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Excavation: Late Monastic Industry

Cecily Spall and Nicky Toop

Period 8A - Reclamation of the industrial landscape

Period 8A is characterised by a large landscaping operation, possibly in response to the deterioration of the environment during Phase 7B, particularly since much of it was concentrated over the area of the kiln and the quarry pits. Period 8 activity has been characterised by the presence of Ryedale Ware (which replaced the use of Humber Ware in York from the late 15th century), Cistercian Ware, and various stonewares, some of which were imported. A decline in activity has been identified after Period 7, when industrial activity reached a zenith on the site, and during Period 8A, the industrial landscape was reclaimed and landscaped, and the precinct demarcated by internal boundary features, the geography of which was to persist well into Period 9. For example, a small stretch of Period 8A boundary features was found to coincide with a Period 9A wall, built using reused medieval masonry.

The main Period 8A activity consisted of landscaping activity in the area of the kiln and was manifest as a series of rapidly accumulating levelling layers. A group of these deposits and dumps was allocated feature number F352B, since they were thought to relate to a terracing operation; in fact, these contexts represent importation of soils on a huge scale, in order to level the area of F58B. Throughout the site the importation of soils must have contributed to the high levels of intrusion in earlier features, which had subsided and were 'topped up' during Period 8A.

Location of Period 8A features (Interactive SVG image)

F352B consisted of a series of complex and rapidly accumulating deposits and dumps. The sequence of dumping suggests a progressive south to north order of deposition and in this particular area of Intervention 15, it seems that F352B was landscaped in order to prepare the area for boundary feature F219B.

Elsewhere throughout the main area of excavation, amorphous spreads of dark greyish-brown clayey silts, equivalent to the latest deposit of F352B, were defined and excavated. These deposits were quite widespread suggesting that this tidying up operation covered most of the area which had previously been used for clay quarry pits and spoil heaps.

Boundary features

Following the reclamation of the precinct from the heavy industry of Period 7, precinct demarcation was resumed and reinstated. Three principal features demonstrate this organisation, including the continuation of an earlier ditch (F208B); F219B, a north-south aligned linear feature, visible for a length of c.10.0m, spanning almost the entire width of Intervention 15; and F109B a possible ditch or terracing feature.

Period 7A ditch F208B appears to have persisted into Period 8A and may have been recut. Like Period 7A, F208B appears to have been palisaded, and evidence for posts along or respecting its length was present. Later backfills of the feature contained a sherd of Langerwehe stoneware; however, material from the final backfilling of F208B suggested that complete disuse of the feature took place during Period 9A, since a piece of early 17th century tobacco pipe was recovered. On this alignment a Period 9 wall (F64B) was constructed and suggests that by this time the precinct wall had become fossilised permanently in the post-medieval townscape.

Ceramic recovered from F219B indicates a Period 8A date for excavation and backfilling, although the position of this boundary persisted into Period 9; this continuity suggests longevity for F219B that is not reflected in the dating material recovered from it. Indeed, the arrangement of Phase 8B pits does appear to respect F219B as a feature, strengthening the possibility that it was backfilled slowly and formed a boundary marker for a significant time. A later possible post setting has been grouped with boundary feature F219B and consists of F220B and F221B.

Terrace F109B was defined as a linear, one-sided depression formed by a change in level, sloping gently from south to north for a distance of c.6.50m, close to the modern boundary wall of Blue Bridge Lane.

Period 8B - Light industry

The landscaping and precinct division of Period 8A was presumably undertaken to define specific areas of activity, and appears to have been succeeded by light industry, consisting of relatively casual metal-working, food processing and continued refuse disposal. Much of this activity can be assigned to two pit complexes, F77B and F78B, which provided the focus for craft activity and pit digging; elsewhere, more isolated features were defined and allocated to the period.

Blue Bridge Lane, location of Period 8B features (Interactive SVG image)

F77B pit complex

F77B was defined as a large sub-oval feature located to the west of Period 8A ditch F219B, which is likely to still have been visible or marked in some way. Upon excavation, it proved to be a working hollow and a number of working horizons were identified within the sunken area, interleaved with periodic backfilling. Several objects indicative of craft-working were recovered from F77B and include a bow from a pair of shears, a copper alloy sheet offcut, a possible auger or awl and several iron nails.

