Dig York Stadium – Archaeological Background

Community Stadium logo_Arran

The Dig York Stadium project was launched today, November 12th 2014, with an event at the Mansion House, York that was attended by lots of interested people from the city.

Jon Kenny briefs the troops at the Mansion House.

Jon Kenny briefs the troops at the Mansion House.

It’s a good moment to present a summary of the archaeology at Huntington Moor, where the Community Stadium dig will take place. This is a brief introduction to what we know and what we hope to discover. As we move closer to the dig, we will post more detail about the different periods, features and research questions we could be dealing with.

What we already know about concerns two main areas: Prehistory, and the Roman period. The evidence is in the form of aerial photographs, geophysics, previous archaeological excavations and antiquarian records.

Location of Camp 1, Camp 2 and the earlier archaeology

Location of Camp 1, Camp 2 and the earlier archaeology

Prehistory

Prehistoric activity was identified on Huntington Moor during excavations in 2003. Evidence for activity in the Neolithic (c.4000BC to c.2000BC), Bronze Age (c.2000BC to c.1000BC) and Iron Age (c.1000BC to c.AD40) was uncovered.

A couple of large round pits were found, one of which contained Neolithic pottery. These may have been used for cooking or for storage. Other little pits and stake-holes may also be from this time but were difficult to understand as the following 4000 years had removed most of the landscape these features would originally have been part of.

A long row of 15 large, square pits was also discovered. This was thought to be Bronze Age, as it closely resembles similar features known from elsewhere. The pits measured around 2-3m across and up to 90cm deep, and were arranged in a fairly straight line from north-west to south-east. At the south-eastern end, these pits may have been dug through to create a ditch on the same line, perhaps in the Iron Age. The pits and later ditch probably represent a boundary, but for what purpose is not known. Small pieces of Roman pottery in the very top of the soil filling these pits suggests that this boundary may have survived in some form for over 1000 years.

Other features included two circular ditches about 4m across, interpreted as hayrick gullies or small livestock enclosures. Taken together, a rough picture of prehistoric settlement emerges, but it is difficult to describe in detail without looking at a bigger area.

Prehistoric archaeology has been found in increasing quantity around York in recent years and we shall explore the early landscapes around the city in a later post. The Dig York Stadium project will strip quite a large area of soil, which will increase our chances of identifying prehistoric features, so hopefully we will add to the early story of the place that became York.

Possible Bronze Ages pits, half-excavated

Possible Bronze Ages pits, half-excavated

Roman

The headline attraction of this project is the known location of a Roman camp. Aerial photos taken by English Heritage in 2002 discovered two camps on Huntington Moor, revealed as earthworks and ephemeral earthworks in the fields around the Monks Cross shopping area.

This instantly doubled the number of known camps from York, adding to the two that were already known of on Bootham Stray. Writing in the 18th century, antiquarians William Stukeley and Francis Drake (not that one) suggested that 7 or 8 camps existed in the moorland around York at that time, so increasing the known number to 4 is significant.

We will be digging within Camp 1, which mostly lies under the pitch of the existing Huntington Stadium, where York City Knights ply their trade. It is the transformation of this facility into the new York Community Stadium that will give us the chance to dig the archaeology beneath it.

Camp 2 was identified just to the south-east of the stadium and was excavated by York Archaeological Trust in 2003. This appeared as a spectacular cropmark when the field was ploughed, showing how major new discoveries can be made at any moment, often when least expected. We will post more detail about the work done here when we look more closely at the Roman landscape in a later post, but the following summery shows what we might expect to find next spring.

Detailed plan of the Camp 2 archaeology

Detailed plan of the Camp 2 archaeology

Camp 2 was found to be a near perfect rectangle measuring 133m X 118m, or 450 X 400 Roman feet (a Roman foot equates to 11.5 inches, or 29.4cm). The corners were rounded but the sides were arranged at precise right-angles and had clearly been laid out by capable surveyors.

The ditches were less carefully made. They appeared to have been dug by different gangs and were very variable in width, depth and shape. Inside the camp, an earth bank or rampart had been made using the earth dug out of the ditches. Two entrances were identified, each with a short section of ditch dug about 11m in front of it as a possible defence.

