3. Heslington East and the Well in Context

3.1 Project background

Heslington East is a 116-hectare greenfield site approximately 3.5km south-east of the city of York, owned by the University of York and designated for campus expansion (Figure 1). Fieldwork was carried out here between 2007 and 2011 jointly by York Archaeological Trust, On Site Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology, University of York, in an integrated programme of research, training and commercial work.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Site location plan and the well in relation to topography © Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service. Used with permission.

The site lies on the south-facing slope of the York moraine, immediately east of the village of Heslington. Recent geological research (Cooper et al. 2007) has demonstrated that the Last Glacial Maximum was marked by the Escrick moraine to the south. When the ice sheet then wasted back, it left a further moraine complex at York associated with eskers and outwash deposits (Cooper et al. 2007), resulting in several active spring-heads on the Heslington hillside. Detailed geoarchaeological work here has identified a series of early north-south palaeochannels running down the slope, which probably created an area of standing water in the early post-glacial period in a 'wetland mosaic' attractive to humans, animals and a range of plants (Carey 2009, 168).

The earliest evidence for human activity at Heslington East comprises a number of Mesolithic stone implements, although the majority of flint and worked stone found dates to the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Makey 2009). Curvilinear ditches and watering holes evidence the first provable settlement here, from the Bronze Age onwards (Antoni et al. 2009; Bruce 2012). The Iron Age saw settlement comprising several roundhouses, some situated within elaborate ditched enclosures and rebuilt on successive occasions, and the first division of the landscape for agricultural purposes (Antoni et al. 2009).

Although the fundamentals of the Iron Age landscape seem to be unaltered in the early Roman period, significant developments occurred in the 3rd to 4th centuries evidenced by activity across the eastern part of the development area, which was terraced and divided up by ditches and cobbled trackways. Stone and timber buildings, one of the former including a hypocaust system, and several kilns were incorporated with these new arrangements, and a probable masonry mausoleum was set up at the point where the main track entered the largest enclosure. This major development of the late Roman period coincided with major shifts in Eboracum itself, within both fortress and civilian town (Ottaway 2011, 117), and in the surrounding countryside (Roskams 1999): the period around AD 200 represents, arguably, the point at which imperial authority first got a proper grip on the landscapes that supplied its material and fiscal needs.

Finally, the northern part of the monumentalised zone at Heslington then seems to have undergone further substantial changes towards the end of the 4th century. At least some of its larger installations fell out of use, replaced by newly aligned landscape divisions and a kiln plus crop driers. This period from c. AD 350 also sees fundamental transformations in York itself, with fragmentation of the architectural unity of principia and the spatial organisation of nearby barracks in its fortress, and the demise of some of its prestigious townhouses in the colonia (Roskams 1996). Critically, this is also the point at which the well, which is the focus of this article, was inserted.


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