Bones Abroad: York

Following my wonderful days with the Oakington Dig, I headed up north towards York. York is a city with a fantastic archaeological history, due primarily to its continued occupation. The city is between two rivers, the Ouse and Foss in North Yorkshire, England. Its first known occupation was during the Mesolithic period, around 10,000 years ago, and when it first enters written history during Roman conquest, it was occupied by a group known as the Brigantes. The city was first established in 71 AD by Romans, and Emperors HadrianSeptimius Severus and Constantius I all held court in York during their various campaigns. It declined following the exodus of the Roman Empire from Britain, and was later inhabited by Angles in the 5th century. York was the primary city of the Northumbrian kingdom in the 7th century, and it was during this period that the first Minster church was erected. In 866, York was taken over by the raiding Vikings and became one of their major ports until they were expelled in 954. When the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, York was quick to rebel and it was during this that the first Minster church burned down. During the 12th century, York became a prominent trading center and remained important until its decline during Tudor times. In the 1800’s, York became a major railway center and location for industry- especially chocolate! It is all these layers of history that make York such an interesting area to visit. You can walk along the Roman walls, while admiring Medieval buildings and be surrounded by the scent of chocolate.

Roman Walls of York, via Flickr user Jula Julz

York’s bioarchaeological finds are extremely interesting, though as a tourist you won’t be able to visit them exactly. One of the more recent finds was the York Gladiators, who were sensationalized by National Geographic. While it cannot be said that they were definitely all gladiators fighting in different styles as portrayed on the show, there was strong evidence to suggest they lead a hard lifestyle and encountered some unusual stresses- like potentially tigers. To learn more about the gladiators, York Archaeology has a good website with all the information on the remains and evidence. For a more hands on experience, you can actually walk the Roman walls of the city, a great way to explore. Within the gardens of the museum, you can even see a great display of Roman sarcophagi!

If it is the Vikings you are interested in, then head over the Jorvik Viking Center where they have remains from the Hungate excavation on display, showing you what the people from this period were like. Also at the center is a new exhibition on the plague. Like many cities in England, during the 14th century, York was hit hard by the Black Death and over half the local priests died. It was hit hard again in the 16th century, unable to prevent infection due to its position as a trade center and consistent contact with others. Grassy mounds below the city walls are rumored to be filled with the remains of those who died from the plague.

York minster is likely one of the most impressive buildings in the city, and also has some great archaeology to entice you inside. Due to its presence in the city for hundreds of years, there are many interesting burials within its floors including a recent discovery of the feet of a high status Viking and some Anglo-Saxon period burials. Numerous Saxon kings and archbishops are said to be buried within its structure, and it was even argued for a bit that King Richard III should be reburied there (though the minster backed the final reburial in Leicester). The undercroft of the cathedral is constantly revealing new secrets from its long history of use, and the crypt has the fantastic Doomstone, a 12th-century carving showing of a scene from the Last Judgement, complete with demons casting doomed souls into Hell, as well as other great gravestones and inscriptions.

Dick Turpin’s Grave in York, via Flickr user Matt from York

Finally, for the darker but more tourist side of York, you can always take part in a number of walking tours that will share mix ghost stories and dark secrets about the cities. Supposedly, this is one of the most haunted cities in England. It has quite an extensive list of hauntings that have occurred, and at the most haunted building- aptly named Haunted House, you can monitor for ghosts consistently on their live streaming cameras! Finally, make sure to visit the grave of Dick Turpin, a notorious highwayman who was executed in York and buried beneath concrete- potentially to prevent another ghost being added to the list.

I myself did not get too much time to explore the fantastic city of York as I was there primarily for research rather than adventuring; but I did get the opportunity to meet Holly Wright and others from Archaeology Data Service, an organization that provides high quality open access digital resources on archaeological material for research, learning and teaching. I have used the site quite often in my own research. This is an amazing service and quite valuable resource, so I was very glad to get the chance to meet the people behind it! Please check out their website and its many wonderful resources, including many cemetery sites and bioarchaeology information!

4 responses to “Bones Abroad: York

  1. Hi Katy I see you are enjoying York .Did you manage to get into the Yorvik Viking center. where the recreation of Viking peoples chattering and the smells of the time are quite realistic, even the sound of dogs barking. The York Minster has Roman excavations beneath which are fantastic. I come from England so have been to these places many times. Enjoy the rest of your research and thanks for this post.

  2. You brought up such lovely memories of York for me. I completed my MSc there and miss the city and all my mates tons. I wasn’t a huge fan of the chocolate smell though, but maybe that was because I lived so close to the factory =)

  3. York’s a great city and well worth exploration but it is misleading to assert that “you can actually walk the Roman walls of the city”.

    What you walk on are the medieval walls, some of which follow the line of some of the Roman city’s wall, and there are some sections where the lower courses are of Roman construction. Mostly the walls are medieval in both their line and construction.
    “The Danes occupied the city in 867. By this time the Roman defences were in poor repair, and the Danes demolished all the towers save the Multangular Tower and restored the walls.

    “The majority of the remaining walls, which encircle the whole of the medieval city, date from the 12th – 14th century, with some reconstruction carried out in the 19th century and later.”

    “…. very little of the extant stonework is of Roman origin, and the course of the wall has been substantially altered since Roman times.”

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