Archaeology in East Oxford

Prehistoric Landscapes

On Thursday, 17th May, Olaf Bayer, our new Project Officer, gave a talk entitled “Prehistoric Landscapes” at the ArkT Centre in Church Cowley.  Sorry about the lack of photos, but as he was using the projector, the light levels were a bit low, and I didn’t want to get into all the copyright problems involved with asking if I could use some of his PowerPoint slides. He was introduced by Dr David Griffiths, who also mentioned that the Archeox project had been shortlisted (last three) for the Best Community Archaeology Project for this years British Archaeology Awards – though we won’t know the final results until early July, so stick around!

Olaf started off with some definitions: –

Mesolithic       10,000 BC to 4,000 BC

Neolithic           4,000 BC to   2,000 BC

Bronze Age       2,000 BC to      500 BC

Then he went on to sketch out some of the salient points to remember about the periods; it was a transitional time, with people slowly changing from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers – from a mobile life-style to a much more stable one. Though he emphasised that this was not sudden change; it was a slow process, with hunter-gatherers starting to manipulate their landscape and gradually starting to extend the periods when they stayed in one place until eventually they ended up permanently occupying one site.

He then described the characteristic technologies of the periods; in the Mesolithic microliths (small, sharp flints which were mounted side by side in hafts to produce tools) predominated, then in the Neolithic ground stone tools (handaxes, etc) appeared, to be followed by copper – the Chalcolithic – and then bronze – the Bronze age, by which time the use of stone tools had been mainly abandoned. Along side the changes in technology, there were allied changes in the monuments that these people have left in the landscape,  from burial sites, to tombs, to enclosures. Then to the idea of “Landscape” itself – not just a view, nor just a map, or even a set of resources – more a meaningfully inhabited space. In all human behaviour, there are always choices to be made – this would have been as true in Mesolithic times as it is today.

After laying this groundwork, Olaf went on to describe his post-grad work in the lower Exe valley, Devon where the Culm to the East and the Creedy, to the West joined the Exe. This is a broad valley, defined by areas of hard geology to North and South, which has been extensively farmed since Neolithic times, so the soil has been churned up by ploughing since time immemorial; so one of the main lines of investigation Olaf followed was a collection of stone tools (over 16,000!) amassed by extensive field-walking by John Uglow (1921 – 2007) and Thurston Shaw (later of Cambridge University). Rather than measure each and every item in the collection and apply statistical analysis, for some strange reason Olaf decided to select a sample which could be dated with a degree of certainty (this was done by use the “debetage” – the chippings left over from stone working – which gives different chippings if one is producing long stone blades, say, as opposed to small flaked blades) of about 1-2% of the whole collection, about 250 items. These were then mapped so as to show their distribution in time as well as place – two of the main conclusions Olaf drew were A): that there were other reasons apart from just resources that determined where people were gathering, and also, rather interestingly, B): that there seemed to be no difference in finds density between “ritual” sites and other sites (in more recent periods one can tell a church, say, from a house, by the difference in the assemblage of finds).

Olaf then talked about the various methods he had used to investigate the current landscape in order to tease out what remains from past – hard enough at the best of times, but this area had, as mentioned above, been under the plough for centuries. He used aerial photography (to see crop-marks and the like)  and LIDAR, a method using airborne lasers to obtain very accurate elevation data. LIDAR is useful not only for its inherent accuracy, but also for the way in which the data can be manipulated to bring out details which would otherwise be missed. Most rivers and their surrounds have been LIDAR mapped for information about flooding, but the data that has been obtained this way is an invaluable archaeological resource. These views were then used to pin-point areas for further investigation – geophysics leading to excavation.

We were shown slides of a couple of trenches Olaf had put across a the ditch defining a large enclosure – the trouble he found (apart from the weather) was that the soil was such that there was very little discernible difference in soil colour between the normal ploughed soil and the ditch infill. He had decided to put in a large “sondage” – in this case a mini-trench within the main trench going from one side to the other – to obtain a section across the ditch. Even this was difficult to unpick as worm- and root-action had blurred any sharp distinctions; the main definition between the soil and the infill was the angle of the large stones which had fallen into the ditch and lain at an angle on the side of the ditch! The dating evidence was pretty uncertain too – Olaf had some radiocarbon dating done, but the samples were so small that they could have been moved through the soil by worms or even gravity, so that Olaf reckoned he could not really draw any firm conclusions from the dates he got, even though they were pretty accurate in themselves – it could well have been Bronze age, but could also have been post-medieval . As we are finding out for our selves – trying to reconstruct a story from the evidence in the ground can be incredibly difficult!

He then went on to refer to a dig he has been involved with at Damerham, West Hampshire, which is a combination of university placements and community archaeology – as we were getting near the coffee break, he showed us a couple of slides and pointed us at the website.

After the break he continued by describing how he was planning to go about trying to obtain information about the prehistoric landscape in East Oxford. There is plenty of evidence of prehistoric activity – “crop-marks” in university Park, evidence from various excavations (a henge, circular enclosures) in the centre, so we know the area has been occupied for a long time – so where to start?

Initially, a look at the collections of stone tools, etc held in the various museums and collections in Oxford (The Pitt-Rivers, Ashmolean, County records etc) and looking at aerial photos of the area (aerial photography was almost invented around here). As I mentioned in an earlier blog (the recent one about geophysics) Olaf wants to do gradiometer surveys of as much of the open spaces as we can get our hands (or wellied feet) on and when the time is right (one needs to do it after the crops have been harvested and the area ploughed, and just after rain, to damp down the dust), we could do some field walking to the south of our area – south of Greater Leys and Littlemore. Apart from that, we need to carry on with the test pits, and inquiring about finds which people may have turned up in their gardens and allotments – not much to do then.

A fascinating talk, and an intimation of lots of interesting work to come – so much so that some of us (all of the professionals and a few of the volunteers) repaired to the pub (the Rusty Bicycle) to carry on the intellectual discussion – the highlight of which seemed to be how to wind up thirsty , but broke, theology students!


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