The excavated form of F77B consisted of a wide cut with gently sloping sides, thereafter becoming a steep-sided bowl to a total depth of 1.52m. The original excavation of pit F77B was followed rapidly by the introduction of redeposited subsoil which appears to have lined the cut of the pit. A distinct horizon of dark grey, charcoal-rich silty sand overlay this, and environmental assessment identified a large quantity of charred remains and high levels of fish bone, some of which was also burnt. It seems likely that this charcoal laden deposit derived from fish smoking or preservation, since the remains were identified as herring, a traditionally smoked fish. Close to pit complex F77B was a small feature identified as a severely truncated scoop F125/6B. What remained of the feature was a distinct deposit consisting almost entirely of small herring bones (C1580B and C1577B). The bones did not appear to have been digested, but rather discarded, and may relate to the fish smoking which appears to have been undertaken within nearby F77B. Indeed, most pits assigned to Period 8B contained an element of fish bone.

F77B north facing section

F77B north facing section

Following this episode of use within F77B, the fish-smoking deposits were partially capped, an act which levelled the deeper area of the feature. This deposit provided a sunken, but level, area for the activities which followed, represented by accumulating backfills, working surfaces and three distinct hearths.

The hearths, F334B, F358B and F391B, consisted of a sub-circular scoop filled with a variable dusky red, orange and black deposit of burnt silty sand, a scoop, filled with a primary deposit of burnt clayey silt and a series of reused upright bricks set in a burnt silty sand, which, although disturbed by later activity, appeared to have been sub-rectangular in plan. Environmental assessment of the primary hearth fills identified hammerscale charcoal, daub, charred grain and burnt fish bone.

F78B pit complex

This pit complex is dominated by the presence of a large rubbish pit F78B, which formed the focus for several intercutting features and similar pits nearby (F269B, F242B and F253B). F78B was identified as a large sub-square feature and was quadrant excavated with the northeastern and southwestern quadrants being removed first, revealing a substantial, steep-sided feature. Unfortunately, the quadrant sections became frost damaged overnight and collapsed before further recording could take place. Nonetheless dateable material suggested it was in use during Period 8B, and its general form was salvageable. Once backfilled, F78B was cut by a smaller, funnel-shaped feature (F269B) which upon excavation proved to have gently sloping sides to a depth of c.0.50m, thereafter narrowing to a 1.0m x 1.0m funnel with near-vertical sides. The form of F269B suggests a wide mouth and deep shaft, and may therefore be related to water collection; as such, it could well have served the surrounding casual and sporadic metal-working.

Once disused, water collector F269B and pit F78B were cut by two consecutive pits, F253B and F242B. F253B was identified as a sub-oval pit comprising a near-vertical cut, with an irregular, possibly stepped base. Initial backfilling was found to contain the remains of a cat and this deposition of rubbish appears to have been capped quickly with redeposited sandy clay subsoil, suggesting some attempt was made to maintain the area. F253B was cut in turn by pit F242B, which proved to be a shallow pit, with gently sloping sides, which had been backfilled on three occasions, presumably quite rapidly; dateable material recovered included several sherds of Hambledon Ware, Cistercian Ware and a sherd of possibly intrusive Black Glazed Earthenware were also present. A total of over seventy pieces of metalwork were recovered from the backfills of the feature, mainly from the possibly primary basal deposit C1528B. The objects recovered represented an array of late medieval items: two copper alloy scale pans, a dagger chape, barrel lock, scissors, lace chapes, pins, a pair of tinned-iron horse cheek-piece rings and over fifty-five pieces of structural ironwork. It seems probable that the contents of F242B represent scrap metal, initially intended for recycling, but discarded in the latest phase of monastic precinct industry.