The camp was only used for a brief period in the early-mid 2nd century AD (100-150AD). Late 1st/early 2nd century pottery was found on the surface sealed beneath the rampart, providing an earliest possible date for the construction of the camp. The ditches had begun to silt up, but were then deliberately filled in with the soil from the ramp. Pottery of the 2nd century was found in this material. Finally, the shallow remains of the ditch gradually silted up, during which time more 2nd century pottery found its way into the soils, along with a tiny amount of later Roman material.

The only features found inside the camp were the prehistoric ring-gullies and postholes that were already there before the Roman soldiers arrived to build their camp. The lack of internal Roman features, and the apparently brief life of the camp ditches, suggests that it was a temporary structure and not intended for long-term use.

Camp 2 ditch: 4m wide slots excavated through it at regular intervals

Camp 2 ditch: 4m wide slots excavated through it at regular intervals

What do we hope to discover?

We hope to reveal and define the remains of Huntington Moor Camp 1, and possibly identify features relating to the earlier, prehistoric landscape. In uncovering the Roman camp, we will try to address the question of what these features were used for.

Examples of these camps are known across the country, and besides those at Bootham Stray, there are others known locally at, for example, Cawthorne Camps. There are several interpretations of this type of feature, which I will state briefly here and explore further at a later date.

  • Were they ‘marching camps’, set up by troops to use periodically on regular marches from fort to fort?
  • Were they ‘labour camps’, build to house labourers on specific construction projects?
  • Were they ‘practice camps’, constructed by teams of soldiers and surveyors to learn and practise the techniques of camp-building, and in particular specific skills such as survey and defensive design?
  • Were they ‘temporary camps’, or one-off structures, used to accommodate troops during a particular campaign?

Huntington Moor Camp 2 was tentatively interpreted as the last of these, and associated with the movement of troops from the south, though Eboracum (York) on their way up to Hadrian’s Wall in the early-mid 2nd century. It may be that a combination of the above interpretations will emerge at Camp 1, or indeed something entirely new.

What do you think?

Ian

GET INVOLVED! Contact digyorkstadium@yorkat.co.uk to join the community archaeology team!

How to get involved in our upcoming community excavation

Community Stadium logo_Arran

York Archaeological Trust in partnership with City of York Council are delivering an archaeological investigation of the community stadium site prior to construction works starting. Dig York Stadium offers you the chance to investigate the archaeology of the site with professionals from York Archaeological Trust who will share their knowledge and skills, teaching you new skills and helping you develop existing ones in the field of archaeological practice.

Aerial view of a neighbouring camp prior to excavation in 2003. This image shows the scale of these features!

Aerial view of a neighbouring camp prior to excavation in 2003. This image shows the impressive scale of these features!

We are currently looking for volunteers who would like to contribute to all aspects of the project from research to fieldwork and post-excavation. Across the life of the project the community project team will research the history of the site and its archaeological remains and discover the physical evidence relating to the historical records and earlier activity.

The excavation is currently set to commence in spring 2015, although some geophysical survey will take place in the near future (announcements to follow). Sites on the outskirts of York have a history of providing unexpected surprises. The stadium site looks most likely to contain evidence of York’s Roman military past, with the latest research suggesting that the site was once a temporary fortification, or perhaps a training camp. This provides an opportunity to gain new insights into a time when York was a frontier town on the very edge of the expanding Roman Empire.

general view of camp ditch, facing n.e

The fortifications of a neighbouring Roman encampment under excavation in 2003.

At York Archaeological Trust, we pride ourselves on opening up the archaeology of York and its surroundings to the public. It is very important to provide a window into our latest discoveries and 2015 will see us offering many opportunities to get involved and make your own contributions to York’s rich history.

This Wednesday 12th November, we will be holding a lunchtime event at the Mansion House in York between 12 and 2pm. There will be presentations from the archaeologists who will be leading the project and information on the numerous ways you can get involved. Those wishing to be part of the community team will have the chance to sign up for the project and learn more background information about the site.

As work commences, we will release regular updates via this blog and our twitter account @digyorkstadium (non-twitter users can still view the updates at http://www.twitter.com/digyorkstadium). If it is not possible for you to make the open day at the Mansion House, please contact digyorkstadium@yorkat.co.uk with any questions or to register your interest in the project.

York’s importance as a centre of medieval trade and a Viking stronghold is well known. The Community Stadium project offers the chance to learn more about how the frontier of York was originally absorbed into the Roman Empire and subsequently defended. This period of Roman expansion marked the real beginning of York’s long history as a burgeoning settlement, don’t miss out on the chance to add your own discoveries to this story.

– Arran