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Artefacts & Environmental Evidence: The Human Bone

Malin Holst HND BA MSc

1.0 Introduction

Between August 2000 and March 2001, Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd (FAS) carried out an excavation in the grounds of Fishergate House, 350m to the south of the city walls and Clifford's Tower (NGR TF 0845 4367), prior to a housing development. A previous evaluation of the site, undertaken in 1995 by the York Archaeological Trust, had revealed the feet of a single skeleton in a test pit, and it was concluded that a number of skeletons would be encountered during the full excavation of the site. When the first excavation area was opened in August 2000 (Intervention 1), it revealed densely packed skeletons, with many intercutting graves. A total of 158 individuals were recovered from this area. Two further trenches were excavated to the west and south of Intervention 1, one of which encountered a dense concentration of juveniles and infants (Intervention 2; 40 individuals excavated), while a third trench to the south of Intervention 1 produced mainly adults (Intervention 4; 46 individuals). A total of 244 inhumation burials were excavated and recovered from the site.

Both adults and children were buried together, in no apparent order, and all skeletons with the exception of one neonate (C1013) were buried west-east, supine and extended, with their hands beside or on the pelvis. The burial position of the majority of the dead suggested burial in a shroud, although few shroud pins were recovered. A small number of individuals had been interred in coffins, which were identified by surviving coffin nails. Only three skeletons had been buried with artefacts: a middle aged female (C1230) was found with a scallop shell which had been suspended from her waist, a symbol usually associated with St James and with people who had undertaken the pilgrimage to his shrine in Santiago de Compostella in Spain. A further, older female (C1297) was found with a copper alloy ring on one finger, and a young male (C1267) had been buried with a copper alloy fitting decorated with a cross.

One double burial was identified, containing two foetuses (C1356 and C1357), buried beside one another in Intervention 2, an area which contained almost exclusively children. The foetuses were 34 weeks old, and had been born prematurely.

At the time of writing, none of the skeletons have been radiocarbon dated; however, according to the stratigraphic sequence and dating of materials, as well as pottery in the layers and features above and below the cemetery horizon, the skeletons appear to be late medieval in date. Excavations at Blue Bridge Lane in 2001-2002 and at 46 to 54 Fishergate in the 1980s revealed the remains of the medieval Gilbertine priory of St Andrew's, situated to the north of Fishergate House. More than 400 burials dating to the medieval period were excavated in 1984. In 2001 to 2002, the precinct of the monastery was excavated. Evidence for craft activity within the precinct was encountered, as well as a ditched and probably fenced boundary between the monastic site and the road. The discovery of this boundary to the north of the Fishergate cemetery was important to the understanding of the relationship between the two sites, as it suggests that the Fishergate House skeletons were not directly associated with the monastery, but probably represented a separate cemetery. Furthermore, the skeletal evidence from the monastic cemetery and the burials from Fishergate House differs significantly, supporting the theory that both cemeteries served distinct groups of the local population. However, despite extensive documentary research by FAS and others, no church has so far been located on the site of, or in the vicinity of, Fishergate House. Tentative evidence exists for the hospital and church of St Helen's, which was founded in 1399 and was situated on the opposite side of Fishergate, but its exact location is unknown. Additionally, a chapel of St Catherine and a maison dieuof St Christopher are believed to have been located in the vicinity of the site. It is possible that the Fishergate House cemetery was associated with one of these religious institutions. Another possibility is that the Fishergate cemetery was associated with the Gilbertine Priory, and was dedicated to York's poor inhabitants, although there is currently no evidence to support this.

During January and February 2000, a small evaluation trench dug at Marlborough Grove (Trench A), revealed three skeletons (FAS 2000). The burials were densely packed and were the subject of an in situ osteological assessment, resulting in the identification of two adults and one juvenile. These burials were located approximately 45m to the west of Intervention 1. This evidence, in conjunction with a lack of burials in the southern part of the Fishergate House site, suggests that the cemetery ran in a narrow strip from Fishergate towards the River Ouse.

As well as the medieval inhumation burials, four Roman cremation burials were excavated at Fishergate House, all of which had been interred in well-preserved cremation urns. The vessels and accompanying finds suggest that the burials dated to the 1st to early 2nd century AD. Two of the graves contained double burials, including the remains of a juvenile and an adult. The two individuals may not only have been buried, but also cremated together. Two further burials contained the cremated bones of a young child.

Grave goods associated with the cremation burials included glass and accessory pottery vessels, as well as animal bone. Antiquarian accounts from the 19th century report the presence of Roman cremation and inhumation burials along a Roman road, which followed the approximate course of the current alignment of Fishergate (RCHM 1962, 69).

A further urned Roman cremation burial was discovered in spring 2002 at Blue Bridge Lane (Intervention 22). This burial was located to the south of the current Fishergate road alignment and contained the remains of an adolescent. This burial was analysed together with those from Fishergate House, and is included in this report.

A large quantity of disarticulated bone (8,072 bone fragments) was found in a number of graves as well as later intrusive features. The results of the analysis of this material are included in this report. Furthermore, a small quantity of human bone was recovered from non-funerary features at Blue Bridge Lane dating from the Roman period to the 19th century. These assemblages were analysed together with the human remains from Fishergate House and are discussed below.

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