Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “background history”

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


Minchery Priory – Preparation

At last I’m able to get around to talking about last year’s Big Dig at Minchery Paddock – we have had to take some time off owing to day-to-day life intruding. Neither of us had imagined how complicated and time consuming selling our place in London was going to be; however we are now (fingers crossed) on the last lap so can devote a bit more time to the important things in life!

After a whole lot of work on the Team’s part, they got permission from Oxford City Council to dig in Minchery Paddock; a closed-off (in the sense of preventing vehicles in) field as shown on the map.

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Here is a close up, showing where the paddock was in relation to the Kassam Stadium (to the right) and Oxford Science Park (to the left).

Close-up of the map above.

Close-up of the map above.

Both maps courtesy of Open Street Map –  © OpenStreetMap contributors.

The site is of interest because of the proximity of Minchery Priory – in the map you can see a building just next to the bottom right of the site; this is the “Priory and ?” pub, a Grade II* listed building,  which was rebuilt in the middle or second half of the 15th century, having been the eastern range of the cloister garth of the priory (Pantin, 1970). 

The car-park side of the Priory and ... ? pub. We never did work out what the ... ? was all about.

The car-park side of the Priory and … ? pub. We never did work out what the … ? was all about.

The name “Minchery” is derived from the Old English ‘mynecu’ or ‘minschen’, a nun. The priory (originally dedicated to St Nicholas) was founded by Robert de Sandford probably in the middle of the 12th century, was taken over by the Templars in approx. 1240 and managed by them until the order was suppressed in 1312. It was dissolved by Wolsey in 1525 after various scandals about the prioress and the nuns and passed to Cardinal (later Christ Church) College, though by 1549 it had passed into the hands of Powell family who held it until the 18th century. More information about the priory can found in an article in the VCH, and about the surrounding area in another article about Sandford, again in the VCH.

Pantin, mentioned above, has provided us with a plan of what he thought was the layout of the priory. He thought the cloister extended to the west from the existing pub, so in theory it could extend into the area which we might be digging in. However we have no really hard evidence for this, one of the reasons for digging here! The Council did think about developing the site so commissioned John Moore Heritage Services to do an evaluation of the site in 2006, which has provided us with some targets for working out where to place our trenches. Apart from this report, there have also been trenches dug when Greater Leys and the Oxford Science Park were developed. These have found prehistoric sherds and flints, evidence for Roman kilns (especially in Greater Leys), a Saxon village under the Oxford Science Park as well as evidence for medieval farm sites.

However the site did provide us with some new challenges – unlike last year at Bartlemas we did not have a friendly College to provide us with a pavilion to use for a start; we had to hire in loos, storage (especially important, we thought, after hearing some horror stories about vandalism from a nearby construction site) and a site office, and last but not least, somewhere for the poor volunteers to shelter if it tipped it down.

The other challenge was the site itself –

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared – Jane, Jo and David P surveying, and no, none of them are vertically challenged!

We had to get in a commercial crew with a tractor and flail to clear the undergrowth, and to chop back branches in the south end of the site where a whole load of self-set sycamores had grown up. This was one of the reasons for us being here – the roots of these young trees could be damaging any archaeology, especially as they were growing where there might be remains of the priory. Once the clearing had been done, in came the Portacabins and a whole load of fencing as well as a load of tracking to put down so the lorries could deliver all the stuff without getting bogged down. A big thanks to Olaf for this, it was a real bit of choreography to organise everyone arriving in the correct order.

The Portacbins installed - the blue one was for storage - the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator - the loos were round the back.

The Portacabins installed – the blue one was for storage – the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator – the loos were round the back.

While all this was going on, we also were marking out where to put the trenches. As I mentioned before, we had the John Moore Heritage Services report to use as a starting point, so we planned out trenches accordingly.

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Original diagram courtesy John Moore Heritage Services (JMH). A bit confusing of-site, as it shows a range of buildings to the north of the pub which are no longer there; it’s just a bit of a wasteland used as an overflow car park on match days and an area for a bit of gratuitous fly-tipping.

We decided on three trenches. Trench 1, at the north end of the site, up by the brook, was put in because JMH had found a layer of peat there – we wanted to take a continuous set of soil samples from this layer. Not only could we get environmental samples and therefore start to work out what the contemporary environment was like, but by doing some radiocarbon dating we will be able to find when the peat started to be layed down and when it stopped. Both are most probably linked to human activity changing the way water flowed in the area.

Trench 2, in the middle by the office and storage sheds, was put in next to two JMH trenches. JMH trench 3 which contained a couple of robber trenches and a possible boundary ditch and JMH trench 4, containing a well (which we planned on avoiding!), a hearth and a possible floor surface. As you can see from the plan, Trench 2 spanned the two JMH ones.

Trench 3 , in the south, spanned JMH trench 8 – they would have had trouble putting it in today as a tree had grown up in the middle of it – hence the rather odd shape of our trench. JMH found walls, aligned east-west , but we would have dug there anyway, owing to the proximity to the pub. While marking this trench out prior to the digger coming in, we came up against one of the drawbacks of using survey-grade GPS – the device does not like working near trees. It has to have line -of-sight contact with the satellites to work properly. I was finding one measurement would be OK, then it would give a ludicrous distance to the next plotted point. The marvels of modern technology!

Talking of which, the reason I haven’t mentioned geophysics is, as JMH discovered, the site had been used for doing a lot dodgy things to cars in the past, including torching them. This has resulted in a pretty even spread of bits of magnetised iron over the site, so a gradiometer just gives such a noisy result as to be virtually useless. That’s not taking into account that we discovered we had stumbled onto Mole Central – I would not have liked trying to walk in the nice and even style required by that sort of survey over a surface which seemed to have mole-hills on its mole-hills.

After we had marked out all of the trenches we let the digger loose –

The digger in trench 3 - you can see the pub in the background.

The digger in trench 3 – you can see the pub in the background.

The digger driver, Nigel, was a real asset; we had worked together before at Bartlemas and apart from having a real feel for the machine, and being a nice guy, he’s developing quite an interest in the archaeology. We rapidly came down onto (we hope) archeology in all three trenches – looking good for the start of the actual excavating!


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!


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