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Excavation: Period 6 Early Monastic Occupation

Cecily Spall and Nicky Toop

Period 6 - The early monastic period

The early monastic period relates to a group of features identified within the Blue Bridge Lane site, which date from the late 12th century to the early 14th century and succeed the scant evidence for post-Conquest activity (Period 5). This activity has been defined by the presence of a few principal ceramic wares - York Glazed Ware, Brandsby-type Ware and Beverley Ware - alongside the absence of Humber Ware and the presence of longer-lived coarse wares such as Gritty Ware. The presence of plain, peg and nib roof tile forms without brick, which also date from the late 12th century, was considered indicative of a Period 6 date. Further features with this ceramic profile, but which contained large amounts of used brick, wall tile and hearth tile, have been allocated to Period 7, since brick was not commonplace until the 14th century and is likely to have been in use for several years before disposal.

Activity of this date is much more intense than in the preceding period and clearly, this can be explained by the site lying within the precinct of St Andrew's Priory (founded between c.1195 and c.1202). Accordingly, occupation at the site is continuously dense until a period of decline after the Dissolution (Period 9A). The distribution of features suggests that particular areas were dedicated to different activities, characterised broadly as areas for rubbish disposal and areas for structural activity, with some evidence for continuity of use persisting into Periods 7 and 8. In succeeding periods, evidence for physical division of the precinct becomes clearer; however, during the early monastic period, there appeared to be broad zones of activity, possibly suggesting deliberate organisation of space, but no clear physical markers were identified.

Timber and stone buildings have been identified, which may be associated with a high standard of living and rich food consumption, as suggested by the animal bone (see The Animal and Fish Bone). The area of investigation was situated at the extreme south of the precinct and appeared to have been consistently used for refuse disposal. This may indicate that Blue Bridge Lane features contained the food refuse, which was lacking from earlier excavations of the claustral range. The structures are dealt with in detail below; the intercutting pits, however, have generally been grouped together for the purposes of narration, with shared characteristics and unusual features discussed in more detail.

Location of Period 6 features (Interactive SVG image)

Period 6 Structures

Structure 2

The following features were considered to belong to a stone building allocated Structure 2: stone wall foundation F543B, and construction cut F551B. Unfortunately, the structure was encountered at the easternmost limit of Intervention 24, and no intact floor levels were encountered to the west. It is assumed, on the basis of the uncovered plan, that these floor levels exist beyond the eastern limit of the intervention and that the area investigated represented the ground outside of the building. Stone wall foundation F543B consisted of a right-angled rubble-built mortar-bonded limestone wall foundation. The footing was visible for a length of 1.20m x 0.80m and survived in places up to three courses (c.0.20m) high and constructed in a foundation trench, F551B; the missing superstructure had apparently been robbed during Period 7, represented by robber trench F545B. Dateable material recovered from these features consisted of a sherd of York Gritty Ware from foundation trench F551B, and a sherd each of York Splashed Glazed Ware and York Gritty Ware in robber trench F545B.

Plan of Structures 2 and 3 (Interactive SVG image)

F551B pre-excavation

F551B pre-excavation

Too little of the structure was encountered to permit much by way of interpretation, although the choice of building material would suggest a building of enhanced construction, status and therefore, possibly function. This, and the location of the building, makes it seems likely that Structure 2 represents an ancillary building within the monastic range.

Structure 3

Structure 3 was allocated to the remains of a timber building and consisted of a length of beam slot (F552B) and postholes F548B, F549B/F553B, F550B and F554B, all of which were contemporary with floor F547B. Beam slot F552B was orientated north-south and was visible for a length of c.1.0m, cut away to the south by a concrete stanchion base, F542B. The feature comprised a shallow, steep-sided, flat-bottomed linear trench and dateable material recovered from the deposit consisted of a lozenge-headed pin dateable to the 11th or 12th century. The beam had been robbed during Period 8 and it is assumed that the building included a superstructure that was still visible at that time, well after the building's abandonment, since the robber trench was cut through a thick pack of brown humic soil, C2156B. Without an intact superstructure, a beam in slot F552B would have remained undetected and unsalvaged.

Associated postholes were positioned to the east of F552B and were all well-defined and square in plan, suggesting squared timbers were used in the building's construction. Evidence for contemporaneity took the form of posthole construction cuts sealed by the clay floor layers, which appeared to have abutted the posts. Dateable material recovered from the floor layers included York Gritty Ware, York Splashed Glazed Ware and Staxton Ware.

