Archaeology in East Oxford

Blackbird Leys Test Pits

Last weekend, 5th & 6th May, the Project had a test pit weekend at Greater Leys, where the local Women’s Institute had invited us to, which is the area in the southern part of Blackbird Leys : –

The highlighted area in the south part of Blackbird Leys where the test pits were located

Here is a close up of Greater Leys – it’s all the streets to the south of  the stream which you can see picked out by the trees running from east to west; it’s a relatively modern development; late 1980s onwards, we think.

A closer-up view of Greater Leys, with the Clock House roughly in the centre

We have had a look at older maps, back to the first Ordnance Survey, to see what was there before Greater Leys was built, and it appears to be open farmland. I can’t include any of the early maps because of usage restrictions – the maps themselves, being over 120 years old, are safely out of copyright, but the people who have scanned them and made them available for academic use won’t allow display on the web. I feel a rant coming on, so I’ll just show a 1945 aerial photo from Google Earth – it’s the same scale as the map above, so you can get an idea of what the landscape was like before it was developed.

A 1945 aerial photograph of the same area as shown in the map above.

Looking at the Victoria County History for the area – it was in Sandford Parish – it appears to have been farmed for a long time, at least back to Domesday Book; Pembroke college owned a lot of the land prior to enclosure, but unfortunately there is no enclosure award. However, it does seem fairly certain that we are dealing with farmland.

We all met up at the Clock House, which is roughly in the centre of the above two maps, for an introductory talk by Jane, and to be divided up into teams to cover the 6 test pits which were to be dug over the weekend – Gill & I lead one of these teams – and then we collected our equipment (thanks to David and Louise for bringing it along from the Ark-T shed) and off we went. It’s policy not to divulge the exact addresses of where we dug, like we don’t publish photos showing the backs of peoples houses, or the way into their gardens (for obvious reasons) so all I can say is the rough area in which we were working. We keep the precise locations, but it will only be used in GIS systems for mapping distributions of finds where the data is anonymised; this is one of the main reasons for doing test pits – what you find in an individual test pit is interesting, but the more test pits you dig, the more data you collect, and you can put together a picture which is much greater than the sum of its parts. Olaf put it rather well at the post-dig meeting – imagine taking a sheet of paper with a small, square hole (1m in scale) cut in it and placing it over the plan of a large excavation of, say, a cathedral; you wouldn’t be able to work out what on earth was going on from such a tiny snapshot, you would have to move the paper around a lot to build up a coherent view of what was there.

So off to our designated back garden with Mark and Tricia, our two volunteers, where we made a start – the usual deciding where to put the pit, and measuring and aligning it before the hard work started; deturfing!

The test pit aligned north/south and squared-up – ready to go.

After the turf had been removed we started to dig down, initially just finding the sort of rubbish that you would expect on a building site; bits of plastic, binding cords, the metal straps that they bind palettes of bricks together with. The soil was very clayey – it was impossible to sieve so the two junior members of the household, Libby and Alice, set to work checking the spoil.

Everyone (apart from the Supervisor in the background!) hard at work.

This soon changed, though, when we noticed that there appeared to be a line of stones – a “linear feature” in the non-judgemental parlance – running straight across the middle of the pit, east to west. We tidied up where we had dug down to, and then proceeded to trowel off the soil carefully until we could see what we had got.

The “linear feature”, or wall as we tended to refer to it. North is to the left of the photo.

It isn’t too evident in the photo, but the soil to the north (left in the picture) was much darker than that to the south, which as we went down was chock-a-block with limestone cobbles. There were some pieces of wood to the north (the dark patches right up against the left-hand side of the wall in the photo ), right up against the wall which were sodden – you could press your finger into them. The wall itself was pretty sturdy, while the limestone cobbles came away fairly easily so we were inclined to think that they represented the “tumble”, the remnants of the wall which had been knocked off when it collapsed, or was demolished. We were quite confused at this point – as you can see from the aerial photo above , we were in the middle of a field – what was a wall doing here? Perhaps it was a pre-enclosure wall; when the enclosure happened, the new field boundaries were pretty arbitrary and quite often ignored the previous field boundaries – might this be an older field boundary or a wall of a barn (we had found virtually nothing in the way of pottery or other evidence of human habitation)? Only digging farther would give us any chance of resolving the problem.

