Environmental Evidence: Part 2

Biological Remains and the Use of Resources

Plant Remains

For the most part, the plant remains reflected deposition of litter and waste of various kinds, combining with the insect remains (see below) as stable manure in sample 61 (Phase 8). Plant litter perhaps used as roofing or flooring was also recorded, for example charred reed and/or straw remains in sample 71 (Phase 5) and charred cereal straw and saw-sedge from sample 45 (Phase 6.3). Poppy seeds were also recovered from context 1969 (Phase 8) and rush seeds from context 1418 (Phase 9.8), suggesting the use of straw and rushes as flooring materials within Buildings S and V. Exploitation of peatland or other wetland environments was also evident (in the presence of taxa such as saw-sedge, bog myrtle and some of the mosses), though these remains may sometimes have arrived in peat itself rather than in cut vegetation.

The foodplants recorded were all typical of the periods represented, though only one deposit (sample 66) appeared to be formed largely of human faecal material in which foods actually consumed might be expected to have survived. In Phase 1 (sample 65) celery seed and hazelnuts were recovered, whilst in Phase 5 (sample 67) evidence for figs, oats, barley, rye and hazelnuts were retrieved. Wheat/rye bran as well as evidence for figs, apple and blackberry were found in Phase 8 (sample 66), and charred oats in Phase 12 (sample 9).

Three points can be illustrated here. Firstly the deposits were generally not waterlogged and therefore the preservation of plant materials is limited. Secondly, from Phase 7 onwards, the buildings are likely to have been much better constructed and cleaned regularly, with a well-organised waste disposal strategy. The vertebrate and shellfish assemblages seem to corroborate this fact and suggest that there was an increasing problem of disposal of domestic and butchery waste within the built urban environment from Phase 9.2 onwards. This waste which also would have contained plant remains, would therefore have been disposed of, or perhaps used as animal fodder, further away from the excavation limits.

Insect Remains

The invertebrate or insect remains reflected the plant materials (see above), with the deposition of litter and waste of various kinds, including stable manure (sample 61).

Fly puparia were recovered from a Phase 5 deposit (2940) which suggested that this mound of mixed waste, including butchery debris, was open and attracted flies. The excavation area at this time may have been waste ground used for dumping.

Human fleas and a human louse were recovered from a floor deposit (2890) in Phase 1. This suggests the presence of these intimate human parasites and pests in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. Human lice were also recovered from sample 61 (context 2662) in phase 8, a 14th century deposit.

Other insect remains include sheep keds and their puparium and sheep lice (sample 65 in Phase 1 and sample 61 in Phase 8) suggestive of wool processing and cleaning in these phases, other domestic animal lice (sample 61 in Phase 8), wood borers (sample 67 in Phase 5) from within a building, and grain pests (sample 61 in Phase 8).


Only one deposit (sample 66 in Phase 8) appeared to be formed largely of faecal material, which contained the eggs of intestinal parasitic nematodes (whipworm and maw-worm). It was not possible to determine definitively the source of the faecal content from the egg morphology and measurements alone but it seems most likely that the deposit contained human faeces (from the plant remain evidence), with a component of pig faeces.

Vertebrate Remains

The range of vertebrate species represented at Walmgate was not particularly diverse. For all phases, the main domesticates, cattle, sheep or goat, pig and chicken, provided the bulk of the remains, with fish and other birds, such as goose and duck, also present. Limited dental eruption and attrition data suggested that both cattle and caprovids were slaughtered once they had reached maturity and this appeared to be the case for all phases. Cattle were generally adults (aged between approximately five and eight years) when they were slaughtered, with a small group that were slightly older also present. Similar results have been recovered from other sites in York of the same date (AY 15/05). The cattle represented were obviously multi-purpose beasts whose importance was not primarily for the production of meat. One exception was a group of mandibles from Phase 6.1 which all represented juvenile individuals. The presence of juvenile cattle bones, although a common feature in later post-medieval deposits, is, at this early date (late 12th to early 13th century), not typical for York. This may suggest a specialist type of animal husbandry such as dairying. In such a specialist herd, calves would have been surplus to requirements and either killed very young or at an age when they would be of use for their meat (veal). Several other juvenile individuals were identified in deposits from Phase 6. Only one other (published) site in the city, the medieval College of the Vicars Choral of York Minister at Bedern, has produced a similar assemblage, from deposits of mid 13th to late 14th century. Here, there were also a number of elderly individuals represented and it was suggested that the assemblage showed a characteristic age profile thought to be associated with dairying. Bond and O'Connor (AY 15/05) concluded that the College was obtaining beef from specialist dairy herds, a source not available to other inhabitants of the city. With this interpretation in mind, the remains from Walmgate could represent waste from the butchering of carcasses destined for a very select market.

