14 August, 2012

Post-Roman York: Castle Yard cemetery

York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain.  In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day. 

In between, the historical record is a blank.  There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-Roman York: the documentary evidence for a summary of the documentary records).  Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. In earlier posts I have discussed the headquarters building, the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth, and the inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill.

This post discusses the Roman cemetery and possible Anglian cemetery at Castle Yard.


Castle Yard

Castle Yard is, as its name indicates, located next to York Castle and the Castle Museum.

Map link here

The arrow shows the location of Castle Yard.  The scale is currently set to show the location in relation to the castle.  Zoom out to see the location in relation to the rest of the city, zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.

William the Conqueror built a timber motte-and-bailey castle on the present site in 1068, destroying hundreds of houses to do so.  The present Clifford’s Tower is the remains of the thirteenth-century stone keep, which was part of an extensive fortified site between the rivers Ouse and Foss. 

Castle Yard lies between Clifford’s Tower and the River Foss.  It lay outside the south corner of the Roman fortress, and was the site of a Roman cemetery.  The inscribed stone sarcophagus of a centurion of the Sixth Legion, Aurelius Super, set up by his wife Aurelia Censorina, was found in Castle Yard in 1835 (Ottaway 2004, p 60).  Construction of a drainage trench in 1956 identified four more burials, one of which was another inscribed stone sarcophagus, this one for Julia Victorina, wife of a centurion named Septimius Lucianus who had previously served in the Praetorian Guard (Russell 2008, p 17).  Castle Yard may have been a military cemetery serving the centurionate.

In 1828, a hanging bowl and two pottery vessels were found in Castle Yard during construction of the new county gaol.  The pots have since been lost.  The hanging bowl is beautifully preserved, suggesting it may have come from a grave (Tweddle 1999, p 232-3).  A date of the early seventh century has been suggested (Tweddle 1999, p 172).  It is now in the Yorkshire Museum.


Hanging bowls typically occur in high-status ‘Anglo-Saxon’ graves in what is now eastern England. Their original function is unknown.  See my earlier posts on hanging bowls for a discussion of their occurrence and speculation on their possible function(s). 

There is no further information on the context in which the Castle Yard hanging bowl was found, so it is impossible to say whether it came from a grave.  It seems likely, since this is the most common context for hanging bowls, but not proven.  If it did come from a grave, it could have been either as grave goods in an inhumation grave, or as the container for a cremation burial.  The ship burial at Sutton Hoo (an especially magnificent inhumation grave) contained a hanging bowl.  A later excavation on the site of the nearby visitor centre found a cremation burial contained in a hanging bowl (Sutton Hoo Society; Pollington 2003).  

It is perhaps slightly more likely that the Castle Yard hanging bowl was the container for a cremation burial, since no other finds were mentioned and an inhumation burial rich enough to contain a hanging bowl might have been expected to contain other grave goods as well.  If the pots (now lost) were originally cremation urns, this would be consistent with an Anglian cremation cemetery on the site.  However, as nothing is known of the pots, this is speculative.


The hanging bowl from Castle Yard is consistent with the presence of a high-status Anglian burial.  This may indicate an Anglian cemetery in or near the site of the Castle Yard Roman cemetery.*


Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.
Russell, B. Sarcophagi in Roman Britain. Available online.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

Map links

*In Paths of Exile, I imagined that in 604 there was a small and short-lived royal Anglian cemetery on the site of the old Roman cemetery at Castle Yard, established towards the end of the sixth century and consisting of cremation burials under mounds.  This was based on Mounds 5 and 6 at Sutton Hoo (both cremation burials under mounds, one of which was in a thin-walled bronze bowl that could have been a hanging bowl), and the cremation burial in a hanging bowl found under the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo.  There is weak evidence that these burials pre-date the ship burial, so the rite seemed appropriate for a high-status cemetery at the end of the sixth century.  The Castle Yard hanging bowl is the only evidence for this (I imagine it as a container for one of the cremations).  There is no evidence of burial mounds on the site, but the construction of the castle would have involved extensive earthworks that would probably have obliterated any traces, even if the earlier Anglo-Scandinavian town had not already done so.


Rick said...

I suppose that the underlying (ahem!) question is whether the site was used in Anglian times because it retained traditional associations, or simply because it was conveniently located and not much use for anything else.

(And the intermediate case where you know a place was a burial ground because digging there turns up bones - and so use it the same way, but with no particular sense of 'hallowed ground' or felt link with the earlier use.)

Not related to the main point, but did Billy the Bastard's motte & bailey castle really cause demolition of 'hundreds' of homes? Medieval urban house lots weren't spacious, but how big was that first-generation castle?

