Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the category “Talks”

Outreach and An Alternative View

A very busy day, last Sunday.

We were up nice and early, to get to Oxford Castle where they were holding an event to tie in with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology . We had a stall there and we wanted to get there early as I was taking down an enlargement of the plan of the trench we dug around Bartlemas Chapel – it has proved to be a good starting point for conversations in the past.

When we arrived, there was, of course, no room on the table for it (it’s mounted on an A0 size sheet of card) so it got stuck on the front of the stall. We then spent the rest of the day frantically trying to stop everything blowing away; note to self – always bring industrial amounts of bluetack to all outdoor events!

Laying out all our stuff on the stall

Laying out all our stuff on the stall, Jo is mounting the plan we brought along on the right of stall.

The day went pretty well, though a lot of the passers-by were coachloads of tourists with seemingly no English, so little chance of meaningful outreach opportunities there. There were a couple of sessions of talks, the first with Peter talking about the work our Place Names group is doing, and Jo giving an overview of the project’s work this year. They were followed by David Radford, the City Archaeologist, describing burial practices in Oxford through the ages. Sounded like good stuff, but I drew the short straw and had to man the stall. A pity, but as the air-con was out, perhaps not much of a hardship!

Chatted with quite a few people, including most of the re-enactors present, it seemed, and Gill got some useful hints about where to go for more information about medieval Psalteries – they are a family of flat stringed instruments. Gill got interested when it turned out that one of the Small Finds at Minchery was a tuning peg from a psaltery, so she is doing some background research – watch this space. We stayed until just after 3 then made our way home to grab a bite to eat before the real highlight of the day.


Part of the brief given to the project from the outset was to involve as many different people as possible, to make it inclusive and bring different viewpoints to bear on the core job of archaeology. We have had several artists on board but Lucy Steggals, Filipe Sousa and Tara Franks decided on a slightly different tack to express what they thought about the project.

They had come along to a number of events, the last time – an inking workshop – they brought along a couple of tape recorders and did a series of interviews. What had stuck in their minds (and gave the show the title) was the idea of the matrix; both the Harris matrix, where one uses a matrix to sort out the temporal sequence of contexts in a trench, and the matrix of squares you get in a drawing grid.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

They then went through the recordings, selecting their favourite 25 words each (the squares in the drawing grid) and used them as a basis for editing the recordings, which they had playing on loops on headphones in the garden.

Go on, they don't bite!

Go on, they don’t bite!

As you can see, the cubes had the selected words on their sides – there were a lot more in the barn itself.  One of our favourite words was ~ish (as in early~ish, Roman~ish).  It gets used particularly on big digs before any clear pattern emerges.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

In the barn, there was a video being projected as a loop, with a recording playing and Tara accompanying on a cello – a bit I particularly liked, a rather ECM~ish (that word again) sound.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The cubes had various images which Lucy had edited out of the photos she had been taking when they had visited us, as well as the words they had extracted from the interviews. We could wander around and get different views of the projection.


Filipe, one of the creators.

Filipe, one of the creators.

We were invited to play around with the cubes, rearranging them as we saw fit, a task which some of us took to with enthusiasm.

Deconstructing the cubes!

Deconstructing the cubes!

I can’t really do justice to what was a visual, audio and (see above) tactile experience; as they say, you had to be there. It made for a great evening, and was fascinating to get an idea of how what we are doing can inspire other people to come up with a new insight.  A nice way to round off a long day.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Thanks to William’s parents for allowing us to use his image in the blog.

Leigh and Gill


Community Archaeology in England

Sorry there are no pictures in this post.  Check out the links where you will find plenty of good ones. On Wednesday 6th March we had an interesting day.  We attended a Conted course (title above) subtitled ‘Exploring Challenges in Research, Management and Participation’. Most of the participants worked professionally in archaeology or some other part of heritage and four were volunteers with the East Oxford archaeology and History Project (Archeox).

David Griffiths introduced the day by saying the theme of the morning was research strategies and outcomes.  Two things he mentioned stuck in my mind: how to make projects self-sustaining in the long-term and how to evaluate success.  He hoped the day would provide ideas towards providing answers to these problems.