Elsewhere within Intervention 15, scattered pit digging, postholes and makeshift hearths were identified and have been allocated to Period 8B. Some of these features constitute further pit digging, clustered around complexes F77B and F78B, and representing some of the latest features of the monastic period. Indeed, the pit complexes of F77B and F78B appear to lie within an area of concentrated activity during the latest phase of precinct use. The evidence for continued division and organisation which began in Period 7A to the west, might suggest this area of the precinct was specifically reserved for less industrial activity. Pits and postholes encountered in smaller interventions demonstrate that this activity was widespread throughout the precinct at this time, but are otherwise unremarkable. Within the smaller interventions, some features appeared to belong to Period 8B since they were directly overlain by orchard soils. Two shallow scoops were identified in Intervention 13, (F42B and F41B); within Intervention 22, a substantial well was defined and excavated, comprising a large construction cut and centrally placed well shaft (F434B and F403B).

As well as pits and postholes, hearths were identified. Hearth F178B was defined as a sub-oval feature defined by a concentration of plain roof tile which appeared to have formed a temporary hearth base. Upon excavation the feature proved to have subsided into underlying Period 3 pit F164B on its eastern side; the feature could conceivably have been set into a scoop created by the subsidence of F164B, particularly since F178B is otherwise an isolated feature with no apparent explanation for its location. Primary hearth fills consisted of reddish-brown clayey-silt and environmental assessment identified hammerscale, slag lead, iron and a copper alloy fragments as well as burnt grain and grape seeds. A small makeshift hearth was identified in the west facing section of Intervention 16 and was allocated F380B. The feature consisted of a thin deposit of reddish-brown slightly clayey fine silt floating between two substantial layers of brown clayey-silt which were not easily distinguished form one another. No dateable material was recovered from F380B, but the feature has been assigned to Period 8B, since it sits easily with other light industrial features belonging securely to Period 8B.

Small patches of cobbled surface also appeared to relate to Period 8B and may represent small parts of the latest surfacing of the precinct, since patches of cobbled surface survived in three areas of Intervention 15 and all represented the latest episodes of activity prior to the Period 9A orchard soils (cf. F208B, C1291B and F475B C2014B); however, there is no obvious agent of truncation to explain the expanses where no cobbles were present.


The cumulative finds from Periods 6 to 8 at Blue Bridge Lane have provided a valuable insight into a number of aspects of priory life, through investigation of the features and deposits at the southern extremity of the precinct. The environmental remains and personal items that were disposed of within this area provide a glimpse of priory life, in terms of the diet and dress of the inhabitants. The structural features identified provide evidence for the buildings and layout of this part of the priory precinct, and changes that occurred over time. The building materials recovered from refuse deposits provide a further glimpse, albeit fragmentary, into the physical appearance of the buildings in which the community would have dwelt and worked. The presence of a kiln provides evidence for the industrial enterprises of this community, and succeeded by much less ambitious industrial activity.

Structural remains

For the early monastic phase, clear evidence for occupation was present in the form of Structures 2 and 3, and the more diffuse, possibly circular, structure within western Intervention 15. These buildings were almost certainly part of the wider monastic complex, although sadly, their function remains unclear. The zonation of activity laid down in the early period appears to have set the scene for all succeeding monastic activity, apart from the short-lived investment in pottery production to which the entire southern precinct appears to have been surrendered. To the west, the dense posthole distribution betrays structural activity in the general area, while pit digging appears generally more clustered towards the eastern area. A projection of the medieval shoreline contacted by the YAT during the 1980s excavation suggests that the post-built structures were close to the river line and this area of the precinct may have been subject to periodic inundation rendering the area suitable only for intermittent use. It is even conceivable that the structures relate to exploitation of the river's resources, for which the priory was admonished during its lifetime (YCR 132).

Following the short-lived industrial phase of pottery production, the reclamation of the industrial wasteland in Period 7C also involved the deposition of considerable quantities of priory rubbish, which again provide valuable indicators into priory buildings, in the form of a large quantity of building materials. The roof tile, nails and other structural metalwork are likely to derive from alteration of buildings closer to the claustral range, if not the range itself. Other building materials took the form of painted wall plaster, painted window glass, rare examples of stone roof tiles and glazed floor tiles, as well as fragments of architectural stone reused in Period 9 features.


