Source/Archive record SYO202 - Excavations at 41–49 Walmgate, Vol 1

Title Excavations at 41–49 Walmgate, Vol 1
Date/Year 2001


The excavations at 41–9 Walmgate produced a sequence of well-preserved and closely stratified archaeological deposits which spanned the mid 10th to the 20th century. They uncovered a complex sequence of buildings fronting onto Walmgate and the rear of buildings fronting onto St Denys' Road. The extent and complexity of the buildings fluctuated through time, as did the property boundaries, and no evidence for a definite rear boundary to the plots was found. The orientation of property boundaries was consistent throughout the sequence from Anglo-Scandinavian to modern times: north-east to south-west. There was, however, at least one period (early 12th to early 13th century) when no buildings or property boundaries seem to have existed. The precise position of property boundaries shifted over time. The earliest evidence recovered was a series of timber buildings dating from the mid 10th to the late 11th century (Phases 1 to 4). Initially there were post-built structures close to the Walmgate frontage and stake- and wattle-built buildings to the rear. A rapid succession of buildings followed on both the Walmgate street frontage and the eastern side of the site, using both these construction techniques and, in one case (Building F), a rubble footing was used to support a sill beam. A more uniform pattern of slot-built foundations appears in Phase 4 for the rear walls of properties fronting onto Walmgate. The Anglo-Scandinavian properties varied in size. The earliest were c.5.7m wide, whereas the Phase 4 properties were up to 7.2m wide. Overall dimensions for the buildings were not recovered because some of their walls lay outside the area of excavation. Evidence for the unification and subdivision of properties as well as the re-arrangement of property divisions was recorded. Buildings A and H were used for domestic purposes, with Building A also used for wool processing and perhaps leatherworking. Other activities on or close to the site may have included metalworking. This contrasts with evidence from Coppergate where craft working and industrial activities were intensively carried out (R.A. Hall, pers. comm.). The limited area of excavation at Walmgate may explain this disparity, or it may be that particular activities were concentrated in particular areas of the city. Building H appears to have been built on top of a deliberately created construction platform, perhaps to keep it above rising ground water, resulting from the damming of the River Foss and the creation of the King's Fishpool in the late 11th century. In the early 12th century, the area was cleared of buildings and the land remained open for approximately a century. The dramatic change from a densely occupied urban settlement to open land suggests a major depopulation of this part of York at this time. This has been witnessed in other areas of the city including Hungate (Macnab and McComish unpublished) and Little Stonegate (Macnab unpublished b). It was not a universal pattern, however, as buildings stood in Coppergate throughout the 12th and 13th centuries (AY 10/06) and also in Aldwark (AY 10/02). In the late 12th and early 13th century ovens were constructed in the north-west corner of the excavation area. These were probably used for a clean process such as bread baking. A number of gullies and post-holes on the eastern side of the site reveal an increase in activity here, but their exact function could not be ascertained. Artefactual evidence suggests that metalworking and horn working were carried out in the vicinity. Buildings were again erected on the Walmgate street frontage in the early 13th century after the construction of a road surface, a precursor of the present Walmgate. These consisted of two adjacent buildings, the easternmost (Building M) having a kitchen attached to its southern side. Both buildings were thought to have been used for craft activities, perhaps being deliberately sited away from residential areas and close to the main road. The westernmost (Building N) was used for iron smithing, and other crafts, such as lead working, bone and horn working, were also carried out within the buildings. Later in the 13th century Building M was demolished and a rudimentary structure (Building O) was built for an unknown craft activity. To the east a new property boundary extended back from Walmgate. Iron, copper and lead working waste was recovered from pits and dumps associated with this property boundary, indicating metalworking in the vicinity. Scattered industrial activities continued into the early 14th century, with the digging of a sunken work area and the disposal of industrial waste nearby. In the early 14th century the area was cleared before the laying out of two new property boundaries. Three timber-framed buildings were then constructed, Buildings Q and R with their long axis at right angles to Walmgate, and Building P parallel to it. Building Q may have had a domestic function, with a kitchen or craft working area at its southern end. Buildings P and R may have been used as warehouses. In the mid to late 14th century Buildings P and Q were rebuilt as Buildings T and S respectively. Building S consisted of two rooms and appears to have had a domestic function. Copper alloy waste was found in levelling material within Buildings R and S, but we cannot be sure whether metalworking actually took place in either building. Smithing waste was recovered in the backyard area. Building T was replaced by Building U, also with its long axis at right angles to Walmgate. This new building was divided into two rooms, that closest to the street frontage being used for metalworking. The area underwent further reorganisation in the early 15th century, the earlier boundary being moved 2m to the east. This suggests the acquisition of a portion of the Walmgate street frontage. Buildings R and S were demolished, Building U extended, and two new buildings (V and W) were constructed. Building V was a hall parallel to the Walmgate street frontage. Its construction and the movement of the property boundary may suggest depopulation at this time, land on the street frontage becoming available for construction after the Black Death of 1348-50. Building V may have re-used an early 14th century timber framework from another building, as the RCHM Building Survey (see archaeological and historical background) proposes a date for Building V c.100 years earlier than that suggested by the archaeological evidence. