We DIG St Oswalds

WIn August 2021, York Archaeology held our 18th Archaeology Live! training excavation at a brand-new site in Fulford. With the Archaeology Live! mantle now being used for our summer festival of archaeology, this marked the final time the training dig would go under the name.

This excavation also marked another departure for the project, being the first season to be held outside of the famous old walls of York, but the new site did not disappoint!  Join us for a glimpse into the story of an enigmatic complex of lost post-medieval buildings – buildings with a far earlier origin…

The following tells the story of the dig as it unfolded, and has been entirely written by the individuals that funded and carried out the fieldwork and reporting. If you would like to read the full archaeological assessment report, the PDF can be downloaded free of charge here

Right, over to the Archaeology Live! 2021 team!

Introduction by Gideon Fireman

Do the mysterious, long-demolished Well House buildings of Fulford have a deep history? The site is close to water; the River Ouse flows by and a spring runs nearby too. An ancient path passes the site, heading down to a ford across the river and there’s been a church there for centuries. It all adds up to this area of Fulford having been an important place for thousands of years – and here’s the mystery!

The first record of the Well House buildings only came in 1710, when they appeared in the background of a drawing of the old church of St. Oswald’s.  From then on, it was all about the church and the story of the Well House buildings began to fade away. We know the buildings were demolished between 1869-70, and that is about it. St Oswald’s Church become a private residence in 1980, and this mystery of the Well House buildings has intrigued the current owner, who wants to know more. 

He got in touch with York Archaeology and asked for help.  We love a challenge, so we set up a dig.  Read on to find out what we uncovered…

Dig Diary - Trench 1 by Sam Taylor and John McMillan

Our story begins with the de-turfing of what would become our trench. When the first shovels broke ground we felt it was quite a momentous occasion, yet our joy was almost immediately challenged by the appearance of a plastic netting that covered our entire 2m x 2m trench; not only that, but it appeared to go extensively beyond, meaning we’d need to cut it out and remove it before our digging could commence in earnest. We used all manner of tool in our battle against the ever-persistent netting, yet in the end we overcame it and were free to continue our excavation.

Our efforts were quickly rewarded as the ground just beyond the netting proved replete with interesting finds; many pieces of pottery and glass were picked up in quick succession and our hopes for the site were renewed. The soil was proving as unrelenting as the netting, however, and with the combination of compacted, stony ground and frequent, thick tree roots, we were forced to resort to using our mattocks to break ground. Despite the heavier approach, the finds only seemed to grow more interesting, as we soon found part of a resin tobacco pipe stem, luckily untouched by the mattocks. Not long afterwards we discovered perhaps one of the most unique finds on the site – a complete pocket knife with a possible antler handle. However, not to be slowed by our early successes, we continued on with our work on the trench. 

Dicovering more finds

Much to our disbelief, the ground seemed to become even more compacted but we were still discovering many interesting finds, ranging from clay pipes to yet more pieces of pottery. Interestingly, we also found two flat pieces of micaceous sandstone, which may well have been flagstones, making them useful finds in our search for a lost building. This point in the dig also marked the point at which we discovered some more ancient finds, specifically sherds of medieval green-glazed pottery and roof tile. It was around this time that we made the decision to split the existing trench in half to focus our efforts on the side we believed would herald more telling discoveries. 

Continuing on the existing trend, the ground became even more compacted as the rock fragments and pebbles increased in number. Little did we know that we were fast approaching the most important level of our trench as the ground we were breaking through was the fill of an older cut excavated in the 19th century. The rate of our finds decreased steadily as we continued further downwards towards the main focus of our work.

Things begin to make sense

It was after we had excavated our way through perhaps one of the most compacted layers yet that we discovered a potential reason – that the area we had been digging through was the infill of what may have been a robber cut to retrieve bricks from a wall. The existence of the robber trench was evident to us through the signs of bricks having been pulled away from an underlying structure which still survived around half a metre underground. This provided further evidence that the intact brickwork we had just reached at the base of the robber cut were part of a larger wall possibly connected to the Well House buildings. At the time there was a lot of speculation about what part of the Well House buildings this wall belonged to, as it seemed too thin to be one of the main building walls.

Once the dig was over and our phase of digitising paperwork was underway, we were able to overlay our trench location on plans for the Well House buildings, revealing that the wall discovered appeared to occupy a corner space of the southernmost structure. However, given the wall was only one brick in width, it seems more likely that this wall belonged to an outbuilding or adjoining wall rather than as a wall of the main building.

Now we have an idea that there is surviving evidence of the Well House buildings in that area, the chance to conduct another investigation into that area could yield a more complete picture of what remains of the Well House buildings. With the chance to dig again, there is room to excavate the area where the building interior was, which could shed new light on the site as a whole and how the buildings were used.

Trench 2 by Chris Orriss

Being located in a flowerbed, Trench 2 lacked the layers of turf and compacted earth that made Trench 1 such a challenge, so hopes and spirits were high as we broke ground! Excavation of the topsoil revealed a mixed subsoil deposit which contained an encouraging mix of 18th and 19th century ceramics (always a positive sign when you’re looking for buildings of this date!). The next layer was a thin scatter of mixed rubbly material which overlaid a rather less glamorous discovery – a modern service trench. Joy. 

