Renovations at Historic York Guildhall Reveal Human Remains, Roman Artifacts

Ongoing work at the 15th-century municipal building has yielded an array of archaeological finds

A view of the York Guidhall
The York Guildhall, which sits on the banks of the River Ouse in northeastern England, is currently undergoing a major renovation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Last spring, York’s Guildhall found itself in dire straits. Water dripped from the 15th-century meeting hall’s ceiling, and cracks in one of its walls were so large that visitors could stick a hand straight through them, reported David Dunning for local radio station Minster FM at the time.

That fall, the local government launched a £16.5-million construction project aimed at restoring the historic building—which has stood on the banks of the River Ouse in the northeastern English city for more than 500 years—to its former glory. But the work has revealed more than just dilapidated walls: Per a statement, excavations have also unearthed some surprising archaeological finds.

Among the most significant discoveries are human remains buried in what may have been a graveyard attached to a medieval Augustinian friary. Thought to represent six individuals, the bodies were buried facing east to west, as is common in the Christian tradition, reports Chloe Laversuch for the Yorkshire Post.

Guildhall Restoration | Project Update and Archaeological discoveries

The Guildhall has served as the seat of local commerce since its construction in 1445, according to the York Museums Trust. During the 15th century, the city’s guilds, or organizations of skilled artisans and merchants, used the space for meetings. Yorkist king Richard III visited the building during his brief reign; a century later, the Guildhall hosted the trial of Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic martyr who was pressed to death in 1586.

More recently, the venue has undergone expansion—a grand Victorian council chamber completed in 1891 features stained-glass depictions of the city’s history—and reconstruction. During the Baedeker air raids of World War II, the Guildhall caught on fire and was partially destroyed. It reopened following extensive renovations in 1960.

“We were well aware of the history of the building aboveground, dating back to the 15th century all the way up to the Victorian era,” says city councilor Nigel Ayre in a video statement. “ … What we’ve actually now been able to uncover is that those layers of history don’t just continue above the surface. They continue massively underground.”

Through these new discoveries, Ayre adds, “People will be able to get a much better view of what the city was like 600 or 700 years ago.”

Workers came across the top of a skull, a ribcage and vertebrae while tearing down a wall at the site, according to the Yorkshire Post. Other remains were scattered throughout the lot, leading researchers to suspect the bodies were moved by grave robbers or inadvertently disturbed during previous construction.

Archaeologists have also identified multiple walls, remnants of ovens and the floor of a kitchen, per the statement. Records show that an Augustinian friary stood near the Guildhall in the 15th and 16th centuries but was surrendered in 1538 amid the English Reformation.

As BBC News reports, the team’s other finds include a well-preserved hairpin, a copper stylus, and pieces of roof and floor tiles tentatively dated to the Roman period.

“It is therefore possible that the medieval Friary was built over the ruins of a Roman building that once occupied the riverfront,” says Tom Coates, project supervisor for the York Archaeological Trust, in the statement.

York—then known by its Latin name, Eboracum—was established as a Roman settlement around A.D. 71, according to the Yorkshire Museum.

The latest finds are far from the first ancient discoveries at the Guildhall site: In February, archaeologists uncovered a cobbled Roman road buried some five feet below the ground’s surface, reported Mike Laycock for the York Press.

“York has been subject to extensive leveling over time,” Coates tells the Yorkshire Post, “and it’s one of the few cities in the country where you get evidence of build-up of material that spans over the past 2,000 years.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.