The first talk was by Nathalie Cohen of the Thames Discovery Project .  It was fascinating and the project obviously deserved its CBA Best Community Archaeology Project last year.  Check out their website – they have done far more than I could describe here.  Their remit was to investigate the inter-tidal foreshore of the Thames throughout the whole of tidal  Greater London.  They have had 388 people out on the foreshore and have engaged 2000 through their excellent website.  Structures have been at the centre of their work since artefacts can only be collected by licensed ‘mudlarkers’.  Fishtraps are a good example and many new ones have been identified. It looks like they have a sold future with many groups emerging to undertake further projects.   Nathalie asked for feedback on the website so get checking!

The second talk was by one of Archeox’s own Project Officers, Olaf Bayer.  A friend of his, who worked for English Heritage, had identified some interesting crop marks in aerial photographs of an uninvestigated piece of Cranborne Chase at Damerham on the boundaries of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire.  He wanted to establish a research project to see if there were remains on the ground and asked Olaf and others to help in their own time.  They decided (as they were all outsiders to the area) to involve locals.  One woman in particular, Robin, proved invaluable in getting others to help and in organising their time.  The landowners were also helpful.  The team surveyed the area of the crop marks and found clear evidence of ditches and a larger circular structure.  A long barrow was exactly where they expected and still shows clearly above the ground.  There was an anomaly showing in the barrow which they decided to dig.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of previous antiquarian investigation but actually the site proved to have been used as a chalk quarry.  The whole area in under deep ploughing so the investigation was timely.

A most perplexing response followed from some of the first participants to ask Olaf a question.  One woman asked why, when so many long barrows had already been dug, did they feel it necessary to dig another.  Was it just to give some digging experience to the volunteers?  I think I have given a clear outline of what Olaf said so I could not imagine why she asked this.  Olaf responded by repeating some points from his comments and pointed out (again) that the whole area is under heavy agricultural use and the sites were likely to disappear in the next few years.

The next presentation was extraordinary. Lesley Hardy talked about the Folkestone project.  As she told us, she is a social historian not an archaeologist and although there was much talk of  ‘the centrifugal pull of archaeology’ the actual part of the presentation covering the archaeology was skimmed over.  She seemed to have a somewhat patronising attitude towards volunteers which was reflected in the following discussion.

After some comments, Swii (another member of Archeox) spoke up.  Swii pointed out that she has two degrees in archaeology but was working as a volunteer on the project.  There was a distinct frisson when the assembled company realised VOLUNTEERS were present.  Swii went on to say that she would rather work with many of the volunteers on the project than many of the professionals she had encountered.  This rather put a damper on proceedings and we all went to lunch.

The published programme was slightly re-arranged for the afternoon.  The first speaker was Tara-Jane Sutcliffe who is the Co-ordinator of the CBA Community Archaeology Training Placement Scheme.  Tara-Jane directed us to some general information about the CBA and then went onto describe the work of previous bursary holders.  They have been involved with a variety of organisations and projects and all have gone on to permanent work often with the organisation with their bursary was placed.  It appears to be a very successful scheme in identifying and supporting young archaeologists to broaden their experience and learn on the job.

Next up was Jane Harrison of Archaeox whose brief was to discuss training in archaeological skills on community projects.  Jane said that the project started with workshops and talks before proceeding with practical digging.  The latter started with test pits to develop volunteer  skills.  From experience, Jane believes in training on the job.  You are taken through what needs to be done at your own pace and, once confident, left to get on with it under increasingly light supervision.  Jane emphasised that, in her experience, volunteers knew when to ask questions and the team all encouraged this.  ‘Core’ (ie highly trained) volunteers would be used to train newer volunteers and a mixture of both would be involved in all aspects of any part of the project.  I then said my piece on the NVQ which some of the volunteers with Jo, our CBA bursary holder, are doing.  I emphasised the advantages for community volunteers in that the NVQ is not academic but practical.  It provides a method of getting formal credit for work you are doing anyway.  When achieved, you have the right to join the Council for British Archaeology so can officially call yourself an archaeologist.

Jo Robinson, the CBA bursary holder, took up the tale with an account of her year with the Archeox project.  The amount of outreach Jo has been doing was unknown in total even to the Archeox volunteers present (though we all knew some) and we found it very impressive.  Social media outreach has been part of Jo’s brief as well and she has been very successful in getting ‘followers’ on Twitter and Facebook.  Leigh then stood up to describe how he started this blog, emphasising that archaeology is all about communication or it is pointless. (There had been some muttering from other participants on the lines of ‘what is the point?’)  I somehow doubt whether most of the audience will ever bother to read this.

