Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “oxford”

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!



ArcGIS Explorer Training Session

Last Saturday (28th April)  I went to Rewley House for a training session on ArcGIS Explorer, a free GIS software package, given by Dr Mike Athanson from the Bodleian Library Map room.  It took place in the computer training room, which was why the places were limited – as there are only sixteen workstations and it was very much a hands on experience. It was split into two sessions – Beginner and Intermediate – with Mike giving a 30 to 40 minute talk followed by us getting on with the exercises in the accompanying workbooks.

The Beginners session started with Mike explaining what GIS is (as we discovered that about half the people at this session hadn’t been to the introductory talk that Mike and I gave last Monday) ; a Geographic Information System,  and then detailing what geographic data is – Spatial data; where stuff is, and Attribute data; what stuff is. He then went on to differentiate between the three types of Spatial data – Vector; a mathematical definition of points, lines or polygons/regions, – Raster; different colours arranged in columns and rows (like a digital photo) or – Grid; rather like a Raster but with different values rather than colours, say heights or land use information in each square in the grid. After that he described how the data is stored on the computer(what sort of files and where they are kept; he said that once you’ve got the files on the computer, don’t move them around as you can lose the relationships between vital files) and then pointed us at a few websites where we could download GIS data. Then we were let loose on the exercises, where we practiced what Mike had been describing, as well adding ‘notes’ (points; markers for a specific location, – lines; like routes, and – polygons; areas) each with their own pop-up windows with editable content; thankfully he was on hand to sort out the various problems as they arose. We worked through at our own pace and then broke for lunch, and a stretch of the legs.

The Computer Training Room

Here we are in the Computer Training Room

The second session – the Intermediate part – started with Mike telling us how to import data into Explorer. This consists of either text files of delimited text (text separated by, say, commas) or spreadsheet data – basically text data arranged in rows and columns – this can be imported into Explorer and each row is displayed as a separate ‘note’; this is a limitation in Explorer as you can only import data for display as points, not as lines (for a route, for example) or regions. Then we got onto Queries and an introduction to the joys of SQL (Structured Query Language) – a subject for a session of it’s own, I’d say, though Explorer does give one an editor to help one through it. This is where we can, for example, run a query to work out all the cities with a population over 5 million, and display them on the world map. Queries can also be run on areas – we can work out all the points within a particular area, or areas, for instance.

Then Mike went on to describe Geo-referencing – one of the really fun things you can do with GIS. The real power of GIS comes from the fact that every point on a map in a GIS package ‘knows’ its position, geo-referencing is where you take  a raster image (a scan of an old map, or an aerial photograph) and add it to Explorer, telling Explorer where to position it by comparing points on the image with their corresponding points on the map in Explorer – then you can use it as you would any map in Explorer. The last point covered was how to add other content (photos, videos, etc) to the pop-up window associated with notes. As before, the session then continued with us all working on the examples in the workbook to get hands-on experience of what Mike had been talking about – as usual in life, it’s not quite as simple as the expert makes it look!

A great day – I’m sure everyone else did what I did and downloaded all the data so I can work on it at home; it was a bit too much to take in at one sitting. Many thanks to Mike for passing on so much information so painlessly and in such an interesting way.


Sieving & Flotation

We had a fairly early start, as we had to get up to ArkT before 9:00 to help Jane, Jo and David load up the van with all the soil samples to take to Oxford Archaeology, so we could start to separate the soil from the interesting stuff(basically what’s left – this will be looked at more closely, under low magnification using a microscope, by an expert). We had 41 boxes and three bags of samples stored at ArkT, and a further 12 boxes which we picked up which Jane was storing at her place – I think that quite a few of us involved in the project are coming to terms with having boxes of finds and assorted archaeological paraphernalia littered around our homes!

The van after we had finished loading at ArkT, but before we went to Jane's

Then off to Oxford Archaeology, who have kindly let us use some of their facilities to process our finds – not only the Bartlemas soil samples, but also the Test Pit samples. We generally take soil samples for two reasons; to get an idea about all the very small stuff (2 to 10mm) which would be too finicky to pick out by hand, and to take an environmental sample, where we are interested in the organic stuff – small animal remains (snails, insects, etc) and plant remains (seeds, grain, pollen) which can enable us to build up a picture of the environment at that period.

We are really lucky that Oxford Archaeology (OA) have given us this opportunity; we do have some of the equipment required (though not as many units – at OA we can have more than one team at work at the same time). But apart from the obvious advantage of gaining some priceless training from an expert, 52+ plus boxes of soil samples, taken from fairly clayey soil, generates an enormous amount of spoil a.k.a mud. Not the sort of thing one wants to dump on the doorstep, so to speak, of the guys at ArkT, who are being so helpful to us. It’s the sort of detail which can pull a Community project up short, but which a professional organization can take in its stride.

