Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “finds”


We had a great time earlier this week.  We went to the dig at Damerham in Hampshire county, just South-West(ish) of Salisbury – see the website at the Damerham Archaeology Project.  We stayed in a local pub, the Compasses, which was very comfortable and provided good pub grub and coped beautifully with my inability to eat milk products.

The project itself is a community project led by Helen, Chris, Martyn and Olaf; that’s the same Olaf who is the Project Officer with Archeox. Olaf had suggested that we go down with him and have a couple of days down there to see how he’s been spending his summers for that last few years. As it turned out he couldn’t make it: he wanted to leave going down until the fields had been cultivated and that date seemed rather indeterminate.

One of the main reasons behind the Project is to investigate some aerial photographs, which showed some interesting crop marks, and see how they relate to the geophysics and, ultimately, to invasive (excavation) and non-invasive (field walking) techniques. The field walking has to wait until the land has been cultivated (ploughed and harrowed), so that the ground has been churned up and stuff brought to the surface – hence Olaf’s delayed arrival.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham. NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham.
NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Four trenches had been opened when we arrived as Chris explained after we had introduced ourselves. From right to left, one trench was across the ditch of the larger circular feature to the right, though no one was actually working there at that time. Below that where there was a circular feature joined to an elongated feature, Jack (Helen’s student from Kingston U.) was supervising a small trench.

Jack's trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

Jack’s trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

The largest trench had been put going away from the road across the large feature in the middle of the picture and finally, a small trench across the strange double circular feature to the left of the ‘bite’ out of the field, completed the tour.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it. Lovely weather, too!

The last feature was especially exciting as it is unique in the British Isles, the only other example being in France, in the Pas-de-Calais.

Explanations over, we set to work with Jack, sieving the spoil which had been removed by the opening of the trench. It was interesting to be excavating – well, sieving – in a completely different geology to the one we are used to. Here we were on the chalk, and only about 30-40 cm down we were down onto solid chalk, showing clearly the grooves cut by deep ploughing – though the farmer says they no longer deep plough, so the archaeology might last a bit longer.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack's trench.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack’s trench.

We sieved away all afternoon – found some flint flakes and some pottery; Medieval and earlier (well, really grotty, anyway). The flint was different – given its age and the environment, the surface changes and goes a milky-whitish colour; nothing like the flint we are accustomed to seeing. One has to look for the bulb of percussion (the little bulbous bit where the flint was struck to split it away from the original core) and the remains of the previous flakes on the dorsal side as the surface change tends to disguise the characteristic ripples that we normally see in flints in our neck of the woods. We had a lot of help as some of the volunteers from previous years had brought along their whole families.

Lots of help with the sieving - this was a quiet  moment - while Helen inspects the trench.

Lots of help with the sieving – this was a quiet moment – while Helen inspects the trench.

At the end of the day we repaired to the pub, the Compasses in Damerham, for a serious relax. We were a bit late in on the next day as we went into Fordingbridge, the nearest town of any size, to do a spot of shopping, but arrived on site at about 10. We had a look at the main trench, where it looked like they had found a couple of post holes at the top of the trench.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench - quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench – quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

Helen reckoned after all that sieving we deserved something a bit more interesting, so introduced us to Angela who was supervising the aptly named Angela’s Anomaly (I like the naming of the trenches – no Invisible Archaeologists here). We had a bit of tidying up to do – surprise, surprise – and then Helen suggested we split the ditch into six parts, so we could excavate three, and get a good number of sections.

The ditch with string already to start excavating - not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

The ditch with string already to start excavating – not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

While doing this we became aware of another difference from previous excavations; we had to ‘small find’ all finds! At least all we had to do was find Sam, Chris’ son, and he came over with a survey-grade GPS to get the location, so we didn’t have to faff around with tapes and a Dumpy level (though I do quite like doing it the old-fashioned way). We also took some soil samples as we went down, at least after we had got through the disturbed layer caused by ploughing. Another warm day so lunch came as a welcome break.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

Angela had to leave at lunchtime, so I got promoted to (nominal) trench supervisor – I wondered what Olaf had being saying about us! We kept on going down, assisted by Anthony, a very experienced digger who was familiar with chalk environments. I certainly wouldn’t have recognised the lumps of fire-affected flint which he pounced upon; he says he finds piles of them in the the New Forest where they were used to heat water. When you wet the surface you can see the fracturing caused by the thermal shock as the heated stones are put if the cold water, but dry and out of the ground they just looked like little grey pebbles to me. Gill came across a much softer bit of surface, which turned out to be an animal burrow, which after Helen dug around a bit, seemed to have a bottom layer of much darker material, perhaps an organic-rich layer washed in?