The last session, after tea, was fascinating.  Richard Osgood of the Ministry of Defence Estates had been asked to set up an archaeology session for a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Apparently, the only thing which prevented him from committing suicide was watching back-to-back episodes of Time Team.  Richard duly set up Operation Nightingale which involved archaeology sessions with a very clear-headed project design.  The first soldiers to be involved were the Rifles who have the worst level of PTSD.  Many are very young and have little education and the social aspects of the project are crucial.  Many of the participants were sent straight home on returning from Iraq or Afghanistan and had no chance to talk through their experiences.  The project won an award for rehabilitation. Richard hopes to extend the project to other regiments as it has been so successful in providing soldiers with skills and confidence.  A very impressive end to the day.

The overall impression at the end of the day was that no two community projects are alike.  The best advice came from Richard in the last talk when he described their project design:

  • Define your community
  • Define why you are undertaking the work (for participants and site)
  • Define your objectives for results
  • Define your methodology to achieve results
  • Define your methods of assessing results
  • Examine ways of improving
  • Start process again


Vikings in the Thames Valley

On Wednesday this week, Dr David Griffiths, Director of Studies in Archaeology in the Department for Continuing Education, as well as one of the leaders in the Archeox project, gave us a talk about the Vikings in the Thames Valley, especially East Oxford.

As an aside, David mentioned that though we did not win the British Archaeology Community Archaeology award this year, we did get a “Highly Recommended”, and on our first try – so we look forward to the next time round (I think it’s in two years time).

And so, on to the Vikings. David started by asking – Why did they come over here? A number of different reasons have been put forward for the sudden eruption of the Norsemen onto the English scene –

Environmental change – had the conditions in the Viking homelands changed, altering the population that the land could support?

Politics – both internal; it was a period in which power was being consolidated centrally, were certain factions moving/being moved on? and externally; there was a general weakening of authority in many of the kingdoms of Europe at the time, creating “opportunities”.

Younger sons – the perennial problem in a society which held to primogeniture, compounded by the Viking practice of polygamy, what to do with all the other sons?

Improved boat & ship technology – they came because they could.

The answer is most probably a combination of all these answers, with the mix varying over time as the conditions change, just as their behaviour changed; while the standard image is of shield-chewing berserkers, they were traders and settlers as well, depending on the situation – they way they acted was on a par with many other contemporary people.

The first time a violent confrontation is mentioned is in 789, in the Isle of Portland, Dorset, where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that the Reeve of Wessex is killed by Norwegians. This is followed in 793 by the much more famous raid on the Priory of Lindisfarne.

“AD. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”

Entry for the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle

These raids continued for the next 50 years or so, with the Vikings overwintering around 850 on the Isle of Thanet, raiding further and further up the Thames Valley – in 853 the men of Surrey fought “heathen hosts”, by 871 they were fighting at Reading, and in the 870’s they overwintered at Cirencester.

The tide turned in 878, when Alfred, King of Wessex, defeated the Vikings at Edington and the line defining the Danelaw was agreed on.

Map showing the rough boundary of the Danelaw, and place names showing Viking origins

Edward the Elder, Alfred’s successor, pushed the Vikings further North and East, confining them to York and Cumbria, and AEthelstan completed the task in 930, seizing York and razing its fortifications.

It was Alfred, though, who made the lasting changes upon which the reconquest was built; the introduction of fortified burhs – Oxford being one. These were fortified towns, with their own mints, to which the local population could retire – the Viking strength lay in the speed with which they could move their troops rather than any inherent superiority, and long-term sieges were not their forte.

The burghs established by Alfred (solid squares) and other Anglo-Saxon defences – from The Bughal Hidage approx 911-914

Alfred also set up a series of beacons to aid in communication, again a response to the speed with which the Vikings could move around.

There is still some uncertainty about the extent of Anglo-Saxon Oxford – we know where the north gate was, as the tower associated with it still exists (St Michael at Northgate in Cornmarket Street) and St George’s Tower in Oxford Castle is believed to be Saxon, though it has few actual features, and stone walls are not very datable. The southgate is generally believed have stood on the site of its medieval successor in St Aldates adjacent to the south-west tower of Christ Church. The west gate is the most problematical, whether there was a small burh with a wall roughly along School Street and Oriel Street, with the town being extended east at a later date, or if the original wall was at Longwall Street.

