Minster.
York MinsterYork Minster
York Minster

In 1969, colleagues Josephine Walker, Mike Griffiths, Graeme Guilbert and Derek Phillips were in their early 20s and embarking on their archaeological careers when they were called in to help architects and engineers after a survey two years previously had revealed that the foundations of the cathedral were close to collapsing.

By 1972, £2million had been spent on reinforcing the structure and the young academics had made some astonishing discoveries beneath the building - including the remains of the north corner of the headquarters of the Roman fort of Eboracum and part of the original Norman cathedral that once stood on the site.

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This Friday, the four retired experts - now in their 70s - will reunite in York for a meal at the restaurant that they often stumbled into for dinner after a long day at the excavations.

It is the first time the group have been together in the city since the do-or-die dig that began in 1966.

They will visit the Undercroft - the area beneath the Minster's floor that they excavated and which was turned into a museum in 2013, telling the story of the building's Roman and Norman links.

The dig conditions were described as 'grim' and they had to fight to convince engineers to halt their work so that they could examine possible finds.

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Their sanctuary was Peter Madden's restaurant at 9 High Petergate, where they were always given a warm welcome when returning tired and hungry from the Minster. Now owned by Leeds Brewery and called the Eagle & Child, they will enjoy a reunion dinner there.

Phillips has been credited with realising the potential of the open spaces beneath the Minster and convincing Minster surveyor Bernard Feilden to preserve them untouched.

The steel and concrete pillars which underpin the central tower were retained and display cases containing artifacts found during the excavations were installed around them.

The Undercroft has now become a popular and integral part of the Minster experience.

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At the time, Feilden wrote commending the archaeologists' work:-

"Perhaps the hardest war of all was fought by Derek Phillips, the archaeologist, because he was always short of troops and money, but mostly time.

"York Minster presented the archaeologists with one of the longest and most intensive digs ever carried out in Britain. Always at their shoulder as they delved and sifted were the engineers and workmen ready to cascade hundreds of tons of concrete into the excavation, covering the remains forever.

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"At times, the archaeologists found themselves able to help the engineers. Using their maps and projections, they could warn them of places where the drills would strike the solid masonry of other buildings.

"Once, the builders were planning to build a retaining wall for the Undercroft. The archaeologists were able to tell them that there was no need - on precisely the right line, several feet underground, there was already the massive wall of the north transept of the Norman church."

Derek remained in York after the dig, working as the Minster archaeologist and living in a flat at King's Manor. He later left the profession and joined the army, before becoming an expert on firearms control legislation. He now lives in Suffolk.

He remembers sleeping in a caravan inside the Minster and spending his nights writing up notes after working around the clock at the site.

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"The work went on for a long time, so we four were part of the original group. There were usually around a dozen of us, mostly recent graduates. I was 24 and a postgrad at Durham University when I joined the project."

Around 250 people were working on the site, among them builders, engineers, architects and surveyors.

"We completely took it over for five years, and we worked non-stop, day and night. The Minster was not going to wait.

"We were very understaffed at first - at one point I was the only archaeologist. We began to expand the team and by 1972 there were around 30 of us. The pay was marginal - I tried to ensure that they were paid fairly but the financial situation was difficult."

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Derek, Josephine, Mike and Graeme rented a farmhouse together for a while, but Derek's main base was his caravan.

"It was somewhat dilapidated, and I used to give my address as 1 Charnel Gardens, because the ground beneath it was full of human bones! I'd spend the night there writing up notes with a tape recorder."

He remembers the work as being physically demanding as the team fought to outpace the deterioration of the structure.

"As we removed the soil the pace of acceleration was increasing, so we had to go deeper, faster - which was the opposite of how we wanted to work. The archaeology side was seen as secondary in importance - we were trying to balance all priorities, and there was a lot that had to be done by a certain time. We had to adjust our methods to fit in with the other work."

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Derek remembers planning a three-week investigation of one area of the building only to be told by the engineering foreman that the situation had changed and they could only have four days there.

"There was constant drilling and we had to wear masks, hard hats, ear defenders and goggles. It was difficult to communicate and it got a little wearing - we had to shout at each other. It was quite different to the atmosphere of a normal dig.

"I'm very much looking forward to the reunion - one or two of us had kept in touch but there are others I had lost touch with completely."

Josephine left archaeology - she was a keen musician and moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where she married a Royal Shakespeare Company composer. She later worked for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Mike went to work for Exeter Museum but later returned to York to set up his own archaeological consultancy, and Graeme led excavations in the south west of England.

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