The contents of the early monastic rubbish pits have provided information on the priory that had been absent from excavations of the claustral range (O'Connor 1991, 230-232); refuse would have been disposed of at a distance from the main ecclesiastical core of the priory. Zooarchaeological assessment suggests a high-status diet was enjoyed by the canons and their associates during the late 12th to early 14th century. A wide range of taxa were identified as foodstuffs, and included the normal domesticates, supplemented with more exotic species such as rabbit and hare, wild birds including a number of duck species, partridge, golden plover, woodcock, blackbird and thrush. A reliance on fish was also detected and among the species enjoyed were cod/saithe/pollack, whiting, haddock, ling and salmon. Among the plant remains foodstuffs were detected and included barley. Artefacts belonging to this period were rare, but where present, provided reminders of the source of the priory rubbish, such as the iron stylus, elephant ivory comb and a jet cross pendant found residually in a Period 8 pit (see The Stone Objects).

The lack of scavengers within the early monastic animal bone assemblage and the absence of cess deposits identified during environmental assessment suggest a reasonably clean environment within the precinct during this period, providing further indicator that even the far reaches of the precinct were the subject of some degree of planning, organisation and maintenance.

A marked change has been observed in the diet and disposal practices of the later monastic period, from the 14th to 15th century. Zooarchaeological assessment indicates a much less varied diet; geese and cattle are common, while consumption of pigs is noted to have halved when compared to the earlier period. Beef, in particular, is thought to have been brought to the site from elsewhere, and where the different cuts of meat could be identified, it was noted that these were often of poorer quality. The ducks and wild game were much more restricted, represented by rare occurrences of mallard, teal, grey partridge and pheasant, while the importance of shellfish, which would have been readily available and inexpensive, appears to have increased, in particular through a higher consumption of oysters and mussels. The cheaper cuts of meat appear to have been consumed alongside fish, which were mainly herring. The fish-smoking feature identified at Blue Bridge Lane suggests that fresh herring were bought by the priory and then cured on site for longer-term consumption. It is likely that fish dominated the diet during this period, and contemporary documents from monastic institutions reflect this culture (Harvey 1993), so the fish smoking activities of the latest monastic phase is not surprising given the reliance on fish in the later medieval monastic diet.

The recovery of burnt grape seeds from hearth F178B represents an interesting indication of some access to fresh fruit, although perhaps unsurprising, given that some monastic institutions cultivated their own vines, and generally not for wine-making purposes (Harvey 1993, 60). Other evidence for diet in the later phases of the monastery suggests that access to fruit also included plums and blackberries and other remains suggest that diet was supplemented with other food stuffs including lentils and hazelnuts.

Personal belongings from the priory were recovered and included a cross-marked pebble, a possible item of book furniture, bone and iron styli, two bone rosary beads, a jet rosary bead and a possible jet rosary cross pendant. Less devotional was a roof tile incised with a crude chequerboard design, probably for gaming rather than accounting.

The cleanliness apparent in the earlier monastic period does not appear to have persisted into the later monastic period, demonstrated in particular by a higher number of scavengers represented in the animal bones, which included raven, red kite and black rat. This, with the lower quality food being consumed, indicates something of a downturn in the fortunes of the priory, and a lower general standard of living.

Medicine in the priory

Devotional objects recovered from the refuse pits were joined by some evidence for the practice of medicine within the priory, in the form of three glass urinals used in uroscopy (Tyson 2000, 149-151). The practice of uroscopy reflects knowledge of Hippocratic medicine and so would not have been commonly available, but significantly, other monastic infirmaries, such as Norwich Cathedral Priory, are known to have practised this type of medicine (Tyson ibid). This sign of an operational infirmary within the priory is not the first, since a member of the priory was found buried with a medical plate at the site of a knee injury (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2931). In addition, henbane seeds were preserved in Period 7 deposits, representing a highly poisonous plant, known to have been used in small quantities as an analgesic or sedative.