Sheep and goat mandibles were almost exclusively from adult individuals, indicating that most animals were culled between three and six years of age. This would suggest that sheep were primarily kept for their wool. Only a single, very young (2–6 months) individual was recorded, from Phase 6.3, and this may have died of natural causes. Again, these results are not unlike those seen in data from Coppergate, Aldwark and Tanner Row (AY 15/05), although the data from Walmgate were somewhat limited.

Data for pig remains was scant, but suggested a kill-off pattern representing slaughter at the optimum time for meat production (when they were immature or sub-adult in age). Two neonatal individuals were recorded from Phases 9.3 and 9.8 and these provide some evidence for pig breeding within the city.

Remains of wild species formed only a very minor component of the assemblage, but proved to be of some interest; they included teal from Phase 9.8, barnacle goose from Phases 9.3 and 9.8, pigeon from Phase 9.6, and a possible pheasant bone and a single fragment of jackdaw from Phase 9.8.

The presence of a guillemot radius from Phase 4 is unusual, but remains of these birds have been found amongst food refuse in medieval deposits elsewhere in York (AY 15/05) and also from sites in Beverley (Scott 1991; Scott 1992). They are unlikely to have resided within the city as they spend a large proportion of their time at sea. It has been suggested in AY 15/05 that these remains may represent evidence for coastal trading. These birds may have been seen locally as an acceptable substitute for fish for eating on Friday or were perhaps associated with an ecclesiastical diet.

Interestingly, a number of species sometimes thought to indicate high-status occupation were identified from deposits in Phases 7, 8 and 9.2. These included several fragments of crane and fallow deer from Phase 8 deposits, and red deer from Phase 7 and 9.2 deposits. During the later medieval period, the hunting and consumption of crane was considered to be an important symbol of wealth and status (Dobney and Jaques in press), whilst venison was usually only available either through hunting or through gifts provided by patronage (Neave 1991). Additionally, fish bones identified as ling and cod, and representing large individuals of over a metre in length, were recovered from Phase 8. Some of the vertebrae had been chopped, which may indicate that these fragments were from stored/stock fish, i.e. fish that had been dried, salted or smoked or a combination of these (Locker 2001). Whilst large gadids were becoming increasingly available during this period, and the importation of stockfish was more commonplace, they still represented a resource that was not necessarily available to all (Woolgar 1999). Some of the deposits from other phases at Walmgate produced numerous fish remains but few fragments representing the larger gadids were recovered. The recovery of these specific vertebrate remains suggests that in Phases 7 and 8 the inhabitants of this part of Walmgate may have enjoyed some affluence.

The size of medieval and early post-medieval cattle and caprovids from Walmgate was consistent with animals from other sites in the city. No conclusive evidence was found for a significant increase in the size of these species during this period. The shift towards larger breeds of sheep that has been recognised at Lincoln (Dobney et al. 1996) and further south at, for example, Norwich (Albarella et al. 1997; Weinstock 2002), does not appear to be evident from archaeological material from York (AY 15/05), Beverley (Scott 1991; Dobney et al. 1994) or Hull (Carrott et al. 2001). It is the emphasis on wool rather than meat at this period in this region that perhaps delayed the introduction or development of improved breeds, as these larger animals were mainly utilised for meat production (Dobney unpublished).

