York Archaeology Trust's public archaeology project uncovers lost medieval church in York

By Sarah Jackson | 11 October 2013

An inclusive public archaeology project has discovered the remains of a lost medieval church in York.

a photo of an archaeologist working on a site
An Archaeologist at work on the lost medieval church St John the Baptist.© Courtesy York Archaeology Trust
The church of St John the Baptist, commonly known as St John-in-the-Marsh, was built during the early 12th century but was dissolved during the Reformation of the mid-16th century.

Until this summer the only clues to its existence were a handful of vague documentary and map references and part of a wall found 11 years ago by York Archaeological Trust.

These two tantalising clues were enough to make finding the lost church of St John’s a top priority for the Trust's Archaeology Live! summer 2013 training programme.

“The first detailed maps of York don’t start until the middle of the 17th century," says Peter Connelly, the Trust's Director of Archaeology.

"Ever since then there has quite literally been a mark in the landscape which says ‘St John’s Church is here’ but nobody has been able to say that’s exactly where it is.”

That is until now. A team of professionals, student trainees and archaeology enthusiasts uncovered fragments of three of the church’s walls during the 12-week excavation over the summer.

Since 2006, Archaeology Live! has worked closely with Hungate (York) Regeneration Ltd, the firm currently redeveloping the area. They have allowed the team to excavate a large area of Hungate as part of the development process, even providing walkways to grant the public access to the site.

a photo of a man in a hard hat on an archaeologcial dig
© York Archaeology Trust
It is the largest area of York to be excavated for more than 200 years – three times larger, in fact, than the Coppergate excavation, now the site of JORVIK Viking Centre.

The parish of St John’s was one of the poorest in the city, which was why it was eventually dissolved. But this doesn’t mean that the discovery is insignificant.

“A lot of archaeology does tend to gravitate towards the big, the famous, the rich, the important, leaving the smaller, the poorer untouched and uncared for," admits Connelly.

It’s these poorer, smaller traces of the past that are more easily rubbed out – or, more accurately, recycled. It’s likely that most of the good stones used to build the church would have been reused in nearby later buildings.

The discovery of the foundations of the church will now enable archaeologists to develop a better understanding of York’s archaeology and discover how much of the church actually survives.

Archaeology Live! resumes this month to discover more about the church – in particular the eastern side. A later wall was laid over the foundations, which archaeologists will carefully dismantle in order to learn more about the eastern end of the church.

For the past 12 years, Archaeology Live! has been teaching members of the public archaeological field techniques and excavation skills whilst actually working in the field alongside professionals.

“It’s a brilliant way for people who might be going to study archaeology at university or are currently studying, or thinking about changing career - or have watched many, many episodes of Time Team - to have a go at it,” says Connelly.

Past participants have ranged in age from 16 to over 80 years old, hailing from every continent in the world except for Antarctica. Most are British.

Peter believes that the huge global interest in Archaeology Live! is down to two factors.

“York is very attractive to the archaeologist and anybody who is interested in the history and archaeology of Britain,” he explains. “Outside of London it really has the best urban stratigraphy.

“Archaeology Live! as a training course has got a good reputation. People come because of that reputation. I think that, put with York, is always going to be a winning combination.”

Unlike class-based training schemes, Archaeology Live! offers members of the public the opportunity to make real archaeological discoveries themselves.

“That’s the great thing about the project,” adds Connelly. “When you start to get something like [the discovery of the church], it’s not suddenly the professional archaeologists who come along and say ‘Right, you lot just move to one side, we’ll do it’.

“It’s all part of the process. So the trainees get to make discoveries along with the placements and the professional archaeologists; they work together as a team.”

Although Archaeology Live! will return next year at a new site in York, this October will be the last chance to excavate in Hungate.

There will be a free open day held at the Hungate site between 10am-3pm on Saturday October 19 (as part of an archaeological training weekend), allowing the public to see the church close-up. The next week-long Archaeology Live! course at the site begins on October 21.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

a photo of foundations of an archaeological dig
The south east corner remains of St John the Baptist Church.© York Archaeology Trust
a photo of a wall and foundations on an archaeologcial dig
Part of the nothern wall foundations of St John's Church.© York Archaeology Trust
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