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

We weren’t the only ones to find animal burrows – in the main trench, where it was thought there were a couple of post holes it turned out the ‘complications’ were in fact a badger’s set, so a lot more tidying-up to unpick that one.

The animal burrow, a badger's set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

The animal burrow, a badger’s set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

At this point we were being helped by a group of artists from the Isle of Wight who were gathering impressions for future work, as well as experiencing excavating. It made for a busy and entertaining trench, though I rather blew it when, getting up to answer two questions at the same time, twisted and did some serious damage to my knee. Just at the end of the day, so I didn’t miss out on too much, but felt a complete idiot as I limped off to the car. Thankfully I could still drive but was really disappointed to have to miss out on Wednesday – we just drove home so I could get my leg up with cold compresses on the knee in hope that I could recover enough for the journey to the Orkneys.

Apart from the disappointing denouement, it was  great couple of days, and a really big thank you to Chris, Helen, Jack and Martyn (in strict alphabetical order) for making us so welcome, and giving us such an insight into excavating a chalky prehistoric site – we hope to be back in the future.

Leigh & Gill


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!


Test Pit 54 -part 2

Day 4 – 27th

A decent turn out today; no Gill (she had other work to do) so I took over documentation and finds work to let everyone else do the digging. Not quite true as some of the time only two people could realistically get to the area we were digging, so some of the time I had both Tricia & Leslie helping on finds.

We decided to tidy up what we had got so far before doing anything further; find out what the lumpy bit (notice the technical jargon) to the left of centre in the last photo in part one was hiding and take all of the sondage down to the same level as the top of the linear feature.

Jane turned up just as we had finished doing that and agreed with what we had thought was the best strategy; excavate the linear feature first – it looked to be the most recent activity, and then take the two sides down to whatever level the feature bottomed out at. We gave the two sides of the feature different context numbers as the soil colour was noticeably different.

I’ve put two photos together to show the different colours of the soil to either side of the feature.

The feature excavated very cleanly, and very gratifyingly had a piece of pot (which Jane later dated as Medieval) right at the bottom of what looked very like a trench which had been cut to hold the footings of a wall.

The feature, which we now believe to be the footings for a wall, excavated.

We then took out the side which we had not yet excavated, the west side of the trench, to see if the footings for the wall extended the whole width of the trench. This allowed everyone to get stuck in.

Everyone taking the “other” side of the trench down to same level as the top of the wall footings.

That about wrapped it up for the fourth day.

Day 5 – 28th

Our last day, and we were feeling a bit pressurised as we had to leave ourselves enough time to backfill the trench, but we had no idea of how far down we needed to dig in order to get to the “natural” – the natural geology which shows no evidence of human activity.

We decided to concentrate our efforts on the area underneath the wall footings; the reasoning being that anything we find in that area must have been ‘sealed’ by the wall footings, any finds would have to be older than the wall above them, while the areas to either side could have been dug out while the wall was still there. As this was such a small trench only one person could excavate it at a time, so we also decided to dig on the south side of it. We chose this side as it was darker (see the photo above), this might indicate a higher organic content. We ended up with a total depth of just under 1 metre, but don’t think we got to the natural – it just seemed to be the same, rather nice, garden soil.

The sondage under the wall footings, with the area to the south (left) which we excavated at the same time.

We tidied up, and labelled the various contexts before we took photographs.

The whole trench, labelled, just before we backfilled it, showing how the wall foundations extend the whole width of the trench.

Now the really exhausting bit started – it’s surprising how much soil comes out of a trench like this! After about an hour, though it sure felt like a lot longer, we had got the lawn back to an approximation of how it was before we started – it looks a bit messy as I put down a bit of top-soil to fill in the gaps, but after a bit of rain it should look fine.

