Our Best Archaeological Discoveries of 2019

This year, DigVentures has been helping communities all over the country to investigate the incredible history on their doorstep. Together, we’ve made some remarkable discoveries. Here are some of the best.

It has been another absolutely stand-out year for archaeological discoveries: a 44,000 year old hunting story painted in an Indonesian cave; a Mayan figurine factory in New Mexico; an Iron Age chariot burial in Yorkshire; and so much more.

But it’s not just academic and commercial archaeologists making all the discoveries. People are taking part in crowdfunded and community excavations all over the UK, and making discoveries of their own. From a strange Roman town near Sedgefield, to one of the biggest medieval castles in England, DigVentures has been helping communities to investigate the incredible history on their doorstep. Together, we’ve unearthed some fantastic clues to the past; here are some of the best.

Medieval drawbridge pit, Pontefract Castle

Pontefract is one of the biggest medieval castles in England, and was once described by Cromwell as ‘the strongest inland garrison in the country’. Torn down at the end of the English Civil War (c. 1649), the ruins of its mighty gatehouse and drawbridge pit have lain buried ever since. But this October, over 300 people came to help us unearth it, and make its remains visible to the public once again. As a result, we now know that the castle’s main drawbridge would have measured well over 3m wide with a 6.5m deep pit below, and rounded towers on either side. Historical documents have long indicated that the castle contained some unique architectural features, and the newly exposed remains will help provide answers to some longstanding questions about the castle’s development and the technology of medieval castle construction.

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Ornate Roman hairpin, Driffield

This ornate bone hairpin would once have been used for fastening a Roman lady’s hairdo. The fact that it has survived intact for nearly 2,000 years is pretty miraculous, but the most amazing thing about this hairpin, however, is not the artefact itself, but the person who excavated it – 12 year old Jacob! Jacob had joined a DigVentures excavation at a Roman settlement in East Yorkshire, when he spotted the tiny tip poking out of the Roman rubble. Under the supervision of our team, he spent hours diligently removing the surrounding dirt with small wooden tools, before lifting the whole thing out of the ground. It is incredibly delicate, and we’re all amazed that has been so well preserved. Well done Jacob!

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Five early medieval namestones (one with runic inscriptions on it!), Lindisfarne

This scratched and battered piece of rock is actually something rather wonderful: it’s a very rare fragment of namestone. Only 30 had ever been discovered, all at a handful of early medieval religious sites in North East England, of which Lindisfarne is one of the most important. They all date to AD 700 – 1000, a period when the Anglo-Saxon church grew in wealth and power, but also came face to face with Viking raiders.

This is one of five new fragments that were discovered during this year’s excavation. When examined under slanting light, you can clearly see a runic inscription on it. Although we’re still waiting for it to be translated, the runes probably spell out the name of a long-forgotten individual who was buried at or around the time of the Viking raids and it’s a clear reminder that runes weren’t just for pagans; they were enormously significant to members of the Northumbrian church, who mixed runes and Latin characters on many of their most famous artefacts, like St Cuthbert’s coffin and Frank’s casket.

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Medieval masons’ marks, Pontefract Castle

These strange looking symbols were found carved onto the gatehouse at Pontefract Castle. Known as ‘masons marks’, each one is like a signature or tag that identifies the masons who carved the blocks that were used to build the castle. The symbols can all be dated, and prove that this gatehouse was part of a significant upgrade to the castle’s defenses in the late 1300s. They also provide a wonderful glimpse into the castle’s history, giving us a much better idea of the overall number of masons who work on its construction. We can even tell that Mr ‘Not-equals-to’ and Mr ‘Quartered-square’ carved almost as many blocks for the gatehouse as the rest of them put together!

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Remains of a party held for Elizabeth I, Sudeley Castle

The best archaeological discoveries aren’t always artefacts – sometimes they’re places where historical events took place. After years of research, our crowdfunded dig in Gloucestershire finally located the site of an epic party thrown for Elizabeth I. The remains included chicken and pig bones, oven-to-table ceramics, and the foundations of a banqueting tent erected especially for the occasion. But that’s not all… some of the evidence shows that the foundations were built out of rubble from the destroyed Winchombe Abbey, proving that even the wealthiest Tudors recycled stone!

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A large Roman villa (probably), Driffield

This is so much more than just a circular hole in the ground. Over the last few years, our crowdfunded excavation near Driffield in East Yorkshire has been investigating a very early Roman settlement, thought to have been used some of the very first Romans who crossed the Humber. This year, we started work on a new area, and found mosaic tiles, roof tiles, part of a hypocaust (underfloor heating system), pottery and… a string of circular post-holes for large upright beams! When you piece all those different pieces of evidence together, it starts to look very much like a Roman villa. It’s the next chapter in the story of the site, and tells us what life was like for their descendants a few generations down the line.

