What lies beneath: Finds from an archaeological dig may help write a new chapter in East Yorkshire’s history, discovers Lucy Oates.
Vivid blue in colour and with clearly visible ornate markings etched onto its surface, it’s hard to believe that the perfectly preserved fragment of glass bangle is around 2,000 years old.
It dates back to the first or second century AD, when, according to David Evans of the Humber Archaeology Partnership, it is likely to have been made close to where it was found on the outskirts of Beverley.
Recovered from a ditch between Shepherd’s Lane and Long Lane, it was one of many finds unearthed by archaeologists excavating land along the route of the new Beverley bypass.
The new road crosses through an area of East Yorkshire known for its Iron Age and Romano-British settlements; several years ago significant remains were identified when a vast gas pipeline was installed between the villages of Ganstead in Holderness and Asselby near Howden. However, this dig has yielded evidence of previously unknown and unrecorded settlements in the area.
David explains: “The excavation revealed multiple phases of activity at the site, primarily relating to the late Iron Age and Romano-British occupation, as well as a possible Bronze Age cremation.”
The human remains were contained in a pottery vessel and bone samples have now been sent to the University of Glasgow for specialist radiocarbon dating. If they are confirmed as being of Bronze Age origin, it will prove that humans were active in this particular area of East Yorkshire far earlier than was previously thought.
“The new road runs through an area that was once a major wetland landscape south of Beverley. It was part of the old River Hull floodplain and, until it was drained in the late 18th century, was mostly marshy and boggy. There would have been small, dry islands poking out of the marshland and blanket bog. The area would have been rich in birdlife, mammals and fish, so there was a food source there that would have attracted early man. During the Iron Age and early Roman period, it would have been easier to travel around the area by boat and that’s why many of the settlements and accompanying burial sites tended to be sited close to the river.”
The Humber Archaeology Partnership appointed Oxford Archaeology North and the AOC Archaeology Group to carry out the excavation, with team of 20 archaeologists working on site for five months.
“We were aware of crop marks, which are signs of the field systems that early settlements would have had, but the dig exposed far more,” says David. “We were hoping to fill gaps in our knowledge, but there were some good surprises. The western end of the site seems to have been the main focus of domestic settlement, from which large quantities of well-preserved pottery have been retrieved.”
In this part of the site, four circular ditches are thought to be where the roundhouses that settlers lived in would have stood. Nearby there were other rectangular-shaped structures and what are thought to have been animal pens.
The eastern end of the site appears to have been an area of industrial activity. Here, they found numerous pits containing burnt residues and fragments of fired clay as well as substantial dumps of iron slag. The base of a small oven was also identified. It has been tentatively dated to the mid-third century AD, although samples from its stone foundations have been submitted for archaeomagnetic dating.
Among the most interesting finds was what’s thought to have been an Iron Age cemetery to the west of Long Lane. It was made up of four square barrows (burial mounds) and a single round barrow.
“Square barrows are an Iron Age tradition,” says David. “In East Yorkshire there are 1,600 of them but most are in the Yorkshire Wolds. Those found near Beverley are evidence of barrows in the low-lying wetland areas. Three of the four square barrows excavated to date contained inhumations.”
A vast amount of material was removed from the site for further analysis, including around 15 tonnes of soil samples, 40 boxes of pottery and 60 boxes of animal bones.
Mitchell Pollington, project manager for the York-based AOC Archaeology Group, says: “The digging is only half the work. It is in the post-excavation stage that we can start to gain a real understanding of the site.
“The finds are carefully cleaned, packed and sent to various specialists for analysis to attempt to determine the date of their manufacture, function or form. This will help us in understanding how the site was used and developed.
“Soil samples taken from individual excavated features are now being assessed in the our laboratory in Edinburgh, where environmental specialists will process them to extract environmental evidence, such as seed grains, which may indicate what the surrounding vegetation was like in the past.
“This will allow us to build a picture of the past natural landscape surrounding the site, and what was potentially being farmed around the settlement.”
Mitchell added: “Based on the evidence so far, this was a substantial settlement that was in use for potentially hundreds of years. It was a place where people lived their lives, probably with their extended families, but also worked both in farming and in the production of other items, potentially to sell and trade.
“Possibly prior to the Roman invasion of the area in AD 71 and certainly following it, the people in the settlement had access to Roman material culture, such as fine tablewares, suggesting a level of prosperity and wealth. This also shows how they formed part of the wider Roman world.”
Once the results of the archaeological dig have been fully analysed over the coming months, the findings will form the basis of a detailed report and a book. It’s hoped that the items that were unearthed will eventually go on display at a local museum.