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 https://digyorkstadium.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/dig-york-stadium-archaeological-background/

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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/22260522@N06/

SE facing view of the NE ditch. Image courtesy of @watertowers https://www.flickr.com/photos/22260522@N06/

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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/22260522@N06/

A kite’s view of the camp defences courtesy of @watertowers https://www.flickr.com/photos/22260522@N06/

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!

-Arran

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

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

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