Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “heritage data”


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!


Building Survey

On Friday and Saturday, there was a building survey at Bartlemas Chapel; Gill and I were booked in on the Friday session. This was to give us an introduction to the gentle art of doing a scaled drawing of the elevation of a building, in this case our old friend, Bartlemas Chapel. We met up with Jo a bit early at ArkT to pick up the gear we needed and then headed off to the Chapel. I was really gratified to see that there was virtually no trace of all our fevered activity just under a year ago.

A year (almost) after there was a large trench here, and now hardly a sign of all our hard work.

So, after the usual signing in, health and safety and introductions, Jo and Jane started to explain how we were going to go about doing the drawing. In a lot of ways it’s just like drawing a section of the side of a trench – only you’re looking up instead of down! Just like doing a section the first thing is to measure the length and depth (or height in our case) of the area which we’ll be drawing, and then work out what scale (1:10 or 1:20, say) we are going to use given the size of paper we have. A fair amount of head-scratching ensued, but there is nothing so irritating as drawing away merrily for hours, then dropping off the edge of the drawing board – a bit of time spent in preparation is very well spent. Then start by putting in the title (where we are and what we are drawing) the date, the scale and who was doing the drawing. Preparation of the paper done we then started on the wall itself.

This is where it diverges from doing a section – one can’t start hammering nails into a grade 1 listed building! The principal is the same, though; we need a datum, a reference from which all the measurements can be taken. So the first thing to do was set up the dumpy (no one can remember why it’s called that – everyone remembers being told, but as no-one remembers it must be a pretty boring explanation).

Setting up the dumpy

After it has been levelled, with a built in spirit level, we started putting in the datum line; normally we use a string (we had brought some road pins along to stretch the string between, but found we couldn’t push them into the ground) but this time we used a chalk line drawn on the stone work – it will wash off in the first rain. So using the dumpy we drew a line at the same height all along the wall which we would be drawing. Then the fun started.

Basically, the procedure is that we measure a set of prominent points (the corners of distinctive stones, for instance), draw them in, and then freehand the intervening detail. Sounds simple, eh?

Two of us measuring a point on the buttress.

Just by Jo’s head you can see the datum line continuing along the wall from where she is holding the tape so Andrew can measure the vertical distance to the point which we are going to plot. We used the measuring staff, which is leaning up against the buttress, to do the points which were too high for the steel tape.

So after we’ve got a few points measured, then the drawing starts.

The hard work – doing the actual drawing.

This, of course, is the whole point of the exercise. We have had a laser scan done of the building, and have obviously taken a shed-load of photos, but there is no substitute for drawing – the human eye is capable of much better discrimination than any photo. It’s not so much a matter of  “accuracy”, but the ability of a combination of really looking at a subject, then using the drawing to bring out the relevant details.

So after a lot of hard work the end result looks something like this – this is one I prepared earlier ( to coin a phrase) – it’s the end, and the start of the other side, of the buttress that Jo & Andrew are measuring in the photo above.

The end result – the second group started quite a bit later than the first one.

Another group carried on on Saturday, and when Gill & I popped in on Saturday afternoon to have a chat, Jane said we might well carry on Sunday, as quite a few of us are going to be at the Chapel as part of Oxford’s “Open Doors” event. Christopher & Sarah Franks are opening the Chapel so the Project is going to lend a hand (they got a bit overwhelmed last year by the unexpected number of visitors) and do a bit of explaining about what we found during the dig last year. Hopefully there will be a bit more of the chapel to show in a later blog.


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!

Archaeological Heritage Management in Oxford

Quite a busy week though not as busy as Leigh’s. Thursday evening we had a talk from David Radford, Oxford City Archaeologist, which was very enlightening, about the realities of practical archaeology and the restrictions involved in terms of time and money. The main point he made was that archaeological investigations, at least intrusive ones, always need to be justified and you only do what is justified. Activities which do not produce useful data are not warranted. Some of the audience were shocked that David mentioned finding mesolithic flints on the St Clement’s car park site but these were not followed up. He explained that they were not found in context on a contemporary surface and just the presence of random flints doesn’t tell you much.

David started the evening by describing recent discoveries in Oxford as a result of rescue digs (where a development is taking place there is a statutory requirement for the developers to fund an archaeological investigation before any development takes place) and progressed from the Palaeolithic to the present. Too much to go into detail here, but the highlights were the Bronze Age (and earlier, it transpires) landscape of barrows and henges which stretches from University Parks across to the Radcliffe Infirmary site and Saxon and Medieval discoveries within the old City.

Jane has asked David to send her links to the relevant sites which she will add to the website. There will be all sorts of information on useful databases. Oxford Council is committed to making heritage data available online but it takes time (& money!).

Finally David went briefly through the Heritage plan for Oxford. Local communities, including parts of East Oxford, are being asked to nominate buildings worthy of being listed on a heritage checklist. My vote would be for ‘Rivera’, Henry Taunt‘s house – currently part of a disused bus station & slowly falling to pieces. Currently it’s outside the pilot area but I hope it will be considered in due course.

Henry Taunt's House

Henry Taunt's House


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