The turf relayed, at last.

So, what does it all mean? Well, we had just about worked it out on Friday, after Steve noticed that if you looked along the line of the footings in the trench towards the wall by the road, you could see a quite obvious change in the wall, then we looked the other way, and we could just about see (there was a big magnolia in the way) a wall coming towards us. So the answer was in two parts:

1: We had a demolished boundary wall.

2: Always, always check maps and any other documentation before you even turn up on site. Totally obvious, I know, but sometimes it needs a red face to drive the message home.

A plan of the property, derived from the first series Ordnance Survey map – the red line shows the boundary wall which now no longer exists.


Lots of Practical Things

A really busy week after the building survey – we had Saturday off, just wandered down to Bartlemas and had a chat with Jane and the guys who were carrying on from where we left off the previous day. Rather disturbingly they seemed to be doing a lot more drawing than we had managed the previous day!

The next day we went down to Bartlemas Chapel again, this time to help out with the Oxford Open Doors day. This is an Oxford-wide event where all sorts of places open their doors (for free). A lot of the colleges allow much wider access than normal, and museums have special events (a lot have to be booked) like tours of their conservation facilities. As I mentioned in the last blog, Christopher and Sarah, who are trustees for the Chapel, were opening it up so we went down to give them a hand. I had printed out an A1 size enlargement of the plan of Trench 1 from the dig at the Chapel – the trench around the chapel.

The Plan of Trench 1, around the Chapel – on the day we pencilled in where we thought the footprint of the earliest chapel went.

We used this as a starting point for a description of the history of the chapel, from the 12th century on, in the light of what we had discovered from the excavation. Christopher said later on that over 200 people turned up on the day, which I think must be an under-estimate; my throat was telling my that I talked to a lot more than that.

Visitors at the Bartlemas Open Doors event, crowding around the table where we had the plan.

We are having a talk about the dig next Wednesday, the 26th, for full details go to the Archeox website. Jane and Graham took the opportunity to carry on with the survey drawings.

Graham carrying on with the survey drawing from the day before – I didn’t manage to get a picture of the rather Heath Robinson method of holding the measuring staffs against the wall of the Chapel.

I had wanted to do a bit myself, but whenever I was about to have a go, more visitors turned up – ah well, there’s always another day.

The day after we went along to another Animal Bones workshop – we are trying to finish up the initial pass through the animal bones from the Bartlemas dig, so Julie can get down to the proper analysis. Whereas in the past we were doing one step at a time – i.e. either working out what the bones were, then analysing their condition and checking if anything had happened to them (burning, being chewed, etc) and last of all, pulling all the info together onto a summary sheet for that context – this time we did them all. So we started of with a bag full of bones and ended up with a bag full of a) bags containing bones & description sheets & b) one summary sheet. This was then passed onto Julie who was stuck behind her laptop, keying in the summary sheets.

Bones separated out into groups, ready for Julie to come and tell us what they actually are, as opposed to what we thought they were – though we were starting to get better at it!

We didn’t manage to finish the whole lot, but made decent inroads; Julie ran another session on Wednesday to hopefully finish it all off. Gill could not make it, but I turned up, and with a lot of hard work we managed to get it all done – fired up by Jane announcing that she has sorted out our big dig for this year – it’s going to be at Minchery Priory, next door to the Kassam Stadium, starting at the beginning of October.

The location of this autumn’s dig.

There has been some exploratory digging done here, and as the scrubby trees are getting bigger, their roots will start to damage what archaeology there is, so the council has given us permission to do some rescue archaeology – follow this space!

Then on Thursday we had a finds sorting session at ArkT (see the earlier “Finds Sorting” blog), but this time it was the finds from the various Test Pits we have done so far – at least 52 of them.

Jane and I discussing something – not giving each other a Masonic handshake!

Again, good progress was made, and Jane has said she has had good feedback from the various experts that the sorted finds go to of the method we have adopted. Having a summary of everything in that particular context alongside photos of the complete assemblage has proved to be pretty popular. You can see (just about) from the photo how we have laid out all the finds grouped together, we take one overall photo, then as many close ups as necessary. The first session of many, I suspect.