Vertebrate remains recovered from deposits at Walmgate represented a mixture of refuse which showed no significant changes through time. Much of the material, particularly in the later phases, was primarily domestic in nature, including both kitchen and table waste. Primary and secondary butchery waste, largely from cattle, was common, but did not represent large-scale butchering of carcasses. The cattle remains suggested that primary butchery waste predominated. Although meat-bearing elements were recorded, between 65% and 80% of cattle fragments tended to be skeletal elements removed during initial carcass preparation, i.e. mandibles, metapodials and phalanges. Sheep and goat remains showed a slightly different picture, with a greater proportion of meat-bearing elements being recorded for most phases. By the late 16th century, 75% of the sheep bones were refuse from food consumption, rather than waste from butchering. Kitchen or consumption refuse was also abundant Phases 9.3 and 9.8. Refuse from craft activities such as tanning was also not identified within the animal bone assemblages. Butchery marks including longitudinally chopped vertebrae, on cattle and sheep or goat bones, were recorded, showing that carcasses were typically split in half. Once split into 'sides', transportation of carcasses was easier and this technique did not expose or damage the bulk of the meat (Rixson 2000). Too few pig bones were recovered to indicate any specific patterns of butchery or consumption but the chicken and goose remains are suggestive of table refuse rather than kitchen waste.

Worthy of note is the considerable number of cat bones recovered from two mid to late 16th century deposits in Phase 9.8. At least four individuals of varying ages (although none of them adult) were represented, including a very young kitten. Some bones clearly represented single individuals, suggesting that originally whole carcasses had been disposed of in these deposits. The smaller bones, i.e. phalanges and metapodials, were largely absent. This could suggest that the pelts of the animals had been deliberately removed, the lower limbs remaining attached to the skins. No skinning cuts were observed, but a good skinner may not necessarily have marked the bones (Luff and Moreno Garcia 1995). Where concentrations of juvenile cats have been found on other medieval urban sites, e.g. Fishamble Street, Dublin (McCormick 1988), and Exeter (Maltby 1979), their remains have been interpreted as indirect evidence for the exploitation of their skins. The juvenile cat remains from Phase 9.8 may be derived from the processing of skins, but the lack of skinning marks and the small numbers of individuals represented renders this interpretation somewhat tentative.

Some of the bones had clearly been disposed of elsewhere before being incorporated into the deposits and some of the butchery refuse probably did not originate from activities undertaken at the site. Disposal of rubbish, particularly the noxious and smelly kind that results from the slaughtering and butchering of animals, was obviously something of a problem in York in the medieval period. Ordinances issued in York from the middle of the 14th century onwards forbade the butchers from dumping their offal and refuse where ever they wanted. Areas of the river where dumping of such rubbish was permitted were outlined by the city authorities when they endeavoured to tackle the problems of 'roaming pigs, garbage, all engendering great corruption and horrible pernicious air' (quoted in The Company of Butchers of York 1975). It follows, therefore, that disused pits and tanks would be used as receptacles for such waste if they were conveniently placed.

The fish bones from Walmgate suggest that the inhabitants in the medieval and early post-medieval period enjoyed a diet supplemented mainly by marine fish, in particular herring and Gadidae. They were sufficiently affluent to purchase imported large fish (sometimes in excess of a metre long), such as ling, but relied more on the cheaper products, such as herring, haddock, whiting and small cod. This evidence parallels that from other sites in York (AY 15/05). Surprisingly though, eel remains were not abundant. Their scarcity may be a reflection of varying disposal methods for different fish remains/waste or may represent a decrease in demand for locally available freshwater and estuarine species as a result of the increasing importance of cod and other offshore marine species in the medieval and early post-medieval period. This trend, also noted by a number of researchers (Barrett et al. 1999; Enghoff 2000; Locker 2001), partly explains the almost complete absence of freshwater fish in the assemblage, despite the site's proximity to the river. Additionally, the increasing pollution of the river by the dumping of foul and noxious refuse from the slaughtering and butchering of animals, and from activities such as tanning, may have discouraged the use of local riverine resources.

