Roman York – What Remains?

This second part of the book covers in detail more of what remains of the Roman settlement here and the various artefacts which have been excavated down the years. As such it provides evidence and bears witness to the history of Roman York covered in Part 1.

The Archaeological Investigation of Eboracum 1587–1970

The renaissance of Eboracum from 1,200 years of decay, dilapidation and neglect began in the seventeenth century when it was rescued from an extensive period of oblivion. The first post-Roman recorded reference to Roman York was by the Tudor geographer and historian William Camden (1551–1623). His Britannia, published in 1587, gives us a unique survey of the country’s historical sites and monuments. With reference to York, Camden recorded such items as a stone coffin (since lost) of Verecundius Diogenes, a sevir augustalis (priest of the cult of the deified emperor) found in 1579. Other early treasures included an altar dedicated to Jupiter found in 1638 in Bishophill Senior on the south-west bank of the Ouse, and the tombstone of the signifer, standard bearer Lucius Duccius Rufinus, unearthed in 1688 at Holy Trinity Church in Micklegate.

In the eighteenth century, John Horsley’s 1732 Britannia Romana, or The Roman Antiquities of Britain, included a chapter on Roman York. Martin Lister (c. 1638–1712), the prominent zoologist and polymath, contributed papers on such discoveries as the Bishophill altar to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Lister was also the first to recognise the Multangular Tower as a Roman structure; his work was a major source for the groundbreaking 800-page Eboracum, the first definitive history of the city written and published in 1736 by Francis Drake (1696–1771), a local surgeon. Not one to shy away from ‘fanciful speculation and misplaced civic pride’, Drake got it wrong when he claimed that the emperor Constantine the Great was actually born in York and that Helena (as in St Helen’s Church), his mother, was also British. In 1731, the corporation gave Drake £50 to produce plans and maps of the antiquities. For the completist, the full title of the book is the less than pithy Eboracum: or, the History and Antiquities of the City of York from its Original to the Present Time Together with the History of the Cathedral Church and the Lives of the Archbishops.

In 1818, William Hargrove, local newspaper proprietor, published his History of York which reviewed previous discoveries and such exciting new material as the Mithraic relief found in 1747 near St Martin-cum-Gregory Church as well as the inscription from a temple of Serapis dug up on Toft Green in 1770. Hargrove waxed lyrical:

In the earliest records of English History, Ebor, Eboracum or York, is represented as a place of great importance; and, in the zenith of meridian splendour, it was the residence of Imperial Power, and the legislative seat of the Roman Empire. Hence we may readily suppose, especially when the ancient historic accounts of this city are contrasted with those of London, that York far exceeded in dignity and consequence, if not in population and extent, the present capital of the British Empire, at that period.

The Rev Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858), one of the founders of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and a curator of the antiquities in the Yorkshire Museum until his death in 1858, expatiated systematically on Roman York in his Eboracum or York Under the Romans in 1842, including first-hand reports of discoveries during excavations in 1835. He included the exposure of the fortress defences wrecked during the creation of St Leonard’s Place and Exhibition Square in 1835. Wellbeloved also got the limits of the legionary fortress spot on, although they were not finally proven correct by excavation until the 1950s. What is more, his Eboracum comes with the bonus of detailed descriptions of discoveries in the outlying areas on the south-west bank of the Ouse, in particular the remains of a huge baths complex, parts of which were unearthed during the building of the first railway station (the ‘Old Station’) in 1839–40. He produced a museum guide – Descriptive accounts of the antiquities in the grounds and in the museum of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society; published in 1852, it featured thousands of objects held in the Yorkshire Museum collections.

The station project involved breaching the medieval and Roman defences and was described by Patrick Ottaway as ‘perhaps the most devastating single episode of destruction ever suffered by York’s archaeology’.

More destruction followed during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when York hastily embraced its new role as a national railway hub, developed at any and at all costs. One of the discoveries during the work was a fragment of a commemorative inscription of the reign of Trajan, found in King’s Square in 1854 during work on York’s first main sewers. In the 1870s, cleric-antiquary, the Rev James Raine, Chancellor of York Minster and curator of antiquities at the Yorkshire Museum 1873–96, watched the large-scale bulldozing operations undertaken for the present railway station which ploughed up one of the main cemeteries of the Roman colonia. In some compensation, excavation work at the suburb on The Mount led to the discovery of more of the funerary furniture which had originally lined the main Roman road to York from the south west.

In the 1920s things started to get scientific and more systematic: the first planned and organised archaeological excavations in Roman York were carried out by Stuart Miller, from Glasgow University, on behalf of the York Excavation Committee – a newly formed body. Between 1925 and 1928, Miller concentrated mainly on the fortress defences and it was at the east corner that he exposed, preserved beneath the medieval rampart, the stretch of fortress wall standing some 5 m (16 ft) high, which is still visible today. Other significant digs revealed part of the fortress baths in St Sampson’s Square in 1930–1, and more of the baths previously discovered when the first railway station was built.

During the 1950s and 1960s one of the most prolific excavators was Peter Wenham, head of history at St John’s College. His invaluable endeavours are recorded in the chapter on recent excavations. Elizabeth Hartley FSA (1947–2018) was the first Keeper of Archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum from 1971 until her retirement in 2007, in which time she organised a number of major exhibitions and made some crucial acquisitions. The 2006 exhibition ‘Constantine the Great: York’s Roman Emperor’ was described as ‘the most important archaeological-historical loan exhibition to have been held in a provincial British museum.’ Hartley was ‘the driving force’ behind the exhibition, which drew in over 58,000 visitors.

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