Giulia Gallio

The Newington Hotel site and “Gladiators: a Cemetery of Secrets”

During May and June 2017 I was given the opportunity to join the Trust’s fieldwork team on an excavation at the site of the former Newington Hotel. The site is situated in the Mount area of York, where several large Roman cemeteries have been excavated in the past; this is due to the Roman custom of burying the dead along major roads outside the city limits. In keeping with what was known about the area, the excavation at Newington uncovered part of a Roman cemetery including over 70 inhumations and two possible cremations.

While I have taken part in archaeological excavations in the past, all of the projects I have been involved in were university-led; this excavation was my first chance to work as part of a commercial unit, and to see what I have been missing by working behind the scenes (and away from the rain) in the Finds department. This was also my first time on an urban site, characterised by deep stratification and often complex relationships between the Roman levels and the later strata that often cut into and disturbed the Roman burials themselves. Given the large number of burials and my background in human osteology, I very happily concentrated on excavating the human skeletal material for the majority of my time on the site. Coffin nails and grave goods, including several complete pots, set this cemetery apart from all the other (mainly Christian and Muslim) burial sites I have previously worked on. As an assistant at the Trust’s Collections and Archives department, it was also interesting to observe firsthand how archaeological artefacts and skeletons are processed before being handed over to the Collections team for cleaning and packaging.

During my time on site I was also involved in all other day-to-day aspects of the excavation process. This allowed me to brush up on skills I was introduced to while studying for my undergraduate degree in archaeology, but that I do not use in my normal role with the Trust, in particular plan drawing and surveying. I am very grateful for the chance to improve my skills and for the assistance and supervision of my colleagues, who were very understanding and supportive as I eased back into fieldwork after a fairly long break from excavating.

Once my time at the Newington Hotel site was over, I turned my attention to another Resilience project: the preparation of our touring exhibition “Gladiators: a Cemetery of Secrets”, which will open at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven (Cumbria) in September. The exhibition focuses on the burial sites at 3 and 6 Driffield Terrace, excavated in 2004-2005, which yielded an unusual group of 82 male skeletons, around 40 of which had been decapitated. An exhibition on the cemetery was on display in York and Durham in the past, but the content was in need of a fresh approach and interpretation. My human osteology background gave me the opportunity to be heavily involved in the selection of the six skeletons that will go on display. Once this was done, I helped to write the labels that will accompany each individual and practiced laying out the skeletons in advance, making sure that they reflected the position they were found in as closely as possible. As part of the process of updating the exhibition content, I also helped to increase the level of information available about the individuals selected. This involved a wide variety of tasks, from preparing tooth and bone samples for isotopic analysis, to accompanying a skull to the University of Dundee for scanning to produce a facial reconstruction, to being filmed for a short video that will be playing in the display area.

Participating in so many aspects of the planning process improved my writing, research and problem-solving skills as well as giving me an opportunity to display my organisational skills. Although I have been working with the touring exhibitions programme of the Trust for a while, I normally focus on laying out skeletons and in helping with the installations and demounts. For the first time, thanks to the Resilience funding, I have been able to be more heavily involved in the planning stages of the exhibition itself. I look forward to the next stage – installing “Gladiators” and seeing it all come together at last!