Although this represents only slight evidence, it seems likely that the priory maintained a garden to cultivate such plants as part of the infirmary. As expected, evidence for such gardens is not generally attested archaeologically, and frequently, the produce from kitchen gardens and herb gardens was not documented in the accounts (Harvey 1993, 60). However, it is widely assumed that many of the herbs would have derived from the infirmarer's garden that would have existed within monastic or priory sites (Harvey 1993, 84; Gilchrist 1995, figure 51).

Medieval pottery production in York

The monastic investment in industry during the 14th century is particularly noteworthy because it has presented the first remains of a medieval kiln in York to date. The only other evidence to date was provided by the excavation of Humber Ware-type wasters at Walmgate by YAT in 1978. This pottery was named 'Walmgate Ware' and is considered to date to the later 14th or 15th century. No evidence for a kiln was, however, recovered.

The structure at Blue Bridge Lane, like so many kilns, was very poorly preserved, and even the below-ground remains had been badly damaged by modern activity. The structure appeared to have consisted of a sub-square scoop with a small firing chamber capable of small, but possibly frequent, firings, producing a basic range of vessels in the Humber Ware tradition (see The Humber Ware). The associated postholes may relate to an associated division, or if the kiln form was open-topped, a shelter. Sadly, there is little more that can be gleaned of the original form and technology of the structure.

Clearly, a high level of investment went into the production of pottery, as the spread of associated features dominated the whole southern area of the monastic precinct. Not only would the general environment of this part of the precinct have been industrial, covered in spoilheaps, clay processing and puddling areas and huge open quarries, but the pollution present during kiln firing would have rendered the area useless for other activities. Bone assessment identified greater numbers of scavengers including ravens, red kite and black rat, suggesting a decline in the environment of the area during this period. The open quarries were used for the disposal of refuse, which probably attracted the scavengers. The quarries may also have been filled with water during the winter months, presenting something of a hazard. Cases of drowning in quarry pits, presumably larger that those at Blue Bridge Lane, has been documented, strengthening the case for a single-use precinct area at this time (J.Hudson pers. comm.).

The location of a kiln at Fishergate would appear to have been a measured choice, probably influenced by the on-site presence of useable York boulder clay, a ready source of water, a local market, and transport links sufficient to provide a regular fuel source, if not available locally. The production of tile and pottery by a monastic establishment is not surprising, and many references and excavations have provided evidence for custom-built on-site kilns, for example, Haverholme Priory, Lincs. and North Grange, Meaux, Yorks. (Eames 1992, 6, 9). Some evidence for pottery production was encountered during excavation of parts of the precinct of Bordesley Abbey (Astill 1993, 294). The presence of wasters and fragments of kiln furniture of locally sourced clay are thought to relate to the presence of a pottery kiln at the site during the late 13th century.

The pottery being produced at the site was a Humber Ware-type pottery, and the remains represent the first archaeological contact with a medieval pottery kiln in the city. An early to mid-14th century, or a mid-14th century to early 15th century date, would fit within the known date ranges for Humber Ware-type pottery. The latter date bracket would suggest that the putative Walmgate kiln may have been operating at the same time as that of Blue Bridge Lane, which may reflect wider trends of this particular pottery industry in York.

The assemblage of wasters found at Walmgate, reused as foundation hardcore, was thought to relate to the presence of a kiln nearby (Brooks 1987, 157). However, documentary examples of the sale of wasters specifically for use as hardcore exist from throughout Britain ranging from wallcore material at Windsor, underpinning walls and wharf foundations and repairing ovens, also including a reference to the Vicars Choral in York selling wasters for rubble (Moorhouse 1981, 107). Thus, it seems possible that the Blue Bridge Lane kiln is the first direct contact with the medieval potting industry in York. Indeed, the comparative dearth of wasters at the site might be explained by the resale of failed pots for reuse in other contexts.

Walmgate Ware pottery was recovered in some quantity from excavations at 46-54 Fishergate and it now seems likely that these vessels were the products of the Blue Bridge Lane kiln, rather than a product of the putative Walmgate kiln. Significantly, therefore, the Walmgate Ware vessels apparently in use within the claustral range (Mainman 1993, 590), may have been produced within the monastic precinct, and at it seems that at least some of the wares produced in the precinct were for monastic use.