Carla said...

I suspect that's a question that can't be answered from the available evidence. Roman cemeteries with mausolea or above-ground stone sarcophagi would have been clearly visible, so their location could have been observed even without digging and turning up bones. I mentioned the many possible reasons why a cemetery site might be re-used in the post about the cremation cemeteries at The Mount - anything from continuity of use for religious, official or traditional reasons to simple practical convenience of geography or the standing monuments getting in the way of other uses. You takes your choice....

The 'hundreds of houses' comes from Wikipedia, and I haven't followed up the reference. It's by no means impossible, though. The Norman motte and bailey occupied the area from the confluence of the rivers Foss and Ouse up to about Castlegate/Coppergate. If you assume that the area right down at the confluence (beyond modern Bishopgate Street/Tower Street) was not used for housing because it was too subject to flooding for anyone to build houses on it (an assumption), there's an area roughly 300m by 200m between the rivers, the line of modern Tower Street/Bishopsgate Street, and Castlegate/Coppergate/King Street that could have been suitable for housing.

The excavated tenth-century Anglo-Scandinavian houses at Coppergate occupied plots 5.5m wide, and the houses themselves were about 15m long plus a back yard. I'm not sure how big the yards were. If you assume about 25m for total length of plot (a guess on my part) you get around 140 m2 per plot. To put that in context, Victorian back-to-back terraces had a density of about 150 houses per hectare (1 hectare is 100m x 100m), so that works out to about 66 m2 each, i.e. the Coppergate Anglo-Scandinavian houses were about half as tightly packed as a Victorian back-to-back.

If the area between the rivers, Tower Street/Bishopgate Street, and Castlegate/Coppergate was filled with Anglo-Scandinavian Coppergate-style housing before William arrived, you could fit roughly 420 plots of 140 m2 each into the area. Obviously, that's a very rough guess! But 'hundreds of houses' disappearing under William's castle wouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility.

Rick said...

Only on re-reading the post did I see the note at the end. Certainly 'reasonable inference' is a sufficient standard for literary use.

On Billy's castle, I retract my skepticism! The castle compound was larger than I expected.

Carla said...

Reasonable inference is often about all there is in this period. I do like to start from something, though :-)

The size of the castle may reflect using the area between the two rivers as a convenient ready-made bailey that only needed fortifying across the neck. That might have dictated a larger-than-average size. Or possibly the size reflects its importance, if William saw it as a sort of northern capital and major military base. Given that Anglo-Scandinavian York hadn't taken overly kindly to assorted southern English kings, he may have been anticipating a mailed-fist approach to the north and was getting the necessary infrastructure built to do it.

Rick said...

Reasonable inference is certainly better than nothing!

Didn't William, in fact, end up ruthlessly suppressing a Northern uprising some years later? And he might well have anticipated some such, given the context you note.

Carla said...

Yes, the Harrowing (or Harrying) of the North.

Anonymous said...

"This was based on Mounds 5 and 6 at Sutton Hoo (both cremation burials under mounds, one of which was in a thin-walled bronze bowl that could have been a hanging bowl), and the cremation burial in a hanging bowl found under the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo. There is weak evidence that these burials pre-date the ship burial, so the rite seemed appropriate for a high-status cemetery at the end of the sixth century."

What a lot of mileage I'm getting from having read that site report! The big ship burial at Sutton Hoo did indeed contain a bronze bowl which may have been a bearer for the ashes. But, adding weight to your theory, so probably did the other ship burial (which may even have been bigger, but was robbed) and I think three of the smaller mound burials there, which the excavator thought were earlier, since he (Martin Carver) believes that the ship burials were the last and grandest in the sequence. In all these cases, since they were robbed, we're going not on the actual objects but on tiny fragments of precious metal that could have belonged to such an object, left behind in the grave or the robbing trenches. But as long as they have been correctly identified, Sutton Hoo in its full form would fit perfectly with what you suggest here!

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - the reconstruction of the ship burial chamber in the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre has the hanging bowl hanging up on a peg on the wall of the chamber (see my photo in the hanging bowl post, so it doesn't seem to be seen as a container for ashes in that instance. Its fellow, found intact in excavations when the visitor centre was built, was a cremation container, though, as was the thin bronze bowl whose frgaments were in one of the robbed mounds. My interpretation is that exotic foreign copper-alloy bowls became used as fashionable cremation containers for high-status individuals as a posh replacement for the ceramic cremation urn, and that when inhumation burial came into fashion the exotic copper-alloy bowls were deposited along with the body as grave goods.