Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 16: New perspectives on Roman York

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'New perspectives on Roman York.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Thursday 11 April 2024

16. New perspectives on Roman York

Martin Millett – University of Cambridge
Thomas Matthews Boehmer – University of Cambridge

In the last few years there has been a new wave of research on Roman York, including an AHRC-funded project (“Beneath the Streets of Roman York”) which has sought to provide a new synthesis based on the extensive past excavations and antiquarian studies combined with new GPR surveys within the city. As this project draws to an end, the results will be shared here for the first time. Other research has included major new excavations by York Archaeology and studies of finds assemblages from past excavations and museum collections. Amongst the latter, impressive results have been provided by digital scanning of plaster burials excavated in the 19th century. This session will discuss results of this innovative and novel work and contribute to a re-thinking of the place of York within the Roman Empire. It will also contextualise Roman York as an important frontier zone fortress-city whilst thinking about the issue of urbanism in such spaces.

Session schedule 

Thursday 11 April (PM)              Room 6 - C3.11 (Level 3)
13:40Roman York Beneath the Streets (Martin Millett)
14:00Seeing through Medieval York to the city beneath (John Creighton)
14:20York’s colonia: facts and factoids (Thomas Matthews Boehmer)
14:40                                               BREAK
15:10Micklegate and Guildhall: the results from two recent excavations (Paul Flintoft)
15:30"Seeing" the Dead. New Research on Roman Gypsum Burials in York (Maureen Carroll)


 Roman York Beneath the Streets
Martin Millett – University of Cambridge

This paper will outline the approach followed in the recently completed Roman York Beneath the Streets Project (funded by the AHRC). The project combined a synthesis of all previous archaeological work on the city with the use of GPR survey, seeking to provide new perspective on a key Roman city. The paper first highlights the potential of this approach (that may be helpful in the study of other major centres) and second illustrates some of the outcomes of the study with an emphasis on viewing York as a single but complex whole which can be studied through diverse strands of evidence.

 Seeing through Medieval York to the city beneath
John Creighton – University of Reading

This paper focuses on the Legionary Fortress side of the River Ouse, overlain by the fabric of the medieval and modern city, and where excavations has been heavily restricted in the name of preservation. One of the aims of the RYBS Project was to examine all the known excavations, evaluations, and watching briefs; but alongside this collation and critical review we also wanted to conduct some new analysis and fieldwork to try to contextualise all of this information. The first approach was to investigate the ancient topography by enhancing the deposit model of the city (in a project led by Kristina Krawiec, York Archaeology). While the second approach was to experiment with ground penetrating radar, using both commercial services and work with Lieven Verdonk (University of Ghent/Cambridge) in the open areas of the city: primarily around the Minster and directly under the streets, to join up the gaps between excavations and boreholes. The paper will focus on what worked, what didn’t, and the potential of such approaches to investigate this and other cityscapes.

 York’s colonia: facts and factoids
Thomas Matthews Boehmer – University of Cambridge

York’s civil settlement was designated as a colonia in the early 3rd century. Usually believed to underlie the area to the south-west of the River Ouse, its remains were long known to include baths, houses, and shrines. The exhaustive analysis of this area by the RYBS Project illustrates that its history is more variegated than previously realised. By drawing together a variety of different sources, as well as comparanda from other fortress-cities in the Roman Empire, this talk will ask whether this area was ever truly ‘urbanised’, and in so doing probe the suggestive evidence for a sanctuary complex, and the different developmental pathways of particular zones.

 Micklegate and Guildhall: the results from two recent excavations
Paul Flintoft – York Archaeology

Two recently completed large excavations in York have provided significant insight into the 2nd-to-4th-century occupation of York. Sites at Micklegate and Guildhall (fieldwork completed in spring 2023 and autumn 2020, respectively) have provided evidence of social and economic change within both extra-mural settlement north-east of the river and the Colonia from the 2nd century. Growth within these districts can be characterised as domestic in nature, with a change in emphasis towards civic requirements. Adjustments to land use on the fringes of the fortress in the 3rd century could reflect a re-emergence of military priorities linked to refurbishment in the period leading up to Imperial presence in the early 3rd century. Settlement within the Colonia reflects refurbishment and prosperity in the 3rd century, with a shift toward small-scale craft production in the 4th century.

 "Seeing" the Dead. New Research on Roman Gypsum Burials in York
Maureen Carroll – University of York

This paper presents a project on the funerary custom in York in the 3rd/4th c. CE of pouring liquid gypsum over the shrouded bodies of individuals in stone or lead coffins before burial. The gypsum casings preserve body contours and precious textile imprints that we can bring to life through 3D-imaging. We aim to understand the context of this practice and the motivation for the encasing of the dead. Why and for whom was this funerary custom chosen? What do the shrouds and clothing reveal about status and social identity? And what cultural and biological reasons might have determined this particular ritual?