Ross Taylor

Hungate Pits Bone Rationalisation Project

As a Visitor Experience Host at both Jorvik Viking Centre and DIG: An Archaeological Adventure, I am involved in communicating to the public how archaeology allows us to learn about York’s history. I was greatly excited to be given the chance to undertake a rationalisation project with York Archaeological Trust (YAT) as it offered a fantastic opportunity increase my understanding of archaeology whilst gaining some hands ­on experience working with archaeological finds.

The four­ week project took place in April 2016 and focused on the medieval ‘H2’ block of the Hungate excavation, specifically the mass of frequently intersecting pits located at the back of tenth century properties on what is now Haver Lane. These are rubbish and cess pits that have become intermingled over the centuries making their interpretation difficult. This area is also known to have been used for industry at the time, with hearths, ash and charcoal waste being excavated but with no indication of what the industrial activity was.

The purpose of the project was to identify potentially interesting contexts dating from around the 10th century that will help improve our understanding of what activity was taking place on Hungate at the time. This was achieved by re­examining the context cards and photographs collected during the excavation. Animal bones from these flagged contexts were then pulled out from the bulk collection in order to create a new assemblage of potentially interesting artefacts. We were ideally looking for pits with a single fill as well as untruncated pits (pits that had not been cut into or disturbed by later activity). Bones from these pits can offer us information about the lives and routines of people living on Hungate during the early medieval period. Whilst these pits only represent a small percentage of the pits from Hungate, many of the others have been disturbed by later phases of activity that prevents us from accurately dating the materials within.

In particular we were looking to identify pits in contexts relating to sunken floor buildings and to banded deposits in order to learn more about their use and formation. These banded deposits are believed to have been fire pits used over a prolonged period, with multiple fires having been raked out over large areas followed by natural buildup and subsequent phases of burning which were again raked out creating distinctive ‘tiger stripe’ deposits. The purpose of these ‘tiger striped’ areas is still not fully understood, and it is hoped that the assemblages of bones taken from these contexts will help researchers develop a better understanding of their use.

As it was very difficult to date the bone itself we examined additional deposited materials such as ceramics and other small finds and took into consideration the pits position in relation to their surrounding contexts. This was not always straightforward as later deposited material could intrude into earlier contexts and material from earlier periods could end up being deposited during the phase we are studying. Therefore, we had to closely examine all existing records and make educated analyses of each individual context. This would sometimes involve looking up individual small finds records on YAT’s digital archive, or Integrated Archaeological Database (IADB). With this information we were able to whittle down the list of contexts from almost two thousand to just a few hundred.

Through working on the project I have greatly improved my understanding of archaeological methodology and practice including how to analyse site records, how to identify re-occurring patterns and formations from contexts, how to search digital archives and how archaeological finds are stored and catalogued.

In addition to the Hungate project I was also involved in a wider project that involved photographing the entire collection of animal bone context by context across a wide range of YAT dig sites, including the Coppergate excavation site where Jorvik Viking Centre now stands. This allowed me to greatly increase my understanding of zooarchaeology. Whilst the majority of the collection consisted of the more common cow, sheep, pig, chicken and horse bones, I was also able to identify numerous other less well represented species, including cat and dog, duck and goose, deer, fish and eel. I also learned how to interpret these bones, identifying the animals age, signs of pathology and healing after breakage, as well evidence of butchery and of gnawing by scavengers. I also found evidence of both antler working and bone working, the latter in the form of corresponding fragments of a bone scale (handle) complete with drill­holes.

I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing their knowledge and expertise, all of which will prove invaluable to me when engaging with the public at both Dig and Jorvik Viking Centre.

David Scott