Shedding light on York's Dark Ages

York Minster archaeology reveals importance of the city in ‘unknown’ era

Looking through guidebooks on York’s history, most people do not notice the 400 year gap between the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the arrival of the Vikings, but a series of finds made in an archaeological excavation below York Minster reveal a huge amount about the city during this mysterious period.

The centuries spanning the end of Roman Eboracum in 410AD and the arrival of the Normans in 1066 are commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, primarily because this is a period that historians know comparatively little about – although York’s rich Viking discoveries have helped fill in the 200 years from 866, when the Vikings arrived in York.  Even York’s rare wealth of archaeological heritage has provided few clues about the city’s makeup, population and importance during the Anglo-Saxon period prior to the Viking invasion.  However, an investigation by York Archaeological Trust (YAT) into a pit barely three metres square below York Minster has now revealed tantalising evidence of a major settlement – complete with its own mint.

The dig took place in 2012 in York Minster’s Undercroft as construction was underway on a lift shaft, which will provide access to a new underground visitor attraction, due to open this summer.  The shaft required the removal of concrete, laid in the 1960s as part of an emergency project to shore up York Minster’s central tower, which was at imminent risk of collapse.  Knowing that the York Minster site has been occupied for at least 2000 years, thanks to previous archaeology and other historical sources, archaeologists took every opportunity to explore the lift shaft further, digging down a further two metres into York’s past.

“When you consider the scale of the digs that were undertaken at Coppergate, Fishergate and Hungate in the last 50 years, this comparatively tiny pit was rather a gamble; although we knew that the archaeology around here generally offers rich pickings, a three-metre cube of soil might simply not have been large enough to find anything exciting,” comments Stuart Harrison, Cathedral Archaeologist for York Minster.  “We actually struck gold – and silver – by finding Viking-Age human bones, Norman foundations and an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon coin that reveals a huge amount about York during the early 9thcentury.”

The coin is a ‘sceatta’ – a silver coin which is approximately the size of a five pence piece.  Unusually, the coin was found in mint condition, with markings so clear we can identify that the moneyer was Eadwine, who is known to have minted coins for the Northumbrian royal court, and that the coin was minted for Archbishop Eanbald, who had connections to the famed court of Charlemagne.  Even more importantly for scientists, its unique metal content and condition confirmed the date of its manufacture and its loss as the beginning of the 9thcentury, allowing them to date the sealed deposits of dark earth (rotted organic material) around it.  Its condition indicates that it was probably never used – and given how quickly valuable coins were re-melted, this means it is likely to have been dropped close to where it was originally minted, very shortly after it was made, providing evidence for a mint very nearby – at this period of history, a rare commodity.

Although a number of other sceattas were discovered during the excavation of the Undercroft in the late 1960s, none were of the same mint quality as the 2012 find.  Indeed, an expert at the British Museum initially discounted the coin as a Victorian fake, before further examination – combined with the fact that it had been excavated from an undisturbed deposit four metres below the Minster floor– enabled him to authenticate the coin.

 “This tiny coin really helps us to understand what was happening in York at this period, which remains very mysterious.  The presence of a mint confirms York’s position of power and authority in the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria and, indeed, the country, during what has been thought of as a period of decline between the end of Eboracum and the start of Jorvik,” comments YAT archaeologist, Ian Milsted, who directed the dig.  “This mint, and the wealth that would have surrounded it, may well have bankrolled the Anglian city and possibly the establishment of the Viking city – perhaps attracting the Vikings who stole the money even as they burned Alcuin’s famous library, and then settled here and traded with the Anglo Saxon natives, eventually creating York’s famous Anglo-Scandinavian communities.”

A second significant find is of a pair of human feet from a mid-11thcentury burial – the later era of Viking Jorvik.  These feet were part of a body buried in a stone tomb,  the rest of which was destroyed during the laying of foundations for the medieval Minster in AD 1220.  Whilst there have been many finds of burials from this era around the city, the positioning of this body suggests an answer to a question that had puzzled archaeologists – whether the Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery on the site followed the line of an earlier Anglian cemetery.  These buried feet cut into the disturbed remains of earlier burials, suggesting that the cemetery was one continuous, extensive burial ground for generations regardless of whether the occupant was Anglo-Saxon or ‘Viking’ This reinforces the assertion that this part of York still had a substantial population from the 5thcentury, and that, through flood, fire or invasion one of the earliest of Britain’s religious sites flourished at the heart of its community between the 7thand 11thcenturies.

A more in-depth analysis of the Undercroft dig will be revealed as part of this year’s Jorvik Viking Festival celebrations at York Minster.  On Friday 22 February, Ian Milsted will lead a family-friendly talk about the exciting discoveries and how they fit into what we already know of York’s colourful history.  The presentation is free with admission to York Minster (£9.00 for adults, £8.00 for concessions and accompanied children go free), but places should be reserved in advance via the York Minster Box Office,

The discoveries will also feature in Revealing York Minster, exciting new interactive exhibitions, to be launched in the new Undercroft in early Summer 2013.  Dean of York, Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, comments, “The underground chambers will tell the 2000 year story of this site, from Romans through to the modern day, and it is wonderful that we’re actually making new discoveries to add new details to the story even as the attraction is being created – the story of York Minster truly is the story of York.”  The rare sceatta will be on display alongside other York treasures, including the Anglo-Scandinavian Horn of Ulf and the Anglo-Saxon York Gospels.

Further information on the archaeological discoveries beneath York Minster will be revealed in 2014, as archaeologists continue to research and interpret the finds to add more colour to York’s rich story.


Notes to editors:

Photographs of the Sceatta and feet are available (links available to the high resolution jpegs at the bottom of this page) from York Minster's online press room:

About York Minster Revealed

The York Minster Revealed project is a five-year project scheduled for completion in early summer 2016. It is the largest restoration and conservation project of its kind in the UK. The cost of the whole York Minster Revealed Project is £20 million, which includes the generous support of a £10.5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The remainder of the fund has been raised by York Minster.

State-of-the-art multi-media galleries, new displays of historic collections and interactive interpretation will create new learning opportunities for all ages, while improved access to the South Transept, Undercroft, Treasury and Crypt will totally transform the experience of visiting York Minster.

The most recent York Minster Revealed development, ‘The Orb’ was launched to the public in October 2012.  This includes a contemporary, elliptical stained-glass orb and interactive galleries in the East End of the Minster, allowing visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see, at close range, some of the magnificently restored panels of the Great East Window, England’s artistic equivalent to the Sistine Chapel.

Early Summer 2013 will witness the opening of the Undercroft, where visitors can take an inspirational journey into the underground chambers of the vast Undercroft and Treasury, revealing York Minster’s past, present and future. Dynamic, new interactive displays will reveal the significance behind York Minster’s most treasured artefacts as never before, in a two thousand-year heroic, historic and human journey.

About the Heritage Lottery Fund

Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage.  HLF has supported more than 33,000 projects with more than £5billion across the UK.

For further media information, please contact:

Jay Commins – PRO York Minster

Tel: 01904 500698

Mob: 07810 546567