Overall, the dearth of dateable material recovered from Structure 2 and Structure 3 has made allocation to Period 6 problematic. Pottery from the make-up of floor F547B could belong to Period 5; however, it is considered to be residual, and the construction and occupation of the building could well have been in the late 12th century. The dress pin with a lozenge-shaped head from beam slot F552B can also be generally dated to the 11th to 12th century (see The Metal Objects). While timber structures of this date were encountered at 46-54 Fishergate, no building in stone took place until Period 6a, with the erection of the monastic church and claustral range. Since elsewhere, so little Period 5 occupation has been convincingly identified, these structures have been allocated to Period 6, not least because of the known developments elsewhere within the monastic precinct.

Precinct zonation

Elsewhere, possible structural activity is present, but more diffuse, represented at the western end of Intervention 15 and within Intervention 28, by a total of sixty-six postholes, some of which can be allocated tentatively to Period 6. Nonetheless, as a group the postholes are difficult to place within the sequence and, with the exception of five features, are simply cut into subsoil and sealed by the Period 9A orchard soil or its equivalents. The posthole group includes the following features: F158B to F161B, F231B, F271B, F274B to F283B, F285B, F287B to F290B, F292B, F294B to F297B, F299B to F302B, F304B to F308B, F311B, F313B, F315B, F317B to F324B, F326B to F328B, F337B to F340B, F342B, F343B, F345B, F346B, F350F, F398B to F400B, F507B, F513B, F527B, F569B, F572B and F573B. Some of these features are presented in Period 6, but could belong in multiple combinations to Periods 6, 7 or 8; occasional soil spreads indicate sequence, but dating material from these spreads was considered generally unreliable, and the majority of the features betrayed no particular arrangement.

Analysis of shared characteristics of these features was undertaken and suggested a possible circular structure formed by thirteen postholes (F281B, F299B, F300B, F304B, F306B to F308B, F313B, F315B, F317B, F318B, F320B and F322B), although other combinations of curvilinear and rectilinear alignments are possible. To the south of this circular arrangement, a possible but tentative semi-circular arrangement has been identified, and may represent a predecessor of the shifting structure (F271B, F275B, F276B, F278B, F301B, F302B and F319B). As a group, the postholes are positioned at the very limit of the monastic precinct, and, given their form and size, are unlikely to represent substantial or high-status domestic buildings. Instead, they may relate to smaller, possibly short-lived structures with an ancillary function such as shelter or storage. Unfortunately, no internal features, floor levels or clearly associated features have been identified, making function almost impossible to deduce.

Period 6 pits

Only two intercutting pits, F251B and F252B, were identified close to the suite of postholes, and are assumed to have been used for rubbish disposal during Period 6, confirming the structural nature of the area. Elsewhere, three principal clusters of Period 6 pits have been identified within Intervention 15, with more scattered features in others areas and interventions. The first cluster was identified in the southern area of the eastern part of Intervention 15 and included five pits (F284B, F481B, F489B, F503B and F504B), which appear to have been associated with several postholes (F491B, F483B to F485B and F493B). To the north, a third 'hotspot' was identified by the presence of proximate or intercutting features, which included F234B, F237B and F249B. These pit clusters cut into Period 5 features (F222B, F234B, F237B and F249B, and F489B, F481B, F503B, F284B). The third pit cluster is situated to the west and consists of pits F232B, F250B, F357B, and F459B and several surrounding postholes. Outlying pits within Intervention 15 were also identified as Period 6 features, F44B and F230B, and a suite of truncated Period 6 features was also identified in Intervention 22 and consisted of pits and possible cesspits (F395B, F396B, F418B, F430B and F439B) alongside several postholes (F419B, F429B, F436B and F423B).

Significantly, the contents of some of these pits contain the first indicators of a monastic lifestyle, including an iron stylus and an unusual one-piece elephant ivory comb with potential ecclesiastical connotations from pit F250B. The animal bone assessment identified relatively rich foodstuffs as compared with other periods on the site. These are indicators of higher-status occupation, and are thought to derive from Structure 2, Structure 3 or similar structures close to the main excavation area.

Elephant Ivory comb, artefact 2773
Elephant Ivory comb, artefact 2773
Elephant Ivory comb Elephant Ivory comb

Scattered pits allocated to this period do not fit easily into any clear distribution, although the function of some could easily be related to the early monastic building campaign to the north. A complex of features possibly relating to the storage and processing of lime mortar were identified (F4B, F189B to F191B and F393B). The principal component of the complex is represented by F4B, which was a large sub-square pit with vertical edges. Set into two corners of the eastern side of the feature were two postholes, F190B and F191B, suggesting that the pit had an associated structure set within it. The fill of F4B was identified as a pale yellow lime mortar which was rich in sand and held the impressions of straw within it. Another anomalous feature was F232B, defined as a sub-rectangular pit backfilled only with sterile mixed deposits of clayey silt, and the original purpose of the feature appears to have been to quarry clay.

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