Moving the Goalposts: Machine Excavation at Huntington Stadium

Community Stadium logo_Arran

On May 19th 2015, YAT archaeologists Jane McComish and Arran Johnson broke ground at Huntington Stadium. Lifting the first bucket load of turf was a big moment for all of the Dig York Stadium team as it marked a culmination of many months of hard work and research and offered a chance to answer questions that date back much further. The day had finally arrived when we could find out once and for all whether the Roman encampment that we know once occupied the site had survived the 1989 construction of the stadium.

But what led us to suspect that the camp was here?

Looking down on the Monks Cross area in 1953.

Looking down on the Monks Cross area in 1953. Image courtesy of English Heritage.

Back in 2002, an English Heritage aerial reconnaissance team flew over the area and noticed a series of rectangular earthworks beneath them. This moment of serendipity triggered renewed interest in the area and a trawl through the archives revealed that this was not the first time the site had been photographed from above.

In 1953, the RAF were coming to the end of an aerial survey of post-war Britain and had created a huge archive of photographs. When the EH team tracked down their shot of Huntington, the defences of Camps 1 and 2 were both clearly visible.

RAF_540_613_LN1216_5009 ROman camp previously excavated

The same image with the earthworks highlighted.

Both enclosures had survived many centuries of agriculture, but by 2003 Camp 2 was under threat from redevelopment and Camp 1 was half buried beneath Huntington Stadium.

Aerial view of YAT's 2003 excavation of the neighbouring Roman camp.

Aerial view of YAT’s 2003 excavation of the neighbouring Roman camp.

In advance of the expansion of the Monks Cross shopping centre, Camp 2 was excavated by YAT in 2003 and details of the excavation can be found at

The undisturbed half of Camp 1 (visible below the stadium in the image above) became protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The rest of the camp would spend 26 years lying in wait beneath the stands and turf of the stadium, its secrets remaining firmly intact, until now!

YAT's Jayne Rimmeer leading an archive research session.

YAT’s Jayne Rimmeer leading an archive research session.

Since February, the Dig York Stadium team and our army of local volunteers have been investigating the history of the site. Archives, site reports and old maps have been scoured for information and a geophysical survey of the site has been carried out.

When the geophysics results were processed, a distinct contrast was immediately apparent. Outside of the stadium, a clear response revealed the classic playing card shape of a Roman marching camp, under the pitch however – very little. After much squinting, head scratching and postulating, two distinct possibilities emerged:

1. The 600mm of gravel, sand and topsoil that make up the pitch was rendering the underlying archaeology invisible to the survey equipment.

2. The archaeology had been destroyed when the stadium was built in 1989.

Geophysics results overlaid on a Google Earth view of the site.

Geophysics results overlaid on a Google Earth view of the site.

With this in mind, it was with some trepidation that Jane and Arran led a pair of 32 ton mechanical excavators and four dumper trucks over the turf. After all this research, were we really going to draw a blank?

Excavation begins!

Excavation begins!

As the various materials that make up the playing surface are going to be re-used during the community Stadium development, the excavation had to be done in stages.

De-turfing in progress.

De-turfing in progress.

First, strips of turf and topsoil were lifted and stockpiled, then the underlying sand and finally the base of gravel. Only when these three layers had been removed could we begin to see what survived beneath the pitch.

20th century field drains beneath the pitch.

20th century field drains beneath the pitch.

At first, the results weren’t particularly thrilling. Gravel filled drains associated with the laying of the pitch were the only features to be immediately apparent in a desert of natural grey and yellow clay. To add to Jane and Arran’s woes, it then began to rain.

All, however, was far from lost. Not far from the steel stanchions of the north-east goal posts, a sudden change appeared. As the machine cleared away another strip of gravel, the clouds parted and the clear line of a substantial ditch appeared, precisely where we had hoped it would be!

The NE ditch of Huntington Camp 1 is revealed!

The NE ditch of Huntington Camp 1 is revealed!

As the machines continued to carefully remove the layers of overburden, more and more of the feature was revealed and it quickly became apparent that not only had our camp survived, but it was in wonderful condition! Later in the week, Arran and Jane were joined by Dave Dodwell, one of our Dig York Stadium volunteers. A keen low level aerial photographer, Dave used a telescopic pole and a kite to produce some wonderful views of our new discovery.

SE facing view of the NE ditch. Image courtesy of @watertowers

SE facing view of the NE ditch. Image courtesy of @watertowers

Criss-crossed by field drains and medieval ridge and furrow ploughing, the ditch survives to almost 3m in width and stands out beautifully from the natural clays. A gap in the defences, visible above the left hand goal post in the above image, marks the position of an entrance into the encampment.

As work progressed, we captured more and more fantastic images of the camp as it was exposed.

A kite's view of the camp defences courtesy of @watertowers

A kite’s view of the camp defences courtesy of @watertowers

Within the ditch, a number of features survive that may represent the remains of a timber palisade, pits and post holes, giving us a lot of archaeology to investigate in the coming weeks.

Overlaid on the geophysics, it is clear that the pitch surface had almost entirely hidden the remains of the camp. However, the combined results have allowed us to see the whole outline of the fortifications for the first time in almost two millennia.

Excavation and geophysics results combined.

Excavation and geophysics results combined.

So, the pitch has been lifted and we now know that we have some amazing archaeology to investigate and a lot of questions to answer. Unlike Camp 2, which was somewhat irregular in its shape and construction, our camp is neatly laid out to a classic design. The ditch is larger and its backfill is dark and organic – this suggests that it filled up over some time as opposed to being deliberately backfilled.