When we arrived we were greeted by Rebecca Nicholson (OA’s Environmental Archaeology Manager) who shepherded us through a seemingly incomprehensible maze to the wet room, where we would do the work, and introduced us to Julia Meen (their Environmental Archaeologist), who would take care of us for the day. Then we all helped to unload the van and stack up all the boxes ready for the work ahead.

After getting suitably kitted out – wellies and waterproofs being the order of the day; there is a lot of water involved – we got started. We kicked of with sieving the sample which had been taken from one of the skeletons that had been found in trench 2. As it was articulated (all the bones still in the same position as when they had originally been buried) we could not lift it – as the ground around the chapel was consecrated we respected all burials, but as soon as we realized that we had found a burial, we collected all the soil in the cut formed by the burial, so that we would not lose anything. It is surprisingly easy to miss stuff when you’re dealing with, as I mentioned, rather clayey soil. So, after estimating how much soil we had (as I might have mentioned before, everything gets recorded; it was about 15 litres) it got emptied onto the topmost of three sieves – the top one being 6mm (I think), the next one being 4mm  and the bottom one 2mm. Armed with a water spray-gun, we took turns washing the soil off the solid residue so that anything smaller than 6mm falls through the sieve to the next layer. After we had all the mud off what was left in the sieve, it gets transferred to a paper-lined tray (appropriately labelled; it’s amazing how many waterproof labels & pens we get through). We then repeat this procedure for the other two trays – I was surprised how much clay gets retained by the lowest, the 2 mm, sieve; with all the water we had poured over the stuff, you would have thought it would have been totally clean by then, but no – it still needed a whole lot of work.

Steve using the water spray to clean off the sample in a sieve

Then took a break for lunch; Gill & I had forgotten to bring sandwiches (well, a bit of a communication breakdown, really) but Gill went round the corner to the recommended deli (Eggs Eggcetera on Botley Road – gets our thumbs up) and took up the whole of the dinner area, rather embarrassingly – though we only realized this after the event. Then got back and chatted to Julia about how many sample boxes she normally gets through in a day – 16! Had a look at the 4 that we were going to do and went outside to look at the heap of boxes outside – a rather depressing sight – it certainly didn’t seem to have got any smaller!

Our sample boxes, center foreground, somewhat lost in OA's huge backlog

I carried on sieving, with renewed vigour, while Julia explained the other technique, flotation. This involves a large tank with a sieve above it – you wash your sample as normal and all the washed out stuff falls through, though this time you have a very fine mesh membrane forming a ‘basket’ in the tank which catches all the residue from the sieve. Once you have cleaned up the large finds remaining in the top sieve and tagged and trayed it, the second part of the operation starts. Water is pumped into the tank from below so it fills up and overflows over a weir and into a second sieve (the ‘flot sieve’) , while the residue in the mesh ‘basket’ is constantly agitated – this causes all the organic material to float to the top and get carried over the weir into the flot sieve. So you end up with a flot sieve full of all the organic content of your sample – and a lot of mud again!

Julia working at the flotation tank. She has finished cleaning the sample and is doing the actual flotation - you can see the water draining over the weir into the flot sieve.

While this was going on we were also moving the still damp trays of samples to the drying room – what luxuries – where they would dry out (surprise, surprise) before being distributed out to the various experts who will, in turn, feed their results back to us for incorporation into future reports.

So that was our day, though as usual there was a lot of chat as well, and we took the opportunity to pick Julia’s brain – a real professional! – on a number of subjects. One of our number is just coming up on University entrance and so was especially pleased to have a couple of people (he was quizzing Jo as well) to chat to about the finer details of various archaeology courses, and all of us were interested to have a professional take on the current upheavals caused by changes in the planning laws, economic troubles, etc.

There are more days planned (we’re not sure how many, check out the Archeox website for updates) to give the maximum number of people a crack at the whip. One of the downsides of this approach is that poor Julia has to start from scratch every day, and the speed of work stays rather low as no one can benefit from experience, but we have to give as many people as possible a chance to experience all aspects of archaeological investigation. This way people learn about the whole process, and appreciate there is more to it than just the ‘sexy’ bits one sees on Time Team.

So a big thanks to OA for a fascinating, if somewhat damp, day, especially to Julia for putting up with us all. On a personal note, many thanks to Steve for giving us a lift home – it wasn’t the walk to the station to get a No 5 bus per se; it was the lugging of the wellies, waterproofs, mugs, etc. David had given us a lift down but had, obviously, had to return the hire van as quickly as poss.


Not much to add.  After starting with the wet sieving, I spent a lot of time taking grubby newspaper out of finds trays and replacing it with fresh -strange how bits of news catch your eye (anyone for the story of the cctv camera in traffic wardens’ ID badges?) and writing waterproof labels as the residue in every sieve needs a fresh tray.  Some interesting things among the pebbles and gravel – a few bits of bone and some tiny shells.


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!

Murdered Danes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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