Though these burhs were set up as a response to Viking incursion, as time went by, the Vikings started to mingle with the local population – though west and south of the Danelaw there is now very little sign of their presence in place names (see map above) they were certainly here. As evidence, there is the famous quote by John of Wallingford (not far from Oxford):-

“the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”

Over sexed, over groomed and over here!

This led to a degree of resentment, which culminated in the infamous St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, when Æthelred the Unready (Unrede; it actually means ill-advised) ordered the massacre of all Vikings throughout his kingdom. As he himself wrote two years later : –

“a decree was sent out by me, with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle [weeds] amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”

Recently, evidence of this massacre may have been uncovered at an excavation by Thames Valley Archaeological Services at St John’s on St Giles – a number of skeletons were discovered which had been dumped (literally) in the remains of the surrounding ditch of an early Bronze Age henge. 34 to 38 young males, mainly between 16 and 35 years old, many showing stab wounds in the back and other signs of a violent death as well as signs of burning, were found but they had all been stripped, so no dating evidence was found. Radio-carbon dating gave a spread of dates earlier than the massacre, but when the isotope balance was investigated, it was apparent that these people had had a diet which was high in fish and seafood (pointing to a Scandinavian rather than Anglo-Saxon origin) – this has a well known effect of  altering the radio-carbon dating.

Other evidence of Viking occupation has been found in the bank of the Cherwell by Magdalen Bridge – couple of mis-matched high-status stirrups (now in the Ashmolean). David had asked Jenni to look into these and she reported that she did not think this was part of a burial, more like a votive offering – but David pointed out that the location was interesting; near to St Clements.

St Clement was popular saint in Viking culture when they converted to Christianity (originally by Saint Olaf, king of Norway, whose approach to evangelism was “convert or die”) – he was martyred in Russia by drowning – there is a St Clements Danes church in London and Barbara Crawford has pointed out that churches dedicated to St Clements are often located at one end of a bridge. The original location of  the church in St Clements was by the bridge (where the Plain is now; the roundabout is the old cemetery) which fits in with that idea, and David speculated that the curvature in the streets in St Clements near Magdalen Bridge might reflect the layout of an early Viking fortified settlement, rather than the curves of medieval strip farming.

David concluded by pointing out that as we know that there were Vikings in the area, all we now have to do is go out find some more evidence!


Animal bones

We have now had two interesting workshops on animal bones, run by Julie Hamilton.  The first one (at Rewley House) was on bone identification and we were given lots of handouts to help and forms to fill in.  There were also a great many reference books, more of which more later.  We were divided into groups of three and asked to select a bag of bones from one context to look at.

The first session at Rewley House

The idea was to decide whether any of the pieces of bone were identifiable or just bits of generic stuff.  The identifiable bones were each given a finds bag and a form of their own  ALL LABELLED WITH THE CONTEXT NUMBER.  First we had to identify from which part of the animal the bone had come and what it might be (tibia? metacarpal?).  Then we had to decide what species it came from.  This is where we used the reference books.  They are designed for professionals who know all the taxonomy, not for amateurs who just riffle hopefully through the pages looking for something similar.  Even for professionals, I imagine they are pretty hard to use.  Leigh and I were working with Christopher and took it turns to examine the bones, look through the books and fill out  the forms.  Julie approved our oddments as oddments so we bagged them up, weighed them, and filled out the top part of the form.

Then we looked at the other bones in detail.  The form includes a section for site code, context number, type of bone and supposed species and a place to put the number of pieces of bone in the bag and the overall weight.

Bones from one context, sorted into groups

We worked on contexts which Leigh had dug and found cattle and horse teeth, cattle, pig and goat or sheep bone and some horse bone.  One of the most interesting things to come out of the afternoon was that there was quite a lot of horse bone compared with other sites which will need some thinking about.  We got through the bulk of the finds bags but there are still more to do.

The second workshop (at Ark-T) was partly a continuation of the first one for people who had not sorted bones before.  Again we worked in groups.  Some of us who had been on the first workshop filled out the next part of the form for the finds we sorted last time.