Arran and Jane monitoring machine excavation.

Arran and Jane monitoring machine excavation.

If Camp 2 was a constructed as a practice exercise, was our camp a true marching camp? Did soldiers stop off here while marching beyond the frontier of Eboracum to the ‘barbarous north’? How long was the site occupied for? When was it built and demolished? Does any evidence of what was happening within the defences survive?

Over the next four weeks, the Dig York Stadium team will aim to provide some answers to our many questions about the site. We will post regular updates and detail each discovery as it is made, so you can follow us every step of the way!

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of our community volunteer team and all at YAT are happy to report that we are going to be rewarded with some fantastic archaeology. This will be a major excavation, shedding light on a period of York’s history that remains shrouded in mystery. This coming Monday, Dig York Stadium is go!

See you in the trench!


Ian, Jane and Arran. 3/4 of the Dig York Stadium team.

Ian, Jane and Arran. 3/4 of the Dig York Stadium team.


Study Sessions & Open Days

Community Stadium logo_ArranAs the old adage goes, archaeology is a mongrel discipline. Putting down roots in an era of 18th and 19th century antiquarian fervour, the practice was tempered by the application of more rigorous methodologies and scientific advances over the course of the past century. This progression eventually left us with the collaborative, inter-disciplinary process that we know today – a process that excavation is just one small part of.

The site as it presently appears. Image courtesy of @watertowers

The site as it presently appears. Image courtesy of @watertowers

At York Archaeological Trust, field archaeologists work alongside an array of specialists, from conservators and bio-archaeologists to ceramics experts and architectural historians. This not only allows us to extract as much information as possible from the material we deal with on-site, but also to consult as many resources as possible to help us consider the site in its broader context.

Throughout the Dig York Stadium community archaeology project, we have endeavoured to reflect this collaborative approach by involving our volunteers in each and every stage of our investigation of the site. From days spent carrying a magnetometer across a rugby pitch to trawling through old maps in the  Explore York archives, local enthusiasts have been integral to the process and we’re happy to announce an exciting new opportunity to get involved with the project.

On each Friday of our four week community excavation, we will be opening up the site to visitors between the hours of 11am and 3pm. The site can be accessed via the car park between the Waterworld site and the F1 karting building and tour guides will be on hand to show you our latest discoveries. 

Google Earth view of the site, the visitor entrance is marked in red.

Google Earth view of the site, the visitor entrance is marked in red.

In addition to this, archaeologists and specialists from York Archaeological Trust will be holding a series of study sessions on each Friday afternoon during the excavation. These will take place at the Huntington Memorial Hall ( between 1.30 and 3.30pm and have been designed to introduce people to the different ways archaeology can be discovered and analysed and some of the many ways that the findings of surveys and excavations can be presented.

The sessions will complement the Community Excavation but can also be enjoyed separately from it by anyone who is interested in learning how to research the past and tell new stories about it.

Session 1: 29th May 2015

Discovering archaeology: reconnaissance and landscapes

Exploring the Prehistoric and Roman archaeology of Monk’s Cross

Ian Milsted

Ian will introduce you to the techniques of discovering new archaeological sites and tell the story of how the Roman camps at Monk’s Cross were re-discovered. After a break, he will show how these camps fit in the wider Prehistoric and Roman landscapes of this part of York and introduce the research questions that inform the current excavation.

Session 2: 5th June 2015

Finding things: identifying artefacts in archaeology

Pottery and small finds identification and analysis

Anne Jenner, Nienke Van Doorn

Anne will introduce you to the Roman pottery of York and the region, looking at how and where different pottery types are made and used and what it can tell us about life in the Roman period. Nienke will introduce you to the different types of small find typically found in York and look these are identified and handled during the excavation process. These sessions will be run twice concurrently with a break to allow everyone to see both presentations.

Session 3: 12th June 2015

Putting together the story: archaeological analysis

Analysing archaeological information spatially and in sequence

Karen Weston, Gary Millward

Gary will introduce the process of taking all the carefully recorded information from the excavation and organising it into a sequence, He will then describe how we use dating and spatial information to understand this sequence and put together the story. Karen will introduce how to understand archaeological information spatially, using traditional methods and GIS to put together drawn records with the evidence from pottery and other finds and understand how the site may have worked.

These sessions will be run twice concurrently with a break to allow everyone to see both presentations.

Session 4: 19th June 2015

Telling the story: public interpretation of archaeology

Reviewing what we have discovered and exploring how to present it

JORVIK team, Ian Milsted

The JORVIK team will introduce the different ways in which archaeological stories can be presented to the public and will invite the group to start thinking about how to present the information from the excavation. Ian will present a brief summary of the discoveries made during the excavation along with the information gathered by the geophysics and documentary research sessions already undertaken.

These sessions will be free to attend, but spaces are limited and in high demand. Please contact to book a place.

Members of the Dig York Stadium geophysics team

Members of the Dig York Stadium geophysics team

We began this post by looking at the many different areas of research that make up modern archaeology. The Dig York Stadium study days are an opportunity to learn more about how these specialisms come together to bring us closer to the lives of the people who lived, worked and died in York before us.

Once again, spaces will be limited so get in touch with us at to get involved!

The YAT team will be on-site next week machine excavating the pitch and exposing the archaeology. From May 25th onwards, the shovels, hoes and trowels of our community volunteers will be called into action as the excavation begins. We will be putting detailed site diaries online at the end of each week and tweeting each discovery as it is made via 

Watch this space for updates!

– Arran, Jane, Ian and Toby

The Dig York Stadium Team