So, as I said at the beginning, a busy week – and no let up in the near future. I’m organising a follow up dig in Iffley of the Test Pit we dug in Mill Lane for the week before the dig at Minchery Priory, there is a taster session at the Ashmolean museum where some of us are going to help out with cataloguing their collection (a never ending game of catch-up from their point of view, an excellent opportunity to broaden our knowledge of different sorts of finds from ours), a talk next Wednesday about the Bartlemas dig (see the link above) and then the start of the dig at Minchery Priory.

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!


Sorting sieved residues

Last Saturday, we were at Rewley House to sort the remains of the environmental samples from the Bartlemas dig after sieving and flotation (see previous blog).  Rebecca Nicholson,  Oxford Archaeology‘s Environmental Archaeology Manager, was there to show us how to do it.  We each had to take four bags with residues of different sizes from the different sieves.  It was very firmly impressed on us that WE MUST MAKE SURE THE SAMPLE NUMBERS AND CONTEXT NUMBERS MATCHED on  all four bags.  We were given helpful handouts and some general background info and forms to describe anything of interest in the residue.  Tweezers and magnifying glasses were also provided as well as petri dishes to put interesting stuff in.

Four bags of sieved samples, all ready to be sorted in the tray – petri dishes and finds form at hand.

Starting with the largest size (>10mm), we tipped some of the bag into a finds tray and started to sort it.  It was immediately obvious that most of my sample was small pieces of limestone rubble which was instantly discarded.  However, there were some pieces of oyster shell and some small pieces of bone duly placed in small finds bags and CAREFULLY LABELLED.  The form has a column for each size and lists , for example, different types of bone, burnt or worked flint, iron (Fe) and we had to enter the amount of each item according to a code.  I had ‘abundant’ pieces of shell which was code 3 (25-100 items).

Heads down and sorting!

We plodded our way through the sorting, getting faster as we went along and got our eye in.  Microscopes were set up and were extremely useful in showing which pieces were bone and which were belemnite (fossil). We all found shells of carniverous snails.  (It was a burial ground.)

The residue from the smallest sieve, 2mm, in a petri dish ready to be looked at under the microscope.

When we got to the smallest samples, there was a queue for the microscopes as we put a sample in a petri dish (Leigh wasn’t listening when this was mentioned and sorted the whole of his bag by hand and magnifying glass before Rebecca put him right!) and looked at it magnified.  If there was nothing interesting in the samples, we discarded it.  None of us found anything.  ‘Nothing’ is good as it means anything of interest was captured in the flotation process.  Finding seeds or charcoal means the flotation should really be done again.

Rebecca (on the right) Jo and Jane debating by the microscope table.

Rebecca had some samples from the flotation which were fascinating and very complex.  We were not let loose on sorting those! In order to make sense of what you are looking at, you need to able to identify it – a task which requires much more knowledge than any of us possesses.

We got through most of the samples during the day but there are a couple of big ones left so another day will have to be organised.


Animal Bones and Archaeology

Last Wednesday, we were lucky enough to be given a talk on the above subject by Julie Hamilton of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology; Julie is a very experienced zooarchaeologist and was at the ArkT to give us an insight into this important aspect of archaeology.

She split the evening in two – an initial talk to set the scene and then, after the tea-break, a hands-on session where we were able to down and dirty (in a Health and Safety approved style) with the objects of all the talking.

So, to set the stage, Julie started by talking about the different ways in which animals and people interact:

As Predators – though people by-and-large ceased to be prey when we got the hang of managing fire

As Prey – people seem always to have preyed on animals; the evidence of stone tools goes back before the evolution of  modern humans

Commensal – some animals, House Mice for instance, have evolved to occupy niches which are wholly created by humans

Domestic – where animals can be milked, trained to pull carts or ploughs and carry humans for example

Pets – self-explanatory, really

and    Pests – either preying on food crops or domestic animals, or cutting out the middle-man, and preying directly on humans – diseases, parasites etc (thankfully rarely large enough to leave bones!).

