It’s February 2020, and archeologists on a site in the northern English city of Leeds are examining a staircase from the Victorian era. And what lay beneath the steps would shock the researchers. Indeed, the find from over a century ago wasn’t just fascinating, it was also highly toxic.
The city in which the dig took place is in the county of Yorkshire, which is home to a number of other fascinating archeological sites – including from the prehistoric era. But returning to 2020, the team involved in the Leeds dig were about to make a bizarre discovery.
The excavation took place in Leeds’ Brewery Wharf car park and began as part of exploratory work prior to the construction of a public park and residential buildings. Meanwhile, the dig itself was undertaken by Archaeological Services WYAS, which is a part of a wider organization called West Yorkshire Joint Services.
West Yorkshire Joint Services is a multi-discipline agency that takes on not just archeological and historical cases, but criminal ones as well. From testing for asbestos to landscape surveys, financial crime and trading standards issues, the organization works in many fields. Recent victories, in fact, involved food fraud and illegal tobacco sales. But they’ve also been busy on the excavation front.
Another one of the organization’s branches – the West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service – conducted an excavation of a 12th-century monastery called Kirkstall Abbey. The two-stage project saw experts first excavate an on-site guest house, while the second effort saw the team digging in the wider vicinity of the abbey. Built in around 1152, it was disestablished under Henry VIII during a period known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Stone from the building was actually later re-purposed and became part of the steps leading to Leeds Bridge. And centuries later, experts are still making fascinating discoveries around the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. Finds have included pottery, ceramics, metal and the remains of animals, all of which have given an intimate insight into life at the time.
The West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service has also been studying each district in that region of England. Specifically, it examined how societal changes between 1066 and the present day have impacted the landscape in the region. It also looked to chart how the area has evolved over that period of nearly 1,000 years.
The project – called the Historic Landscape Characterisation Report – cited the arrival of retail parks and parkland as an illustration of how our leisure habits have changed our environment. The organization also created a series of animated short films showing visually how the region has changed. Head of West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Services Ian Sanderson told the West Yorkshire Join Services website, “Through understanding the past, informed decisions can be made on future changes. [And this will] help ensure that areas in the region retain their local distinctiveness.”
Evidence of human occupation in the county goes back around 125,000 years, according to The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society. And experts have stumbled across some astonishing finds over the years. Indeed, from prehistoric footprints to stone circles from the Bronze Age, Yorkshire has proven to be a veritable treasure trove.
Take, for instance, the hippopotamus remains discovered in Leeds in 1851. And yes, you read that right. The bones were discovered in a brick field in the Wortley district that year and were estimated to be around 130,000 years old. Known as the Great Northern Hippopotamus, this enormous beast used to flourish in these lands.
But how did the humble hippo thrive in such a different environment? Well, it turns out that 130,000 years ago northern England and Africa had very similar climates. Phil Murphy, who is from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds University, told The Guardian in 2010, “Leeds would have been just like Africa in those days. And the climate would have been exactly the same as hippos enjoy in that continent today – in the so-called Ipswichian interglacial.”
Incredibly, Murphy also claimed that hippos could very well come back to England in the future. He said, “The earth has experienced some 24 periods of cooling and warming over the last 2.5 million years. Will it happen again? Almost certainly, and if it is warm enough in Leeds in the future, the hippos will return.”
Of course, hippos aren’t the only animals that have been unearthed in the area. Evidence of prehistoric creatures has also been found on a 40-mile stretch of land between the Yorkshire towns of Sansend and Filey. Thousands of trace fossils – or footprints – discovered there prove that dinosaurs did indeed once roam these lands.
Species identified by their fossilized imprints include the Megalosaurus, which apparently grew up to 40 feet long and weighed as much as two tons. This particular theropod roamed planet Earth during the Middle Jurassic period around 166 million years ago.
Fossil hunter and founder of Hidden Horizons Will Watts told The Guardian in 2017 that he and his company alone had found the footprints of 30 different types of dinosaur on the Yorkshire coast. And some of the impressions left behind are so large that they distort the layers of ground beneath them.
The footprints of sauropods have also been discovered along the Yorkshire coast, and these massive creatures could grow up to an incredible 60 feet. But even the discovery of these prints is itself rare; the whole region was flooded as the continents separated and the marks were apparently buried by over a mile of sediment before being pushed up by the tectonic plates. Guide John Hudson told blogger Duncan Craig in 2013, “One year to the next these prints can be gone.”
And from ancient feet, let’s move on to magic hands. Whitby Museum in Yorkshire is home to a rather gruesome artifact known as the Hand of Glory. Don’t let the name mislead you; while it’s definitely a hand, there’s very little that’s glorious about it. According to old European folklore, the dried digits were imbued with mystical powers and could be used in a variety of different ways.
Before a Hand of Glory could be used for ill, though, it first had to be created. This was done by chopping it off the arm of a man who had been hanged. Usually, the left hand was taken before being placed in a jar with various herbs for two weeks and subsequently placed in the sun to dry out.
Once fully dried, the Hand of Glory would allegedly make anyone who held it freeze in fear. It’s also said the mummified digits could unlock doors. Rather uniquely, it also doubled as a gruesome candle.
And then there’s the pickled human brain that excavators dug up while working on the University of York’s new campus in 2008. Researchers discovered an old skull in the boggy soil, and the brain was only discovered when work began on cleaning it.
Dating back to the Iron Age, it seems the so-called Heslington Brain belonged to a man who’d been decapitated. Experts believe that this may have a been part of a ritual sacrifice, as the rest of the victim has not been found. And while these discoveries were interesting enough, the brain contained within the skull was full of surprises, too.