The modern membrane which really confused us.

Linda, one of our hosts, was digging on the south side of the wall and suddenly called for a second opinion – “What’s this?” – pointing to what looked suspiciously like modern weed-suppressing membrane. This really put the cat among pigeons – what was this doing a third of metre down? Linda set-to chasing the membrane both towards the wall and also “backwards”, towards the side of the pit – to find how far it went. Mark kept on going down on the north side – he hadn’t got as far down as Linda – to see if it carried over and went all the way under the wall, while I started to take a section out of the wall, to see how far down it actually went.

The result was as you see above – it could be clearer, but the membrane extends just to the left of the end of the red line, well under what we had assumed to be the wall! So no pre-enclosure wall, then! We carried on tidying up, and if anything, it got more confusing. Under the membrane, the soil was a yellowish, sandy clay while to the north (left in the pictures) it was much darker, in places almost black, clay; the sort of deposit you get from standing or brackish water where vegetation is slowly decomposing. When I got to bottom of the wall (which was level with the membrane) it was sitting on the same clay as to the south, but darkened almost immediately at the edge of the wall. All that was left to do was fold back a bit of the membrane and use a spade to do a small sondage (a “mini pit”) to see what was underneath.

The sondage, you can just see what appears from the other pits to be the grey clay natural in the right-hand side of the bottom.

So, what to make of it all? The one thing we can be certain of is that we can’t be certain of anything. We had very few finds – more of that later – and they were in the disturbed layer above the membrane, so would have been useless for dating anyway. It seems almost inconceivable that the wall was built on top of the membrane (why on earth build a dry-stone wall just to bury it?) – so was the membrane laid up against an existing wall which slid over after being buried when all the heavy plant involved in the building work drove over it or was it piece of existing wall which had been dug up in one piece and just lifted over and dumped here (I’m not convinced by the latter; the difference in the soil type either side of the wall seems too convincing for that explanation). This is one of the frustrating aspects of doing test pits – the tiny-snap-shot side of it; to have a chance of explaining this we would have to extend the test pit into a real trench. Time, and our hosts desire for a garden to enjoy, precluded that!

So what can we say? We had some finds – two, perhaps three, pieces of pottery, one of which could be medieval – and the best piece – a worked flint, which Olaf, whos speciality is Prehistory, reckons to be a broken pointed tool, dating from between the Bronze Age to Late Neolithic (about 3,500 to 6,000 bce). There was a fair amount of broken flint (1.9kg), we think for building purposes, which Jane said was unique among the rest of the test pits and interesting in its own right as there is no flint locally, so it must have been transported here. Oddly there was no sign of a “ploughing horizon” – we know it was all fields round here, which usually leaves a clear boundary as you dig down, so we wondered if the area had been levelled down when they built the houses so the “horizon” got lost in rubble layer ensuing.

We then backfilled the pit, unfortunately leaving a bit of a bulge in the lawn; sadly inevitable when there was so many cobbles in the backfill – it will take time and rain to settle it. Then we all went back to the Clock House were we held a post-mortem. It was fascinating to hear what had been going on in the five other test pits – no other “features” but a lot more finds! To find out more about our pit, and all the others, keep an eye on the Archeox website, were we will publish all the reports in due course.

A good weekend, then. The weather stayed clement all weekend, our hosts, Linda and Andy and their two daughters, Alice and Libby, really did us proud – many thanks to them for all their kindness (and tea and coffee!). A pity we couldn’t give them something more definite, but that’s the way it pans out sometimes. We hope to return, if the WI will have us, and also want to do some field walking this autumn (the estate backs up onto open fields) which could tell us more.

Leigh & Gill


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