The second session, at the ArkT Center

This time, we were looking at the condition of all the bones (including the generic bits) to see if they were marked in any way, stained, chewed or burnt.  We found a number of pieces with butchery marks and some dark coloured ones which may have been burnt.  The last mentioned were quite shiny and polished.  We also found several bones which had probably been gnawed by carnivores.  There were places on the form to put all this information.  An interesting bone was a small piece of sacrum which had been neatly cut in half.  This suggests the whole animal was cut in half through the spine which is a butchery practice from medieval or later times.  Another set of three bones fitted together exactly to make a single complete bird bone from a domestic fowl, probably a chicken.   Julie, Jo and Jane were very patient with us and we all had a good time.

The third session, again at Rewley House, continued on from where the previous two session had left off; we consolidated all the info that we had worked out up to now. While before we had been separating out the bones into smaller groups of similar types, or even single examples of identifiable specimens, now we drew all the information together so that each context had just one form (as opposed to each group having one form) which summarised all our work up to that point. The last task, for which Jo volunteered (honest, no arm twisting!) was entering all the info into a spreadsheet, for Julie to mull over – she will produce an assessment report; not final conclusions, but a road map recommending how to go forward with the investigation. There is still quite a bit left to do, but we have made big inroads into the mass of finds, and learnt a lot on the way – mainly about how complicated animal skeletons are and what a maze of Latin terms are involved!


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!

Leopold Street Hoard

We had the pleasure of attending a talk on Sunday, 18th March, at the Ashmolean given by Professor Richard Bradley on the Leopold Street Bronze Hoard.
Alison Roberts, Curator, Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean, had kindly arranged to have the hoard available for us to examine (with gloves on). This was a first for all of us but also, surprisingly, for Professor Bradley!
The following is our description of the talk and should not be taken as a verbatim report. And of course, any errors or glaring omissions are our own.
First off, before we start to describe the talk, a description of the hoard, or rather, the two hoards, as Alison had got both the Leopold Street hoard and the Burgess’ Meadow hoard (another Bronze Age hoard) out for us to examine.

The two hoards laid out for our inspection (the Leopold Street hoard is the closer one)

First the Burgess’ Meadow hoard, strictly speaking, not in East Oxford, but on the east side of Port Meadow, discovered in 1830; it consists of 7 pieces as follows: –
1    A palstave – an type early bronze axe, common in the mid Bronze Age, rather confusingly named after the Icelandic name for a digging tool.
2,3    Two socketed and looped spearheads, one incomplete
4    A tanged chisel, which shows signs of considerable use
5    A thin implement, perhaps a knife, or part of a knife
6    A rod or ingot with rounded ends and the surface hammered all over
7    A socketed hammer
The larger hoard, which was discovered about 1881, in the course of drainage-works for tramway stables in Leopold Street off Cowley Road (long gone, now Galpin Close). A much simpler collection, it consists of 11 items:-
1    A socket, looped celt – a socketed axe with a loop for securing the axe to its haft
2    A large looped palstave
3    The butt end and half the blade of a smaller looped palstave
4-10    Seven palstaves without loops – these have been assumed in the past to have been from the same mould
11    Part of the blade of a palstave
All the palstaves are of a similar size and weight (taking into account different wear and erosion)
After a brief description of the two hoards, Professor Bradley then posed the question – what is a hoard? Somewhat like a ‘site’, the term is rather flexible, and can change over time. When the two hoards on display were discovered, the term was taken to mean a collection of objects, usually metal, deposited at the same time. They were regarded as very useful for the construction of a ‘comparative chronology’ on the assumption that being buried at the same time, they were of the same age.
This idea of the hoard being of the same age came about from the prevailing mind-set of the time – the 19th and early 20th century archaeologists thought in terms of trade and manufacture – hence the assumption arising that the hoards were either the ‘wallet’ or stock-in-trade of a traveling smith, or perhaps a salesman, or goods buried in times of conflict.
However, these ideas, so well presented to the Society of Antiquaries on 23rd March, 1916 by E Thurlow Leeds, have gradually unraveled as time has progressed. As Professor Bradley pointed out, the use of hoards for constructing a taphonomy has been superseded by radio carbon dating, as fragments of the hafts of axes and spears have provided enough organic material for absolute dating, as well as the rather strange fact that no bronze age hoard has been found closely associated with any settlements.
Also, Ben Roberts of the British Museum, has demonstrated with the Salisbury hoard, being buried together does not necessarily mean contemporaneous – the pieces dated from between 2400 BC and 200 BC (roughly when the assemblage was buried). The “buried in times of conflict” theory is also rather suspect as the main evidence for conflict comes from finding buried hoards.