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the hall was soon divided into two storeys at its eastern end with the addition of an exterior stairbase. Building W was constructed in the yard behind Building V and was used for iron smithing. Building U was divided into three rooms: the front was a shop unit, the middle was used first for domestic purposes and later for metalworking, and the southern room was used as a kitchen. To the east of Building V, an alley or lane gave access to the yard and Building W, whilst to the west of Building U, a row of cottages (including Building X) fronting onto St Denys' Road were constructed. In the early part of the 15th century Building U was re-organised. Its northern room was converted to a hall, either for use by the metalworking artisans or to be sublet. The middle and southern rooms were amalgamated and used for metalworking. Building V had a new central hearth and a screens passage was inserted between Buildings U and V. Building Y was constructed to the south of Buildings U and W, perhaps serving as a storage or finishing area for the metalworkers. Building W continued to be used for metalworking. Later in the century the northern room of Building U was converted into a shop unit, but before the end of the century the entire building was used for metalworking, both iron smithing and copper alloy working; a large furnace was constructed in the southern room. The late 15th or early 16th century saw the renovation of Buildings V and W, whilst Building U continued to function as a workshop for both iron smithing and copper alloy working. Towards the mid 16th century a new stake- and post-built partition wall was inserted between Buildings U and V. Both iron and copper alloy metalworking continued in Building U until the late 16th century. Iron smithing alone seems to have taken place in the northern room, whilst mixed iron and copper alloy working took place in the southern room. Building V may have been used for metalworking, possibly being converted into two workshops at this time. Its eastern end was cleared before the construction of large hearths and a possible corner furnace. Buildings W and Y were demolished by the late 16th century. Buildings U, V and X were radically re-organised in the early 17th century. The area to the south of Buildings U and V was cleared before the insertion of a well shaft. Following this Building V was extended to the south and a new yard area laid out. In the 18th century Building Z was constructed, fronting onto Walmgate. An alley was inserted between Buildings V and Z to provide access to the yard behind Buildings U and V. Finally, in modern times, Buildings U and V were reorganised into three tenements. The buildings (U, V, X and Z) were all demolished by 1966 Metalworking Metalworking on the Walmgate site was concentrated within a complex of timber-framed buildings (particularly Buildings U and W) from the mid 14th to the late 16th century. This date range overlaps with two other metalworking sites in York, Bedern Foundry (AY 10/03) where a major bronze working industrial complex was discovered dating from the 13th to the early 16th century, and St Andrewgate (AY 10/07 forthcoming) where a sequence of industrial workshops was located which carried out both iron smithing and copper alloy casting from the early 14th to the early 16th century. Finlayson (AY 10/07 forthcoming) has suggested that there may have been an improvement in economic conditions in the late 13th or early 14th century, resulting in a greater demand for metal products. Evidence from Walmgate suggests that economic growth continued into the 15th century. The non-ferrous metalworking evidence from Walmgate is typical of a medium-sized casting workshop. The nature of the copper alloy brought to the site is unknown, but there was clearly some scope for recycling miscast or broken items. Some smaller items could have been cast using small copper-rich 'cakes' as ingots, but larger items like cauldrons needed much more metal. Cauldrons and small items can be cast using a wider range of alloy types than are used in bell casting, which requires very careful alloy selection. Heating was carried out in flat-bottomed crucibles, with the crucibles probably placed directly onto the floor of a furnace or hearth such as 1563 in the southern room of Building U, 1859 in Building W or 1394 in Building V. The large construction cut (2458) in the southern room of Building U may also have contained a furnace. The chimney stack (1487) between Buildings U and V, an L-shaped structure (1837) in Building V and footing (2200) in Building W may all have supported waist-high furnace structures. If so, these furnaces might have been used for heating crucibles as well as for ferrous metalworking. The crucibles were probably made close to the source of the clay rather that at the site. Moulds, however, were probably made on site. It is not possible to determine exactly how the Walmgate moulds were made, but moulds from Prudhoe Castle were made in several sections (J. Dobie, pers. comm.). Carrying and pouring the molten metal would be the most dangerous procedure, so the moulds would be placed close to the furnace. There is no clear evidence for casting pits at Walmgate, so presumably the moulds were simply placed on a flat surface. After cooling, the mould would be broken off and the cauldron finished, by sanding, polishing and fitting a handle. The moulds could not be re-used. The exact design of the cauldrons produced is not known, but the Walmgate moulds are comparable to others of this period, particularly vessel mould fragments from excavations at Bedern (AY 10/03). Cauldron moulds and thick-walled crucibles identified at St Andrewgate were also very similar to those from Walmgate. The amount of material recovered at Walmgate and St Andrewgate is relatively minor compared with that from Bedern Foundry, where a much larger area was excavated. Around 13,000 cauldron mould fragments, for example, were recovered at Bedern. Again, the types of mould and crucible found were very similar to those at Walmgate. The following table gives an idea of the relative amounts of mould, crucible and