The York Archaeological Trust found that the brain was in astonishingly good condition and had shrunk by just 20 percent of its original size. It’s believed that the wet underground environment in which it was discovered helped preserve the organ, and to this day it remains the best-preserved ancient brain on the planet. But equally surprising was that much of the original tissue in the brain had been replaced by an organic compound never before seen in science.
Elsewhere, the county of Yorkshire also holds another fascinating surprise. It’s believed to be the home of “the first modern lesbian.” Hidden in the beautiful 15th-century Shibden Hall were diaries from a businesswoman called Anne Lister. And the open way in which she described her life as a gay woman changed the way lesbianism would be viewed forever.
Lister was born in 1791 and she kept a diary of her life for decades. In fact, the volumes amount to several million words and cover everything from the upkeep of Shibden Hall to the politics of high society life. Discovered behind a wall panel, the journals were written in a complex code. The words were eventually deciphered in the 1890s by the last inhabitant of the hall: John Lister. And their contents were scandalous at the time.
In addition to the detailed record of 19th-century life, Lister’s diaries held within them the secrets of her personal affairs. They included her sexual relationships with women. Lister’s descriptions are graphic in places, and they changed the perception of lesbianism in the buttoned-up 1800s. Furthermore, the writer even went on to have Britain’s first-ever lesbian marriage when she took communion on Easter Sunday 1832 with her partner Anne Walker in York’s Holy Trinity Church.
Published during the 1980s and ‘90s, Anne’s graphic diaries eventually became the basis for the BBC-HBO series Gentleman Jack. The journals were also added to the register of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. According to the organization, the journals were chosen because of their “comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life…” UNESCO added, “They have shaped and continue to shape the direction of U.K. gender studies and women’s history.”
But let’s return to the toxic discovery found in the city of Leeds in 2020. Experts were digging in the Brewery Wharf car park, which sits on the old line of a street called Hunslet Lane. And the historical finds there have provided an invaluable insight into what life was like there over a century ago.
The site is right beside where the former Tetley’s Brewery once was. And the experts found some parts of the buildings were in surprisingly good condition. But it was one discovery – protected by the remains of a long-forgotten staircase – which caused quite a stir.
Stacked neatly and in pristine condition under the staircase was a cache of beer bottles dating back more than 100 years. Incredibly, over 600 of them had survived completely intact. Researchers had initially assumed that they contained ginger beer, but the reality turned out to be very different. What the team had uncovered was, in fact, highly toxic.
The bottles clearly merited further study, so samples were sent back to West Yorkshire Joint Services for further examination. Tests revealed that many of the glass containers actually held beer with a 3 percent alcohol volume. But it wasn’t the strength of the booze which concerned the experts.
Test results showed that the beer contained deadly levels of lead. The World Health Organization’s recommended level of lead per liter of water is 0.01 milligrams. The 19th-century booze, meanwhile, had 0.13 milligrams. And that led Archaeological Services WYAS to release a statement.
The organization wrote on Facebook in March 2020, “This beer would have been detrimental to health.” But how could such lethal levels of lead end up in the liquor in the first place? Well, Archaeological Services WYAS thought it had the answer, saying, “We suspect that this will be a result of water coming from lead pipes.”
At that time, pipes were often manufactured using lead, and people were only just beginning to understand the dangers of consuming anything containing the metal. But it’s not just a Victorian problem. Over 500,000 deaths worldwide in 2016 were attributed to lead poisoning, according to the World Health Organization.
Consumption of lead can lead to learning and behavioral problems in kids, while adults can experience kidney, heart and fertility issues. Other symptoms also include memory loss, male reproductive problems and abdominal pain. And with the prevalence of the metal in Victorian society – both at work and in the form of paint at home – it’s likely that some of the area’s residents will have experienced lead poisoning.
The toxic discovery has helped to highlight some of the social issues prevalent in the U.K. during the era. David Williams from Archaeological Services WYAS told the Yorkshire Evening Post in March 2020, “This excavation is giving us a great opportunity to uncover a part of Georgian and Victorian Leeds.”
Williams went on, “The results so far are giving a real insight to the daily lives of the former residents of Leeds during this period.” The toxic bottles, though, weren’t the only discovery made during the dig. West Yorkshire Joint Services’ Marina Rose told Leeds Live in March 2020, “The level of preservation in some areas was quite astonishing.”
“We know there had been so much building [on the brewery site] in recent years, so we didn’t know exactly what would be underneath,” Rose continued. “Under where the Asda petrol station is now there was a big market hall. There were a couple of breweries and maltings. There was a school close by, too. That little bit of Leeds basically had everything.”
Interestingly, the area where the excavation took place was actually one of the oldest parts of Leeds. Rose explained that the city would have extended out of that area after the medieval period. So, given that it was among the first areas to be populated, there will be likely be plenty of other treasures waiting to be unearthed. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Archaeological Services WYAS is in the process of preparing a full report into its findings. But what about the toxic beer bottles?
Well, there are plans afoot for the cache of poisonous beer. Once building work on the site is complete, the owner of the neighborhood development told The Drinks Business that they intend to display the 19th century alcohol at the former Tetley’s Brewery site. The reaction to the discovery, however, took researchers by surprise.
Rose told Leeds Live that she never expected the story to go viral. She explained, “I was amazed that this has gone so far. It’s gone all the way to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to America.” Excavation work was put on hold in March 2020, but who knows what incredible discoveries are waiting for us when the experts pick up their shovels once again.