leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

Interesting test pits

At last the long winter is over and we’re digging test pits!  Unfortunately on Thursday and Friday, when we dug in the gardens of a convent in East Oxford, it rained most of the time and was bitterly cold and windy all the time.

The convent occupies Fairacres House, which was built in the late 18th/early 19th century. We are not absolutely sure about the previous use of the land as it isn’t in Cowley parish (which we have good maps for) but just, by 100 metres or so, in Iffley (which we don’t). To judge by the adjoining land in Cowley, though, it looks like it wasn’t part of the ridge and furrow field system, but was used as pasture. When we arrived and had a walk around it was clear that the site was on a small promontory, with the land sloping down on three sides.

One of the reasons we were here is that it is near one of the sites where the Bell Collection may have come from. This is a collection of stone tools from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. The older part of the collection came from a quarry near Donnington Bridge Road, we think from a quarry which is shown on the 1st Edition OS map, but the newer part came from a quarry somewhere around the convent. Our main problem is that Bell’s original report was lent out and never returned; the only documentation we have are some notes taken at a lecture Bell gave in the early 20th Century. The collection is held at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, where Olaf has been leading groups of us in workshops to start a much closer look at the neolithic part of the collection. So we were keeping our eyes peeled for worked flints!

Opening up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard.

Starting up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard. Jane appears to be demonstrating the art of standing with one foot off the ground.

We dug three one metre square pits at different locations.  The pit nearest to the house produced 18th and 19th century pottery and then appeared to reach sandy natural soil.  Jo and her team went on down and found the sand had been laid over soil which contained 17th and 18th century pottery and clay pipes, etc.

The middle pit near the vegetable garden contained nice top soil and then a layer of debris, bits of building material, pottery, bone and clay pipe, etc.  Under this we were very excited to find a deposit of several types of Roman pottery which had obviously not moved very far as the breaks were clean and there were no signs of long-term abrasion.  There has been no previous evidence of Roman activity in this part of Oxford – it was believed that they mostly inhabited the hills around the current city.

The end of the first day of excavating.

The end of the first day of excavating. Of course, when we were about to leave, the sun came out.

The third pit was towards the bottom of the garden closest to the river.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of prehistoric activity and found a great many flints but none particularly diagnostic for a particular period.

We found lots of small round lumps of burned charcoal, some obliviously quite modern, and were puzzled until we mentioned it to one of the sisters.  She told us they use it in the censer for incense during services and put it on the bonfire as it is considered blessed and cannot just be thrown away.  Obviously at some time it was buried in the garden.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise. This gives a better feel for what the weather was like.

On the second day we got permission from the convent’s gardener, Mark, to trample over his magnificent vegetable plot, for a bit of field walking. We drew up a plan, got Olaf to reassemble the GPS to accurately plot the blocks we had marked out, then I asked for volunteers to do the actual walking – as we had come to the back-filling by then there were no shortages on that front! . They had to walk up and then back in the furrows between the banked-up spuds, taking great care not damage Mark’s valuable crop, looking for anything of interest which had been brought to the surface by rotavating. We then ended up with one bag of finds for every square – 12 squares in all – a big thanks to Alison from the Ashmolean for her help during the whole process; it’s the first time I had done this. A quick glimpse at the contents of the bags showed, rather gratifyingly, a concentration of Roman pottery near the second test pit, seemingly tailing away with distance.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo's test pit - the one nearest the original building. I'm not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo  - she could just be hidden behind someone.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo’s test pit – the one nearest the original building. I’m not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo – she could just be hidden behind someone.

At the end of the day, after all the kit had been loaded into various cars and vans for ferrying back to our shed (along with my toolbox, packed up with the rest while I was concentrating on sorting out the field-walking finds) and everyone else had departed, we had a bit of a discussion about what we had found – obviously the Roman pottery was the high point. Not just a few isolated sherds, but a definite localised concentration. Apart from the Roman we did find a small, but significant, amount of Medieval pottery, so it would appear that this little promontory has looked like prime real estate for at least two thousand years!

We had planned on doing the washing on site, but the biting wind and generally horrid weather made us think again, and postpone it until we were indoors with a supply of warm water.

The sisters were very hospitable and took a great interest in everything we did.  We were particularly grateful for the hot tea!

Gill & Leigh

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