Late monastic industry

The emphasis of the later monastic industry shifts from the production of pottery to relatively small-scale metal-working. This activity is represented by a few hearths containing hammerscale and slag, probably from the repair of objects and possibly from the formation of billets from scrap iron. More commonly though, metal-working evidence comes in the form of lost metal items, which betray activities undertaken. The hoard of scrap metal found in Period 8B pit F242B included an array of items both in copper alloy and iron, the broken and incomplete state of much of it suggesting that it was intended for scrap and recycling. In addition, horseshoe nails and occasional fragments of horseshoe suggest that a farrier may also have worked in that area of the precinct. Distribution analysis was undertaken on the waste metal and scrapped items, but no concentrations of activity were discernable apart from hammerscale and metal waste within the hearths.

The presence of both copper alloy scrap alongside iron objects suggests that skills beyond a simple blacksmith were present in the workforce, and that composite items may have been made. Similar items of lost metalwork were recovered in association with metal-working features at Bordesley Abbey, including an assemblage of scrap iron and non-ferrous metalwork, alongside evidence for tile-based metalworking hearths and possible water-powered manufacture of tenterhooks for cloth fulling (Astill 1992, 272-288). This level of sophistication cannot be advocated for the late monastic industry at Blue Bridge Lane, although its presence in an urban context is interesting. The Bordesley industry was such that surplus production was thought to have been used to engage in the local market as well as servicing the monastic requirements. For York, this may not automatically have been the case, since excavation at St Andrewgate encountered rich evidence for a thriving metal-working quarter contemporary with the industry at Blue Bridge Lane (Finlayson 2004), and the crafts encountered here may actually have been used by the monastic community and its guests exclusively.

The organisation of feature-types across the monastic precinct laid down during Period 6 appears to have been respected, perhaps not during industrial Period 7B, but are remembered and persist until Period 8B. The western area appears to have been given over to structures, albeit diffuse. Projection of the likely medieval shoreline derived from information at 46-54 Fishergate suggests that this area of the precinct was on the shoreline, and may have been liable to periodic inundation by the Ouse. It is even conceivable that the structures relate to exploitation of the river's resources, for which the priory was admonished during its lifetime (YCR 132). To the east, organised refuse disposal continued, interspersed with fish smoking and light industry, including farriery. The location of well F434B in Intervention 22 suggests that the choice of feature location was careful. As the only contemporary water source other than the probable potting water collector, F434B was set well away from refuse disposal areas and above likely water table contaminants, indicating that customary monastic water management was present at the site.


The opportunity to investigate a large area at the extremity of a priory precinct rarely presents itself; these areas are usually the first to be disused and developed, and have a much lower chance of surviving undisturbed than the ecclesiastical structures at the core of the foundations, where research has traditionally been focussed. As such, the archaeological remains on the Blue Bridge lane site provide valuable evidence, which complements information gathered from churches and cloisters, to provide a fuller picture of priory life.

The rubbish that was disposed of in this more peripheral area has provided an indication of the diet and accoutrements of the monastic inhabitants during the medieval period. Life seems to have been much more comfortable during the earlier monastic period; diet was varied and good quality, and the organised site seems to have been kept relatively free of waste. The documented patronage of powerful and wealthy individuals such as Henry Burghersh, Bishop of Lincoln, would doubtless have facilitated this standard of living, as well as necessitating the provision of good hospitality (Burton 1996, 55). Following a phase of short-lived, but intense industry, the whole character of this part of the site would have altered dramatically, as the smells, noises, spoil heaps and heat caused by the production of pottery would have dominated this wider area. Once this land had been reclaimed, evidence for light industry demonstrates the continuity in the use of space that has been noted for a number of successive periods, albeit on a reduced scale.

Again, the dietary evidence provides an insight into the changes that appear to have occurred amongst those who inhabited at least part of the priory site. Increased reliance on lower grade meat, and fish in particular, may indicate that the priory were less able to extract wealth (although this diet may pertain only to a craft-working element of society). This increase coincides with the documentary evidence suggesting that the priory exploited local resources; the reference to the priors' net being seized for 'wrong fyshcing' occurs in 1497.

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