Then she talked about the way in which these interactions show up as finds, which largely depends on human diet – this will determine both what is left over after meals and what animals are kept close by. Strangely, human diets have changed quite radically over time; before the introduction of agriculture in Western Europe, for instance, shell middens (large dumps of seafood shells, interspersed with fish-bones, etc) were very common, yet after agriculture arrived, the eating of shellfish seems to have gone out of fashion, only being revived by the Romans. The main component of food remains, though, are mammal bones from domesticated animals – though there are other bones left from other human activities involving animals, of course – animals kept as pets, used in transport or in hunting.

This lead on to a discussion about the domestication of wild animals – about why only a handful of animals were domesticated (mainly in the near-east) out of a much larger potential pool. This seems largely to be down to the psychology of the animal in question; an animal which responds to threats by running away or by attacking, as opposed to gathering into a herd, is almost impossible to domesticate. And there are different degrees of domestication as well – geese can be kept but will not tolerate being factory farmed, for instance. Some observations were made: – cave paintings in Spain and Southern France clearly show humans hunting with dogs about 16,000 years ago so we know they were domesticated by then, but there is indirect evidence that they were tamed much earlier (the Australian Dingo is actually descended from a domesticated dog, so it is likely that the earliest settlers (approx 50,000 years ago) brought tame dogs with them) and the same paintings show people hunting Aurochs, an extinct, large bovine, but modern genetic analysis shows that modern cattle were not interbred with them.

Having dealt with the background, Julie then went on to talk about what we need to observe: –

What? Recognition of what we are looking at, i.e. both elements (which bit of an animal we are looking at) and species (which animal it comes from)

Where? The location of the find.

When? When the find was deposited. These two (Where & When) can only be determined if the context is known – yet more proof of the essential part accurate recording plays in archaeology; a cry of “You see, it isn’t just me” was heard from one member of the audience at this point!

How Much? Quantifying the finds – weighing, measuring, counting, calculating.

What happened? The point of all the previous hard work. Both in a general sense; questions about Biogeography (where species originated), distribution of sizes, population structures, as well as site specific questions as in “what happened here?” – why did these particular bones end up here? what does this tell us about the local environment? what does this tell us about the life of the people living here at the time?

After a tea break, we commenced with the fun bit – hands-on experience. The first bit was a bit daunting – Julie handed out post-its with the names of various bones on and we hand to stick them on a picture of a skeleton; luckily there were some crib-sheets around or there would have been a lot of red faces around, I fear!

The picture (well, most of it) that we had to stick the Post-Its with the bone’s names on.

Then on to re-assembly – Julie had brought along the majority of a deer skeleton (a Red Deer) which a colleague had discovered on Dartmoor, she was very arthritic (the deer, that is, not the colleague) and had been trapped in a bog; we were then tasked with putting them back together. Much discussion and head-scratching ensued until someone noticed that all the bones had been catalogued! Not with a ‘this bit is attached to that bit’ direction, but at least L & R, and the vertebra were numbered in groups, so that simplified things a bit.We got the torso about right, but had a lot of difficulty with the legs – which were the front ones as opposed to the back, and how did the lower part of the legs fit together? When Julie showed us how, it all fitted together perfectly – but isn’t it always the case; an expert makes these things look so simple!

The skull in the foreground is that of a Pig, while the one in the background is a Horse.

We then had a look at various mammal skulls, with Julie pointing out the differences and similarities; how the teeth are such a give-away, herbivores, omnivores and carnivores all having not only different teeth but also different jaws – herbivores which eat grass have a large gap between their molars and their incisors to allow their tongues room to move the grass around to chew it up, for instance. I was particularly surprised to find out what a small brain a horse has – most of its head is taken up with the huge muscles required to power its jaws.

A Deer’s skull on the left with a Sheep’s one on the right.

A great evening which could have lasted much longer, but time was passing so Julie had to call a halt. We all had our appetites truly wetted and those of us lucky enough to have got on Julie’s upcoming workshops are really looking forward to learning more.

As a bit of an aside, we were rather surprised that not as many people as usual were there – as the workshops are over-subscribed we know people are interested in the subject – so why did so few turn up? Was it because of it being on a different day (Wednesday rather than Thursday – Jane had tried to move the days around a bit as people had said “why always Thursday?”), or was there something else on? If you’ve got any ideas, please do send them to Jo, Jane or Olaf @archeox.net.


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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