Comparisons with other sites in the region show similarities to the fish assemblages from 14th/15th century deposits at the Magistrates' Court in Hull (Hall et al. 2000). Both assemblages are dominated by herring remains, with gadid bones forming an additional important component. Hand-collected remains also show the presence of larger fish which may represent imported dried or salted stockfish. Herring appears to show a decrease in significance in the later medieval period and this can perhaps also be seen at Walmgate. In contrast, no dominant species were apparent from deposits at Blanket Row, Hull (Carrott et al. 2001), and both small flatfish and eel played a more significant role in the diet. The remains also included rockling and other fish that could be locally caught in shallow waters. Assemblages from Blanket Row clearly represented low-status urban households with access to smaller less expensive fish, whilst the remains recovered from both the Magistrates' Court site and Walmgate suggest a greater degree of affluence.


The shellfish assemblage was not studied by an environmental specialist. The results presented here are based on identification by Kathryn Bearcock (York Archaeological Trust Finds Department), and subsequent distribution analysis by the site director.

Oyster shell predominates in the early phases. This may be due in part to the restricted areas excavated in Phases 1–4, but extensive dumps in Phases 5 and 6 should have produced at least a few examples of other species if they were present. Cockle appears for the first time in Phase 7, mussel in Phase 8, and clam and whelk in Phase 9.6. All these species, apart from clam, have been recorded in Anglo-Scandinavian deposits at Coppergate (AY 14/07). Oyster dominates in all phases except 9.4 (mussel, oyster and cockle each represented a third of the shell assemblage) and Phases 10 and 12 (where mussel predominated). The abundance of mussel in the post-medieval period may suggest that this species was exploited as a cheap source of food at that time. The widest variety of shellfish (oyster, mussel, cockle, clam and whelk) were recorded in Phases 9.6 and 13.

The greatest number of shellfish for any one context came from Phase 3, where a single context (2650) produced 167 oyster shells. This was unusual for the site, as most contexts contained fewer than 20 shells, and almost all phases had fewer than 50 shells. Redeposition of shells and the possibility that food waste may have been imported from beyond the excavation limits must be borne in mind when interpreting the shell as food waste. Nevertheless it is likely that at least some of the shell is contemporary food waste. The consistent presence of shellfish throughout all phases suggests that there was a regular trade in marine food species up the Ouse from the North Sea coast from the Anglo-Scandinavian period through to modern times.

Health and Hygiene

Human gut parasites, the eggs of intestinal parasitic nematodes whipworm and maw-worm, were recovered from one Phase 8 deposit. The lack of other evidence for these parasites should not be taken as proof that they were absent in other periods. Latrines may have been situated further south than the excavation area, well away from the areas of habitation. It also should be borne in mind that the vast majority of the deposits excavated were not waterlogged and so these parasite eggs would not have survived. Small numbers of these parasites do not affect human health, but larger infestations are more serious, particularly in the young, old and weak (AY 14/07, 759). It was not possible from the evidence from Walmgate to suggest the levels of infestation of individuals, or the extent of the population affected.

Flies may also have carried disease (AY 14/07, 762). Fly puparia were recovered from a Phase 5 deposit which suggests the dumping of noxious materials. Ash, strewn in several pit fills and in floor deposits within the buildings from Phase 7 onwards, may have been used to fumigate these buildings and pits. In general buildings used for occupation were kept clean by regular sweeping; however, dog faeces was recovered from a floor in Building S in Phase 8. Evidence for regular sweeping of buildings was recorded in Phases 7, 9.3, 9.4, and 9.8. Certain buildings seem to have been less rigorously cleaned in Phases 9.6 and 9.8.

Human fleas and a human louse were recovered from a floor deposit in Phase 1. This confirms evidence from other York sites (AY 14/07) for the presence of these intimate human parasites and pests in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. Human lice were also recovered from Phase 8. Human fleas and lice are important vectors of disease, but soil conditions at Walmgate militated against their survival and no conclusions can be drawn about the scale of disease from such a small assemblage.

A single bone from a rat, another important carrier of human disease, was recovered from a levelling deposit in Phase 9.2. This may have simply been redeposited or could represent the presence of a burrowing rodent. It therefore cannot contribute to an analysis of the spread of disease within the human population of this part of Walmgate.

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Bran from a faecal deposit

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Teal © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Barnacle goose, © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Guillemot © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Ling © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Herring © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Haddock © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Plaice © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Whelk © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)

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Mussel © Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (www.fauna.is)
© Copyright York Archaeological Trust 2003