slag found at each of the three York sites. Table: weights (in kg) of three key metalworking debris types at three York sites Moulds Crucibles Smithing slag Walmgate 25.4 0.8 138 Bedern 230 1.7 6.4 St Andrewgate 2.8 5.9 94.5 Relatively little crucible debris was recovered from Walmgate. Crucibles would have been used as many times as possible, especially if they had to be brought in from an outside pottery, and the thick late medieval crucibles would have been quite robust. Even so, it seems unlikely that a crucible could have been used more than five or six times before the aggressive environment in the furnace caused damage. Damaged crucibles may have been broken up and the vitrified contents crushed and remelted in order to extract the copper alloy trapped within them. Two other English cities, Worcester and Exeter, have produced evidence for medieval non-ferrous metalworking, in the form of both structural evidence and metalworking debris. At the Deansway site in Worcester (Taylor 1996), four tonnes of mould fragments were recovered, mostly relating to vessel casting, but with some for bells and other objects. Several furnaces were also found, which were probably used to cast large objects. 'A number of crucibles' were found, presumably a small number. The casting was mainly carried out in the 14th to 15th century. At Exeter, casting evidence comes from four sites (Blaylock 1996): the Church of St Mary Major in the cathedral close produced 12th century evidence of a casting pit for bells; at Mermaid Yard there were waste dumps of mould fragments (for bells and cauldrons) but no structural evidence; at Paul Street a bell-casting foundry dating to the 17th and early 18th century was found, but no waste dumps; at Cowick Street (early 16th to early 17th century), several casting pits for bells were found, together with two furnaces and more than 500kg of mould fragments, mostly from cauldron moulds. The only site in York, other than Walmgate, to have produced significant quantities of iron smithing waste is St Andrewgate (AY 10/07 forthcoming). There iron smithing was carried out within a workshop during the later 14th to early 15th century and in the close vicinity of the excavation area in the late 15th to the early 16th century. At Walmgate iron smithing was carried out in Building N in the late 12th to early 13th century and in Buildings U and W from the mid/late 14th century through to the late 16th century. At other excavated rural smithies in England (see AY 10/07 forthcoming, citing Astill 1993, for a comprehensive overview) nine categories of non-structural evidence have been identified as pointers to show the presence of smithing: smithing slag, hammerscale, ash layers, bar iron, scrap iron, blanks, incomplete forgings, metalworking tools and associated stone artefacts. Only two of the seven sites investigated produced eight of these categories, the others having between three and six. Walmgate has evidence for seven of these categories. It has also been suggested (Biek and Fells 1980) that small amounts of slag may represent large quantities of manufactured items, recovered smithing slag equalling approximately 1% of forged metal (10kg of slag = a tonne of artefacts produced). What survives therefore is not an accurate representation of the full range of ironworking which may have been taking place (Astill 1993). Recycling and re-use of materials was high since iron becomes purer the more it is worked. Hammerscale and hearth linings provide the best evidence for ironworking as they do not generally travel far from their source of origin (AY 10/07); other waste can be recycled or used as hardcore and levelling material. At Walmgate the non-structural evidence is sufficient to indicate smithing on the site, the 138kg of slag recovered perhaps suggesting that nearly 14 tonnes of artefacts were produced. This implies a substantial iron smithy on Walmgate (in Buildings U and W), the largest so far excavated in York. Structural evidence recovered included hearths, stake- and post-holes as well as rubble footings that may have supported raised bellows, possible waist-high furnaces, concentrated patches of rubble levelling perhaps to support a large wooden block on which an anvil would have been positioned, as well as a possible anvil slot and associated pits for quenching. In conclusion, the metalworking evidence suggests a large-scale iron smithy with a secondary medium-sized copper alloy casting operation situated within a complex of timber-framed buildings and workshops, dating from the mid 14th to the late 16th century; evidence for earlier small-scale metalworking on the site or in its vicinity was also recovered. Cauldrons and other vessels of non-ferrous metal were cast alongside the iron being worked in the smithy. The evidence suggests that living and working quarters were in close proximity and that at times there was a shop on the Walmgate street frontage. The Walmgate evidence suggests that the Bedern/St Andrewgate area was not the only site of metalworking in York. The iron smithy at Walmgate may represent a suburban smithy, making goods for the local inhabitants of the area. Its products may have included horseshoes, nails, tools, structural fittings and knife blades. This important new evidence is a valuable addition to the growing corpus of urban metalworking in England in the medieval and early post-medieval periods

Referenced Monuments (13)

  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 1 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 10 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 11 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 12 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 13 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 2 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 3 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 4 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 5 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 6 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 7 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 8 (Monument)
  • 41-49 Walmgate Phase 9 (Monument)

Referenced Events (1)

  • Excavations at 41 – 49 Walmgate (Ref: YORYM: 1999. 941)

Record last edited

Apr 6 2018 1:52PM


Your feedback is welcome. If you can provide any new information about this record, please contact us.