Video: York’s secret underground passages

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IT IS a site that has been at the heart of York’s ruling elite since the Roman era, but the secrets of the past have remained hidden away beneath the ground.

Yet a glimpse into how the city has evolved through the centuries is being pieced together with the first archaeological dig using cutting-edge techniques and technology now underway.

An underground tunnel under York's Guild Hall to the River Ouse

An underground tunnel under York's Guild Hall to the River Ouse

Members of the York Archaeological Trust are conducting the excavations centred on the city’s medieval Guildhall which have already provided fascinating evidence of the site’s importance.

The dig has revealed the existing building, which dates from the 1440s, was built on the foundations of a previous structure which is thought to have been at the centre of York’s democracy.

Artefacts including the seal of a wine bottle with the word Pegasus on it and a fragment of an 18th century wig curler also provide an insight into the high status of those who had used the site.

Archaeologist Mick Aston, who was a member of Channel 4’s hugely popular show, Time Team, visited York yesterday to tour the dig.

He said: “To me, York is an interesting example of a city that has decided to make the most of its heritage to attract visitors. It shows that going to a pleasant location with a lot going on can provide a sound basis for the economy.

“York is a very special place because it has escaped unscathed whereas other places were smashed to pieces during the 1960s.

“Councils and planners are often blamed for this, but the real culprits are the developers.”

The archaeologists were given permission to carry out the excavations by York Council as part of the city’s celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary since being granted a Royal Charter by King John on July 9, 1212.

The dig has also revealed land around the Guildhall has long been at a premium, and efforts to encroach on the River Ouse by extending the banks were stepped up from the medieval era.

The York Archaeological Trust’s project development officer, Dr Mark Whyman, said: “This is an extraordinary opportunity to find out more about the site. The Guildhall is one of York’s most important buildings, but we know very little about it as a structure.

“It has been here throughout the centuries, and in many ways it has been taken for granted. But this dig is giving us a chance to learn so much more about it.” The project involves the excavation of the Guildhall yard, part of the basement of the Mansion House and Common Hall Lane, an underground passage leading to the River 

Three-dimensional laser scanning has created a virtual model of the Guildhall and its subterranean lane, and the dig, which began at the end of last month, is due to finish on September 7.

York Council’s archaeologist, John Oxley, revealed that he hoped more extensive excavations could take place in the future, especially as it would help shape the future of the Guildhall. York Council is due to move into new multi-million pound headquarters at West Offices, built in the 1840s as the original railway station and station hotel, and the future use of the Guildhall has yet to be determined.

Mr Oxley said: “This is the first time we have had the opportunity for archaeological research at the Guildhall using modern techniques.

This is the heart of democracy, and it is about giving us a glimpse into its past.”