Professor Bradley taking questions after his talk

As the 20th century progressed, Professor Bradley referred to the broadening of the term ‘hoard’ to include stone axes, for example, which had been buried collectively long before metal hoards and also the increasing awareness of anthropology and ethnography. We now know (or are more aware) that many societies regard metalwork as akin to magic, and it is surrounded by myth and ritual; for instance in many African societies, only men can be involved in metalwork. Mary Helms has suggested that Bronze Age peoples might have thought of metal as a creature that grows so that something must be returned, or perhaps fed, to the earth to replace that which has been taken. From the written myths that survive we know that smiths are part of the pantheon of gods, though often deformed in some way.
This ritual aspect could also be related to cremation burials, as a smith would have been the only person with ready access to the technology to enable complete cremation – which requires a very high temperature, much higher than could be achieved in an ordinary fire.
Also, as Professor Bradley pointed out, one must account for the curious fact that often only part of an object is deposited – and which part varies across time and geography – and what happens to the unburied part? The narrow distribution of weight of the palstaves is curious too; were they being used as a form of currency, or perhaps a standardized size of ingot? And there is also the distribution of Bronze Age finds; metal objects are rarely found in burials. Axes are found in “hoards”, weapons found in rivers or bogs – a curious place to store something you presumably might need in a hurry!
The Burgess’ Meadow hoard was found by Port Meadow, which often floods, and the Leopold Street hoard was on the edge of Cowley Marsh (though more work is needed to determine exactly what was meant by the term “Marsh”). Professor Bradley has asked a successful metal detectorist how he found hoards, and he was told to “follow the spring-line”.
So it would appear that our Bronze Age ancestors were very particular about where they would deposit metal objects, though for what reasons we can only speculate, and as with many aspects of the Bronze Age it is the totality of the landscape – the “waterscape” as well as the “landscape” which must be taken into account when attempting to interpret these finds.

Leigh & Gill

Many thanks to Dr David Griffiths, Oxford Continuing Education, for letting us use the photos he took at the talk – we had a camera with us but were too engrossed to remember to use it!

Test Pit Planning Workshop

On Thursday we had a meeting at ArkT about test pits as the digging season approaches. There was a mixture of people covering the spectrum from those with experience of test pits to complete newcomers. Jane gave an introductory talk describing some of the work we had done last year, illustrated by a number of slides, including one of some particularly wet archaeologists in Iffley (Leigh had just sloped off to do time in the – dry – Ashmolean as part of the ‘Archaeology Week’ events when the picture was taken). She also described some of the test pits (and slightly more than test pits) that we’ve got penciled in and then divided us into (initially) four groups to look at the various explanatory documents given to people who have expressed an interest. It was very useful to have the input of the newcomers as they were able to say “What does that mean?” and “shouldn’t you start by saying …?”. Notes were taken to be typed up and then uploaded to Jane who will try and make some sense of them.

Our (somewhat depleted - I had gone to the Finds Washing group & Leigh was taking the photo) group

I spent most of my time in a separate group, created after we had had a bit of time doing the initial discussion, discussing finds washing. Jo, the new CBA bursary person (we’ve got to come up with something slightly snappier than that mouthful!), took notes and is writing them up. We definitely need a simpler document than the cut-and-paste document that Jane gave us!


Murdered Danes?

Last Thursday Jamie Lewis from Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS)  gave us a fascinating talk on the rescue dig at St John’s college in 2008. Jamie himself was not involved in the dig although it was almost opposite where he lived.  He was commuting daily to a dig at Gatwick Airport where he found some flints!

Towards the end of the St John’s dig, the archaeologist in charge, Sean Wallis, said they had to dig under the developers’ access ramp.  They found a mass grave containing the bones of 34 individuals, 33 male and one too young for the gender to be established.  The age ranges were:  1 under 16, 20 aged 16-25, 9 aged 26-35 and 4 over 35.  They were just thrown into a ditch, jumbled up as whole skeletons and odd bones, some showing signs of burning.

