Excavation to explore hidden history of York's famed city walls as cracks emerge in ancient tower

The ancient fortifications surrounding the walled city of York have for centuries stood as compelling testament to its rich history in times of war.

Yet even today, as they have come to symbolise a sense of York’s civic identity, there is more to be revealed about how they came to be.

As one small part of the ramparts begins to strain under the weight of the wall’s famous walkway, work is to begin to stabilise one of its towers.

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What excavations could uncover, historians have said, could shine new light on the story of this ancient monument’s undiscovered foundations.

Stonemasons at Tower Two on the York City walls, where work need to take place to repair deterioation to the Tower..Dave Hindmarch pictured on the City Walls. Picture by Simon Hulme.

“Normally, if we found a crack, we might pin it together, or put mortar in,” said Dr Louisa Hood, bar walls manager at York Council which cares for its conservation.

“In this case the best way is to excavate. That is really exciting.

“We’ve got this fantastic opportunity, with an excavation and trial pits, to see if we can find out what was there before."

Cracks in ancient tower

Stonemasons at Tower Two on the York City walls, where work need to take place to repair deterioation to the Tower..Dan Clubley is pictured on the Tower. Picture by Simon Hulme

The medieval walls encircling York are a scheduled ancient monument, first built by the Romans in 71AD, which stand as the most complete set in England.

While today’s stone fortifications were created sometime after 1330, it is believed earlier versions may have been formed from timber.

Historians now hope to uncover some of this story, in gleaning information about any earlier versions which may lay under its foundations.

For the past five years the condition of a 14th century tower has begun to deteriorate, and with cracks and bulges now appearing it has become apparent that swift action is needed.

Stonemasons at Tower Two on the York City walls, where work need to take place to repair deterioation to the Tower .Dave Hindmarch pictured on the City Walls. Picture by Simon Hulme

From next month, York Council’s ancient monuments team is to begin work with York Archaeological Trust to stabilise ‘Tower Two’, and prevent any further decline.

The tower, between Baile Hill and Bitchdaughter Tower, is believed to have been built as an addition to the original walls, with its walkway later added in the 18th or 19th century.

Infill from Victorian times which was added to create this wall walk may be what is causing the damage, early studies have suggested, and it is now to be removed.

'Dig a little deeper'

Experts hope that in carrying out archeological excavations, there may also be opportunity to learn more about the different phases of the city wall’s construction.

And in revealing the interior face of the tower, for the first time in centuries, it is hoped that historians can divine more accurately when it was built, and how the walkway was added.

“Most people walk the city walls and think they are standing on Roman walls,” said Dr Hood. “What we see isn’t Roman, while the walkway wasn’t built until at least the 18th century.

“The truth is, we don’t know what was there before. That is why it’s so exciting, to try and dig a little bit deeper.”

Ian Milsted, head of archeology at the York Archaeological Trust, added: “Walking the city walls is so popular amongst locals and visitors that it will be a surprise to many people that they were never designed to have this kind of walkway – or that sections of the walls were filled in to create the path.

“This will be the first time in 200 years that the inside of this tower will be exposed, and with the infill removed, more of the historic tower will be visible for generations to come – exposing the past to preserve its future.”

Project work

Project work is to begin on October 7, and will last for at least four months although pedestrian access to the ramparts will be maintained, albeit in a smaller space.

A temporary walkway is to be installed so visitors can see work in excavation, masonry and structural support progress, while ticketed tours are to be held at weekends and holidays with talks from archeologists and stone masons.

The project, part of the city walls capital programme, is supported by Historic England.

Historians hope that evidence may reveal something about the relationship between the defensive walls and an abandoned castle which once occupied this corner of the city.

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James Mitchinson