Two days of digging around graves gave me a good insight into just how complex and important the work of the Crime Scene Investigators (CSI) must be. It also put me in mind of the International War Crimes Tribunal and the painstaking work that has to be undertaken, not only secure convictions, but provide dignity to the dead and answers for their surviving relatives.
One of the many reasons I moved to York was to experience its history and get involved with the York Archaeological Trust (YAT). I was fortunate to receive a 2 day Taster course as a birthday present this year. Following some very clear emailed joining instructions, I turned up for my first day with the correct equipment. New protective boots, long trousers, sunscreen, hat, lunch, juice and coffee. Aaron, the site coordinator provided me with the obligatory H&S briefing inside the beautiful All Saints Church, North Street, York. ‘Hard hat to be worn in the dig site, as well as high vis jacket. Watch where you stand, there are a number of exposed graves with human remains form the late C18 and early C19.’ He gave me an overview of the site and the historical context. In a small space there were over 100 bodies buried, many on top of each other. The YAT @ArchaeologyLive site at All Saints had been worked on since 2014. Aaron was not sure if YAT were going to be allowed to return next year, as the plan was to build over the site, leaving the adult skeletons in situ and reinter the children under the church. This was not a Roman or Viking site. Some of the skeletons had only been there less than 200 years. The burial records had been lost, but I was well aware that there would be relatives still walking the streets of York today.
The starting point is not doing a quick survey and then bringing in a digger to take off layers of soil, dive into the trench and start scrapping, as per Time Team. The site needs to be surveyed fully, finding the height above sea level, OS coordinates and compass points. I was shown the small piece of ground I was going to be excavating. I was going to lift some broken floor tiles situated between graves. Before starting to ‘dig’ I learnt how to take measurements, draw a representation on graph paper and write out a detailed report. Armed with a trowel, finds bucket, soil bucket and shovel, I set to work, very slowly. OK, so I didn’t find anything other than broken tiles and old animal bone. The bones were there as a result the butchery trade. The Shambles on the other side of the River Ouse where the butchers were located. The bones and skin were moved to Tannery Lane, on this side of the river, close to All Saints. The bones were then crushed where I was now digging. The smell in the area must have been terrible. The final part of the day was spent washing the finds from another area on site. The finds ranged from the obligatory tiles, to bone and pottery. The pottery dated from the early Norman through to the Tudor period. Some were the tiniest of fragments. All would be saved and stored. The find of the day was a part of a Scandinavian red deer comb. It was probably from the early Norman period. After all, the Vikings didn’t just leave when the Normans landed. The more interesting finds were separately bagged and labelled. The amount of evidence coming out of one finds tray was impressive. This would be one tray amongst thousands. The work is vital to allow people to understand exactly what had been found and what needed to be preserved. The Church, the owners of the land would decide what they wanted to do with the site. All finds would be kept for future academics, who may be researching similar sites and making links.
On the second day I went to the YAT laboratories in Aldwark, York. This is where items are preserved, not restored. Items are x-rayed, cleaned and preserved. Some of the preservation methods can take months or years, particularly in the case of wood items. Again, it is all about collating and preserving evidence. There is of course a cost to all this work. It is for the client to make the decision, based on recommendations. The lab had spent months on a large Iron Age find in Pocklington, East Yorkshire. It was a discovery of international importance and will advance our knowledge of pre-Roman society in Britain. After the lab, it was back to the dig site, for more measuring, drawing and finally excavation. Ok, I did not find much that was different from the previous day. I ended the day by sifting the soil from my work. Other people hit the jackpot with a Roman coin and pottery. I must have done a great job. I found, you guessed it, more bits of animal bone.
What has the 2 day taster course taught me, an awful lot. Archaeology is investigation, slow and methodical, just like working at the scene of a serious crime. It cannot be rushed. Everything must be recorded on paper and by photograph. It is all stored on computers. All finds are preserved and checked by experts to reveal, perhaps vital clues and information. It is about respect for the remains that lie in the ground, knowing that these skeletons were once flesh and blood. They were loved and were missed.
If you are student considering a career in forensic investigation or wider criminal justice then volunteering at the YAT is a great idea. It will provide you with many of the skills you need. If, like me, you simply have an interest in history and want to hold it in your hand, then take the opportunity. You will be helping to rediscover the past and preserve it for future generations to research and investigate. You will enjoy it.