leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

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As we approach the end of the “active” phase of the project we still have a few Test Pits to dig. We have had almost three years of doing things, then a planned one year devoted to writing everything up. The last year driving home the message that it’s all very well having fun (in sub-zero ‘summers’ and driving rain) excavating, it’s all just disciplined destruction unless the whole process is written up and – even more important – communicated.

We had been invited back to the ArkT Centre, in Church Cowley, on a combined Longest Day/Grand Opening of the Playground celebration cum fund-raiser. Before the construction of the Playground took place we had been invited in to do a couple of test pits to see what was there and had mixed results. The test pit in the back garden came up with very little, and came down on a very distinctive ‘natural’ in a short distance; it looked like leopard-skin – yellowy-orange with dark spots. We came to the conclusion that the spots were caused by the roots of the scrub which had grown up before the church had been built, drawing down organic material. As we took a sondage (a smaller pit-within-a-pit) we saw that the dark spots were like Brighton Rock; they extended down from the top so they weren’t some random thing.

The second test pit, where the playground would be built was a lot more interesting; after going down a lot deeper than the first test pit, it came down on an old surface with a ditch cut into it. The pottery in the cut of the ditch was Roman. Not unexpected, given the proximity to the Roman pottery industry, but gratifying nonetheless.

Jo showing us how it should be done!

Jo showing us how it should be done!

So we were more than happy to be invited back. Jo went over the top preparing activities for the smaller ones – colouring drawings, plenty of coloured crayons, etc – while we had plenty of spare trowels for anyone who had the urge to have a go at excavating. We arrived a couple of hours early to get the “boring” stuff out of the way; marking out the pit, de-turfing, accurately locating where the pit was, laying out the tarps and starting on the first context. At four, the doors opened and we were almost immediately inundated with children (parents staying in the background), ranging from real tinies up, who headed straight past all Jo’s carefully prepared goodies – they wanted to dig! We were relegated to explaining how to use a trowel, and rescuing any finds which got missed in all the excitement.

We did not get all that much more done that day, so decided to come back on the following day and carry on as we had really not got anywhere -just redeposited topsoil (though mustn’t underestimate the value of giving people a taste of excavating). After a bit more of the same, we started to get a fair amount of limestone rubble which, with the usual eye of faith and optimism, almost looked like a linear feature – could it be a wall? Rather oddly aligned, to be sure, but enough to spur us on.

A "linear" feature - could we have a wall? What's the technical term for wild optimism?

A “linear” feature – could we have a wall? What’s the technical term for wild optimism?

We decided to halve the test pit, that is, divide it in half and continue digging in only one half. We would draw a line East-West half way across the pit and continue to excavate the southern half – if there was a wall we would see it very clearly in the section, hopefully. As is often the case, as soon as we started to do this the whole picture changed! We came down on the same natural as we had seen in the previous test pit in the back garden of the Centre; the distinctive “Leopard Skin” soil in half of the half – the side nearest the Chapel. As we reckoned that this was the natural, we halved the half again (quartered?) and carried on down in the increasingly rubble-packed side – the West side, nearest the road.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We carried on for about another 0.4 metre, but had to call it a day then. It was getting really awkward to dig in such a confined space; if we wanted to go any further we would have had to opened up the half which we had left to give ourselves enough room to work in, and time was running out – by now it was Sunday. So what was the conclusion at the end of the day?

The rubble had been interspersed with pottery, mainly Medieval with one piece of Roman (I think), what looked like a fragment of a mortarium – it has a very distinctive surface, the “gritty” surface which was used for grinding food ingredients on. As we had reached the natural on the side of the pit closest to the chapel, I think what we were seeing was the slope down to the road. This had in the past had a retaining wall, which had been demolished and rebuilt farther away from the current chapel, encroaching on the road(some thing never change!). As all the pottery was Medieval or earlier, this demolition and rebuilding was most probably done in the Medieval period.

All that was left to do was the usual back-filling, then thanking the other volunteers for a good three days work, and retire for a rest in what remained of the weekend. We are all looking forward to hearing what an expert makes of the pottery, all the above remarks about dates were made by us volunteers, so could be slightly wide of the mark! It was pleasant to be digging in some warm weather; it did rain a bit, but at least it wasn’t the cold, windy stuff we had to put up with earlier this year.

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