When Ceri Falys, the osteoarchaeologist, looked at them she found many injuries, 106 in total.  These included blade trauma, puncture wounds and one projectile wound.  Very few were to the head and most were in the back.  It appeared these people had not been warriors – they had almost none of the previously healed wounds commonly found in professional soldiers, though one had TB.

He told us that Oxford was founded as a ‘burh’ (fortified planned town) in 876 as a defence against the Vikings.  Later Danes settled in Oxford and would have been distinctively different from the local population.  It is recorded in a charter of 1004 that Aethelraed the Unraed (ill-advised) ordered Danes to be killed on St Brice’s Day in 1002.  He had paid them off to prevent them attacking many times but, oddly enough, they kept coming back!  The charter refers to Danes spreading ‘like cockle among wheat’.  They were also unpopular for another reason reported in a chronicle in the thirteenth century: they combed their hair every day and bathed every Saturday which gave them a big advantage when it came to seducing women…

There is an account that in Oxford, the Danes were duly slaughtered.  They fled into the church which was burnt down around them.  Are these their bones in the ditch in St John’s?

Various scientific tests were done on the bones of 13 individuals.  Analysis suggested that only one came from Scandinavia and two from the Mediterranean.  Dietary differences were only mildly significant.  However, the circumstantial evidence with regard to the injuries and burning is strong.

The final part of the mystery is that where they were dumped turns out to be the ditch of a massive henge 140m across dating from 2200BC.  There were two opposing entrances and the earliest pottery found was Grooved Ware.  Beaker pottery was found in higher levels with Roman and Iron Age pottery above that.  Jamie told us that henges were considered dangerous ‘pagan’ places where executions sometimes took place so the associated ditch would be an obvious place to dispose of the bodies.

There was a lively question and answer session and, after tea and coffee, a brief session on how TVAS work including what a desk assessment involves, holding a watching brief and so on up to an actual dig.  It was very interesting to hear from someone who has ‘been there and done it’ and there were some entertaining and enlightening anecdotes.  Jamie emphasised that archaeology is always destruction and without full recording and publication is merely destruction.

Finally there was a short debate.  Many people were upset at the thought of what happened to the Danes, some asked why no women and children?  Jamie pointed out that women and children were a commodity in Saxon times.  It was a slave society and women and children could be used or sold.  This did not cheer many of the audience.

It was a brief and vivid insight into other times.  Jamie is highly knowledgable and a natural communicator so we were sorry to finish the evening.  We wish him all the best in his move to Scotland.


More Talks

On the 16th we a talk by Carol Lister on the “Geology of Oxford” – a great talk , pitched at just the right level, for me, at least.Carol did us proud, she had obviously put a lot of work into it – had gone round the week before taking photos (in the snow!). Pity it was slightly marred by the projector which won’t focus properly (if the top of the frame is in focus, the bottom isn’t, and vice-versa) as Carol had provided a great presentation, but it would have been even better if one could have made out all the fine detail. I found the explanation she gave about interpreting geological maps (the conventions used, etc) especially interesting. Pity the definitive guide to the local geology is out of print; Carol suggested we bombard the printer with requests for a reprint!

Jane had brought along all the photographs from the Bartlemas dig (all sorted into appropriate folders – rather her than me on that one!) for those who wanted them – mainly the guys who are doing the write up; there are so many she came along with an external hard drive! I’d come with my laptop, as had Christopher, so we could transfer from Jane’s HD to our machines, then onto other peoples (large) USB sticks. Good idea, but when I started my machine up, I got the dreaded Blue Screen of Death – twice! It eventually started up , but with a lot of disk thrashing – worrying. In the end we got quite a lot of stuff transferred, though. Gill and I then had to take home the project video projector, for use in next week’s talk.

We’re really lucky to be getting Jamie – see the Blog on 22nd November last year – to give us a talk about the TVAS dig at St John’s were they found a mass burial and parts of a (big) henge. The trouble is, he’s almost fully booked up (just about to move to Scotland) and could only manage one date, the 23rd, which, Sod’s law operating on overtime, was when both Jane & David had prior engagements. So a number of us volunteered to take care of things on the evening, and as Gill & I were the only people who had both volunteered and been to Old Marston to hear from Jamie about the dig at the ‘Bricklayers Arms’, we got promoted! Hence having to go along to ArkT to learn about the locking-up procedure (though Louise is going to be there to hold our hands, thankfully) & taking the kit along to the talk.