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Amphora made with ash from Vesuvius, Sedgefield

In April, we re-opened an investigation of a strange Roman town on the outskirts of Sedgefield, which was first started by Time Team in 2003. Unlike most Roman towns in the area, this one has no fort and nothing to suggest it was ever associated with any military activity. Instead, it’s probably where everyday Romano-British people lived. The settlement itself is surrounded by a large boundary ditch, with a road passing by. Detailed excavation has revealed that at one point, the town was cut off from the road, only to be reconnected sometime later. Very odd! Over the three weeks, the team has also uncovered lots of pottery, including Samian ware Roman Grey Ware, parts of a Nene Valley Hunter Cup, and even pieces of an amphora made using ash from Vesuvius. Remarkable!

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The face of King Aethelred I of Wessex, Lindisfarne

Look closely at this little coin and you can see the face of Aethelred I, king of Wessex from AD 865 – 871. In the year that Æthelred became king, a Viking army landed in England, and within five years destroyed both East Anglia, and Northumbria. What’s interesting about the coin is not the coin itself (sorry, numismatists!), but the fact that it was found hundreds of miles away on a small island in the North Sea. Why? Because although we think of Lindisfarne as a remote place, this is a firm piece of evidence that at the time, it was a well-connected place that sat at the centre of an extensive trade and cultural network of busy sea routes that stretched from north to south, and into central Europe.

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A 700 year old window, Bishop Middleham

This beautiful stone window provides an amazing glimpse into the history of Durham – literally and figuratively! In 1075, Durham was a buffer state between England and Scotland. Unable to govern this region, the English king came up with a simple solution – give the local bishops secular powers and let them deal with it! For the next few hundred years, these newly created ‘Prince Bishops’ effectively became autonomous rulers: they had the right to raise armies, mint coins and levy taxes – so long as they used them to protect the northern border. And yet, despite their power and influence, this is one of the few archaeological investigations to examined the extent of their wealth and property. The window itself dates to around 1330, and provides the first physical evidence of an enormous refurbishment that took place when Bishop Lewis was in charge.

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Six mysterious stone disks, Pontefract Castle

Some of the best discoveries are the most perplexing. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of mystery? These six roughly-shaped circular stones certainly have us scratching our heads! They were all discovered at the bottom of the medieval drawbridge pit we excavated at Pontefract Castle, below a layer of rubble from when the castle was demolished c. 1649, and therefore must be from the time of the English Civil War or earlier. None of them are the same weight, but the darkest one is approximately 56g. Similar items have been found at archaeological sites from many different periods and there is no consensus on what they are. Some suggestions include weights, gaming pieces, children’s toys, projectiles, and pot lids – we’d love to hear what you think they are in the comments!

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The centrepiece of a long-lost Tudor garden, Sudeley Castle

One of our biggest discoveries of the year was an enormous circular ditch, with a circular island in the middle. It’s so bid that it took ten days of excavation to unearth, and at the bottom it seemed to be lined with clay. We think it represents the very centre of a lost Tudor garden which would once have spanned the entire field to the northeast of Sudeley Castle. Very few original Tudor gardens survive, and whether the centrepiece was an enormous flowerbed, or a water feature like fountain, or a performance space (like the one at Hampton Court Palace) is yet to be established, but you can help us find the answer when we return to continue excavating in 2020.

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Artefacts from the English Civil War, Pontefract Castle

On an archaeological timescale, artefacts from 300 years ago aren’t very old, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Pontefract Castle was sieged three times during the English Civil War, when the country was fighting for its right to democracy. People from all over Yorkshire came to help us excavate the moat and drawbridge pit, and the artefacts we found there were incredibly humbling. From the grape shot and musket balls which would have been fired in battle, to the glazed purple-brown jar and lace-maker’s bobbin, each one reminds us of the people who lived, fought and died in the struggle for a more democratic England, in an effort to bring power to the people.

Two copper rings still on a finger, Lindisfarne

Apart from being slightly uncanny, there is something very moving about this discovery. The finger, which still has two copper rings on it, wasn’t found with the rest of its skeleton; it was found in isolation. However, the area where it was found does include part of an early medieval Christian cemetery, which was later disturbed by ploughing. If this finger did indeed get separated from its original burial place, then this would make these two rings the very first grave goods or personal possessions to be found on the site – very unusual for an early medieval Christian cemetery like this. After four seasons of excavation on Lindisfarne, this is the only individual we’ve found who has been buried with anything other than a handful of white quartz pebbles.

And more…

There are plenty more exciting discoveries that are yet to be announced. Stay tuned for a ‘big reveal’ at the start of 2020…

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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