No one in the column of tourists heading to York Minster along the city walls even glances at Northern House. The 1960s beige architecture slab is not a building that causes much passion.
But the layers of mud below are another matter. A plan to demolish the North House to unearth the centuries of history below and create a new Roman-themed visitor center, hotel and apartments has caused a row among archaeologists.
York Archeology Trust (YAT) has teamed up with a local developer, North Star, to propose the creation of a massive underground museum filled with Roman artefacts which they say will lie beneath Northern House.
The development of the “Roman quarter” – which will be called Eboracum, named after the Roman precursor of York – would be financed by the replacement of Northern House: a 10-storey building with an 88-room hotel, 153 apartments and offices.
Yet the plan has opponents against it, from historic England, which has described it as “confusing and contradictory”, to the Council for British Archaeology.
“We were quite shocked by the heavy-handed approach taken with this particular development,” said Neil Redfern, executive director of the ABC, which represents more than 600 institutions. Normally, archaeologists are brought on board after a development is proposed, he said, and excavations are no larger than necessary.
“What this proposal does is say no, we would like a reception center and to get this reception center we want to dig a very, very big hole to find the material that we could then put in this center of reception. And to afford it, we’re going to need a very tall building above.
“The present Northern House is certainly not a beauty,” said Johnny Hayes, a former Independent York City Councilor and veteran of several planning campaigns. “But it was built before the conservation areas were in place and two wrongs don’t make a right. If this is built I think it will become one of the most hated buildings in York.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, Redfern said. Only a third of the site would be excavated, so what will happen to the rest? The YAT is said to be no more than two years old, and digging six meters down to Roman levels means traversing Viking and Anglian deposits – what if they make an extraordinary find? What happens to the Visitor Center map if they can’t find anything? What happens if the developer goes bankrupt or sells on the building permit?
Sheltered from April hailstones at the back of Northern House, David Jennings, Managing Director of YAT, has answers to some of these questions. Techniques have improved since the 1980s, and archeology is about dealing with the unexpected, he said, confident the two-year delay would not jeopardize excavations. The reason they only dug a third of the land is because Northern House was built partly over an old gas station, which had fuel tanks dug deep into the ground, so a lot of material was lost a long time ago.
“It really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Jennings said. “It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen a dig of this magnitude.” The nearby Aviva building, built in the 1990s, was the last large-scale excavation. He revealed that there was a Roman civilian camp on the south bank of the River Ouse, with a road roughly below Tanner Row leading to a bridge to a legionary camp.
“We will be able to begin to explain the connections around the old Roman road, the economy of the city, the meats they ate. In previous excavations, we found a dormouse and pieces of Roman tents in the name of a centurion referred to at Hadrian’s Wall, Sollius Julianus,” says Jennings.
Only this area, with its hodgepodge of architectural styles created before conservation areas were invented, could support such development, Jennings said. Elsewhere in York, buildings are smaller, so developers are less likely to have to pay for archaeological research.
“It’s one of the few places where it can be done, because of the location, the scale and the relationship between us and a local development community,” Jennings said. “It comes down to whether the focus is on conservation or on new discoveries.”
York is the cradle of British archaeology. The CBA headquarters is a five-minute walk from Northern House. The city is a site of international significance in part because so much history has taken place nearby, from Constantine’s proclamation as emperor in 306 to the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, but also because the land steeped in city water has preserved so many materials.
Eboracum is said to be twice as large as the hugely successful Jorvik Viking Centre, the result of a similar archaeological dig from 1976 to 1981, also carried out by YAT – before the construction of York’s Coppergate shopping centre.
The Coppergate excavations were successful as the lack of oxygen in the water preserved the leather shoes, the timber of the two-storey Viking houses and even the pit latrines sealed with pungent lime whose aromas can still be felt in the center of Jorvik. Britain’s Covid-battered tourism industry has returned to pre-pandemic levels in York, and earlier this month saw the opening of a new City Walls center and the reopening of Clifford’s Tower, the castle of the Motte and Bailey built by William the Conqueror during his genocidal northern campaign.
“The beauty of York is that the archeology is both subterranean and aerial, as the airy expression of buildings, street patterns and housing estates reflect what is underground,” Redfern said. “York’s most treasured attribute is its human scale which emanates from the very first people who went there and started to develop this place.
“This building completely cuts through that.
“We know the York Archaeological Trust well,” Redfern added. “They form a good archaeological unit. I just don’t think they picked the right option on this one.