But with a bit of luck, we won’t need to take the projector along as the Centre is getting a spiffy new projector, permanently mounted up in the lighting rig. We are keeping our fingers crossed as apart from sparing us lugging delicate kit around (the very expensive bulbs in video projectors are like theatrical lighting bulbs, they really don’t like being knocked about), it would also get round the focus problem with the current Archeox projector.

I didn’t have any time to think about the previous night’s problems with the laptop as I was giving a talk about maps to the Place Names group the next evening, so I spent the whole of the next day preparing for that. In case I’m giving the impression that I’m panicking (though I am) and leaving everything until the last minute, I have been giving it a lot of thought; I just (!) need to put the whole thing together in PowerPoint (Joy!). Got the whole thing done then, unsurprisingly, double-checked that I had got the latest, complete, version on my USB stick and then of to Rewley House.

Jane popped in to make sure I knew how to operate the projector and then left me to it – she was off to see her daughter in a concert. Interesting meeting – all the guys in the Place Names group giving updates on their progress – then I had to do my bit; about Maps and GIS (Geographical Information Systems), which went off quite well, I think. Though I wish I had had a play around with the pointer before hand. It was only after about three-quarters of the talk that I discovered, by accident, of course, that you could use the pointer to change slides as well! Now that would have been handy to know from the word go.

Next day, on Saturday. I thought I’d have a look at my laptop only to discover that the hard disk had failed – Oh Woe! Oh something rude in Latin! So I’m writing the draft of this while doing the computer equivalent of watching paint dry – watching while a backup package tries to recover as much as possible to another disk. It started off by saying it would take 24 mins – it’s now 1 hr 37m later; I’m not the world’s fastest writer!

So, let that that be a lesson to you all – do backups while you have a clean system.

Talks & Maps – continued

Strange sort of first half to February; we seem to have been really busy, but when I look at the diary then there were only about 4 entries. I must have been doing a lot of stuff in between!

On Tuesday 6th we went to Rewley House to see Paula give a talk, on behalf of OAHS (the Oxfordshire Architectural & Historical Society), on ‘Later Prehistoric and Romano-British Landscapes on the Berkshire Downs’, based on her doctoral thesis. Really interesting & Paula managed to ignore the seeming random workings of Powerpoint – the slides kept on changing for no apparent reason. I’m looking forward to the book, but as it’s a subject which lends itself to lots of photos, she says she is having a real struggle getting all the copyright issues sorted out. It was also a chance to say goodbye to Paula as she is moving on – I’m sure I speak for everyone on the project when I say how sorry we all are to see her go, and wish her all the best – though I’m sure we’ll see her again as she still has work in Oxford.

I was down at the OHC again to meet Graeme & Christopher to do some photography & research – it turned out (for me at least) to be mainly photography. I did find some references to more enclosure maps, so next time I go there I’ll check them out – in the on-line catalogue there are also a load of references to”Enclosure Award”s; nothing more, so each one will have to be pulled out to check what they are actually all about. I’ll be back sometime next week to take some photos to fill in the gaps in the series – I need to take close-ups of the folded map to avoid all the cracks, joins and missing bits in the rolled up map. I need the extra photos as I’m using the tracing I did as a template to morph the close-up photos I’ve taken, restoring the correct x-y coordinate relationship which was lost as the camera was not exactly parallel to the map when the photos were taken. Using the photos gives me a lot more fine detail than the tracing – there is a limit to how often one can sharpen even a 6H pencil without losing one’s marbles!

On the 14th Gill & I went to the ArkT Centre to meet Hazel, who manages the Centre, so she could take us through the procedure for locking up the centre as we are going to be responsible (with lots of help) for doing it for Jamie’s talk on the 23rd.We also picked up the remaining unwashed Bartlemas finds (they half fill a small box – not enough to organise another finds washing event) and the still damp finds from the last finds washing session. The shed is pretty damp in this sort of weather so we thought we’d take the stuff home to dry it and bag it up. Gill will be reporting back on how that’s going and the next step in the finds sorting & reporting procedure – volunteers will be needed!

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