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Archaeology dig unearths city's past
Following another year of digging, excavations and test pits, staff and volunteers at an Oxford archaeology project reflect on their contribution to unlocking Oxford’s rich history AT Archeox’s end-of-year review last week, members discussed their latest excavation at Donnington Recreation Ground and their numerous miniture excavations, called test pits.
Next year, the group, which has become the East Oxford Project, will put together a book of all their historical findings.
The project began as an idea in the summer of 2008 after a conversation between fellow archaeologists and East Oxford residents Jane Harrison and David Griffiths.
- Project officer Jane Harrison with Council for British Archaeology bursary holder Joanne Robinson at a dig in Minchery Farm in July 2012
After securing funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Oxford University’s John Fell Fund, the project was officially launched on October 19 2010.
The £330,000 four-year project, run by Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, has helped to delve into some of East Oxford’s previously untapped history.
Ms Harrison said: “David and I were doing some excavation work in the Orkney Islands, as we specialise in the Viking period, and we thought: both of us live in East Oxford and there’s some great stuff on our door step.
“We thought we could teach people what’s going on in their patch, while also doing some much needed research.
“Before the project, there was relatively little archaeological work in East Oxford and very little that pulled it all together.”
- TREASURE: Greg Owen holds up a find from a dig in the recreation ground off Arnold Road
Mr Griffiths said: “From prehistoric landscapes to a huge Roman pottery industry, medieval villages and monasteries to the more recent heritage, East Oxford has it all, yet is overshadowed by the city centre.
“Its story is one of immigration, urbanisation and change, not just in recent times, but over millennia.”
Since its foundation, Archeox have carried out three major excavations, at Bartlemas Chapel, off the Cowley Road, Minchery Paddock near Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium and last month, at Donnington recreation ground.
They have also done 72 small excavations, called testpits. These are miniture excavations dug by hand in back gardens, allotments or playing fields and can help to tell about the history of a particular location.
But arguably the greatest achievement has been in persuading more than 600 volunteers to get their hands dirty at large-scale excavations and test pits in the area.
Ms Harrison said: “Archeox gives people the chance to acquire skills in archaeology and means they look differently at how they live as you don’t expect to have history in your background.
“We wanted it to involve everybody and not just remain with archaeologists.
“Some of them have become very skilled and have driven the research and can now pass on lessons to other people.”
Volunteer Leigh Mellor, who is involved in the group with his wife Gill, said: “We were armchair archaeologists but wanted to get more involved and looked it up online to see if there were any local groups and came across Archeox.
“We have learnt an immense amount.”
Mr Mellor, a retired gardener who also worked in computing, and lives in Cricket Road, Cowley, said: “One of the attractions of the group is that you get to know a bunch of people and everyone mucks in and gets on and does everything.
“We did a test pit in my own back garden and found Roman stuff which was somewhat surprising.”
PROFILE: DR Olaf Bayer
- ANCIENT: Dr Olaf Bayer examines stone tools found in Oxford which date back as far as 4,000 BC
DR OLAF Bayer joined the project in April 2012 as a project officer.
He specialises in prehistoric landscape archaeology and is experienced in excavation, geophysical surveys and stone tool analysis.
He said: “I’ve lived in East Oxford on and off since 2001.
“Prior to joining the project I worked as an archaeologist all over the country but never in East Oxford.
“So although I know the area really well I’ve never thought about it archaeologically.
“One of the best things about the project has been the chance to learn about the archaeology on my doorstep.
“In many ways I have been learning the specifics of East Oxford’s archaeology at the same time as the volunteers.
“Two highlights of the project have been the discovery of the Early Bronze Age barbed flint arrowhead (about 4,000 years old) when we were digging at Minchery Farm last year.
“It is a beautiful piece of flintwork and although missing its tip and one of its barbs you can see that it would have been almost perfectly symmetrical in every dimension. The find was totally unexpected on a Medieval nunnery site.
“The second one was discovering traces of some of Oxford’s first Neolithic farming communities on Donnington Recreation Ground.
“We found buried pits while doing a geophysical survey last year. When we excavated two of them we found stone tools between 6,000 and 4,000 years old.”
TIMELINE: Chapel site was burial ground for lepers hospital
2011: The Archeox project spent six weeks working in the grounds of Bartlemas Chapel, off Cowley Road – the site of a former leper hospital – and confirmed beliefs that the site had been used as a burial ground.
The team found a total of 13 burials. In one part there were eight adults and three children – dating from the 12th to 17th centuries and buried east-west according to Christian practices.
But mysteriously, two other children were found buried in shallow graves, one lying face down.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital was founded by Henry I in 1126 for 12 lepers to be cared for by a chaplain.
It was passed to Oriel College in 1328, from when it was used as a rural retreat so scholars could benefit from “wholesome air in times of pestilential sickness” – and from 1536 was used as a city almshouse.
The buildings were badly damaged in the English Civil War with lead taken from the roof to make bullets.
The chapel and almshouses were largely rebuilt by Oriel in 1649.
October 2012: Five-week project at the Minchery Farm Paddock, near the Kassam Stadium. The team dug up a 4,000-year-old artefact as they tried to find out more information about the 12th century priory.
The barbed arrow head made of flint was thought to date back to the early Bronze Age, left.
October 2013: Uncovered tools used by Oxford’s first farmers during an excavation at Donnington recreation ground.
It is thought the scrapers and knives could date back 4,000 or even 6,000 years.
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