All was not lost, however, as our focus turned to the north-eastern end of the trench where a deposit of rubble had now been exposed. Did this layer of brick, mortar and concrete rubble represent the final moments of the Well House buildings?

As work continued, it didn’t take long to answer this question with a resounding yes! To our delight, a brick wall footing was revealed beneath the demolition horizon, close to the edge of the trench and just 0.70m below the surface. The wall was built using brickwork dating to between 1750 and 1850, which fits the date of the Well House range perfectly; it was also possible to investigate what appeared to be a foundation layer beneath the wall. 

This was a very exciting discovery as it proves that not only do remains of the buildings survive in this area of the garden at an accessible depth, but underlying deposits are also in reach. This means that future investigations may be able to get dating evidence from deposits pre-dating the post-medieval incarnation of Well House.  

Want to explore Trench 2 yourself? Check out the 3D model below or check it out on our SketchFab here!

Trench 3 by Pandora Thoresby and Dan Yates

Trench 3 was challenging. Allan, the owner of the property knew that the Well House buildings were located somewhere below what is now a Victorian cemetery so we had to carefully mark a 1x1m square trench in what appeared to be a gap between the many graves. To get the excavation under way, we started to clear the topsoil and immediately began to find fragments of ceramic building material (CBM) which we suspected may be evidence of demolition materials relating to the Well House buildings. 

As we dug further into the trench; more CBM was found which we believe dates from the 19th century – including a fragment of later 19th century fish scale roof tile marked “Hornsea”. We think this relates to the retiling of the church roof immediately after the demolition of the Well House buildings. At this time, we still reckoned we were digging through the demolition materials similar to the previous layer.

We then began to dig through thick layers of firm clay and started to come across fragments of mortar. However, though we believed that we were still digging thorough post-demolition materials, we decided at this point to start sieving the excavated soil in the hope that more interesting finds would begin to reveal themselves…which we’re excited to say they did! 

What did we Find?

Sherds of various types of 18th-19th century pottery which included: tin glazed earthenware, Banded Slipware, Creamware and Transfer ware pottery were found in this somewhat messy layer. Animal bones – specifically two fragmentary ribs from a small mammal and a tibia believed to be from a Goose were retrieved. We also found an Oyster shell and two fragments of clay tobacco pipe (19th-20th century). However, the standout find was the base of a 3rd-4th century Roman Nene Valley colour coat beaker. This naturally generated an air of excitement amongst the team as we pressed on to the next layer of the trench!

To our delight, the next layer unearthed further fragments of mortar and CBM. However, as we dug deeper, the team battled against an onslaught of thick tree roots which made the excavation physically challenging. This was made worse by a deluge of torrential rain – temporarily halting the dig. However, once the rain subsided we recovered several bricks dating between the 13th-14th century as well as another sherd of 19th century pottery.

It would not be until our fifth layer that we finally found potential evidence of the Well House buildings. The team discovered two structures of a single course of red brick running parallel with each other and held together by mortar. The structures were running north-west/south-east and had a gap in-between them. We estimate that these bricks date between the 16th – 18th centuries so we interpreted this structure to be some sort of primitive drain associated with one of the Well House buildings. Based on the type of brick used we believe that they were possibly repurposed from an even earlier structure to construct the drain. What intrigued our team more was that the bricks seemed to be laid on a bed of fragmentary cobbles?

Wrapping up the Dig

Naturally, we were keen to investigate further. We trawled through a small layer of gritty soil and discovered more animal bones; namely a metapodial of a cat, a rib of a small mammal and the vertebra of a large, juvenile mammal. We then finally came down to what turned out to be a scattered cobbled surface. 

Unfortunately, due to the time constraints of the excavation we unable to dig further, however, during the post-excavation stage of our investigation we have since used GPS technology and combined our excavation data with the last known map of the Well House buildings from 1852. This revealed that the unearthed brick structures align near-perfectly with the placement of one of the Well House buildings, possibly serving as drainage below the floor of a stable block.

We strongly believe that the evidence found in Trench 3 and the other two trenches on-site warrant further investigation given that there is still much we do not know about the Well House buildings, however given the close proximity to the Victorian grave yard and the previous burials associated with the church, we would have to plan very carefully and determine the best areas to conduct future excavations.

Final Thoughts by Arran Johnson

The 2021 season was an exciting break from the norm for York Archaeology, and proved that it is possible to excavate, record and write up as site in just two weeks! This is a system that we may well return to in the future as it offers participants a comprehensive introduction to how we carry out our site investigations.

Perhaps more importantly, the project also successfully answered the main research question of the excavation – remains of the Well House complex do indeed survive below the Old St. Oswald’s churchyard. The fact that these remains are located in accessible areas is a significant discovery as we now know that there is scope to reveal much more of the buildings and to learn more about when they were built, how they were used and what it may have been like to live, visit or work there. 

Us archaeologists love a good mystery. While our excavation may have solved one of the site’s many riddles, it has only piqued our curiosity and we look forward to returning to the site in the future to learn more about the lost stories of Well House.

Special thanks to Allan Francis, Chris Rainger and the Fishergate, Fulford and Heslington Local History Society for their support for the project!