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Newsletter, Winter 2011-12

Newsletter Winter 2011-2012

Lectures, test-pits, surveys and workshops
In the aftermath of the Bartlemas excavation, which ended in November, there were a few more test-pits, in the Minchery Farm allotments between Blackbird Leys and Littlemore, and Links allotments by Bartlemas (29, 30 and 31, reports now posted on the website). We also did some exploratory geophysics on the banks of the River Cherwell on playing field and meadow land owned by Magdalen College School and Christ Church college. These provided useful contextual information as to the history of the river floodplain. Several ‘mounds’ in Christchurch meadow turned out to be of modern origin, and a suspected Civil War feature near the Thames was re-used as a Victorian dump. The Magdalen College work will be extended in 2012 – although the area is heavily alluviated it does include the probable location of finds of Viking stirrups (a possible grave?) in the 19th century (see John Blair and Barbara Crawford, Oxoniensia Volume LXII, 1997, 135 ff).

2011 ended with a steering group meeting, followed by a review of recent activity, and a party at Ark T Centre on 9th December. The review was put together by volunteers and orchestrated by Paul Rowland. It included plenty of serious archaeological content and also a hilarious video by Chris Turley and Mary Bellamy and which made the Bartlemas excavation into a combination of ‘Time Team’, ‘Meet the Ancestors’ and ‘East Enders’. A good time was had by all and many thanks to all those who helped and contributed food and other festive sundries.

In January and February our efforts recommenced. Evening events included a presentation on archaeology policy in the City by David Radford (Oxford City Council) and a lecture on the geology of the area by Carol Lister. Jamie Lester of Thames Valley Archaeological Services gave a talk on the (now famous) recent discovery of 27 victims of an apparent Viking-Age massacre, buried in the fill of the ditch of a prehistoric henge in the gardens of St John’s College, as well as excavations at the Old Red Lion in Old Marston, which a group of project volunteers had visited with Jane on 17 November 2011.

Jane had very enjoyable meetings with Blackbird Leys WI, following a talk she gave in the autumn. The WI are now organising further investigations in Blackbird Leys and Greater Leys. There were also further meetings at Rewley House of the very active Place-Names study group convened by Katie Hambrook.

Since the end of the Bartlemas excavation a whole series of training workshops and practical sessions have been held, both as training and to push forward with the post-excavation work and analysis. Over 40 people attended sessions at the Ark-T Centre to help process the finds from Bartlemas, an effort which is o-going. There have also been a series of workshops on report writing, and three more sessions at the map room in the Records office. A team of 14 people are involved in writing up of the excavation and have put in a great deal of hard work. 25 people attended the human remains sessions at Rewley House in December and January. These involved carefully washing and cleaning the bones from the charnel pits at Bartlemas, with each session revealing increasing nformation as the bones were washed. Obviously, given the site’s history as a leper hospital, we are very keen to know if any of the bones show evidence of leprosy. This is quite a difficult condition to identity and needs further scientific work. Some of the charnel pit bones have evidence for secondary infections which might be related to the condition. We will hopefully know more if the Research Laboratory for Archaeology is able to extract the mycobacterium which causes leprosy from any of the infected bones.

Later winter events have included a test-pit planning meeting on 15 March at which around 40 people collaborated to improve the guidance on digging and recording test pits. A splendid lecture was given by Professor Richard Bradley (University of Reading), an East Oxford resident who also happens to be one of Britain’s most eminent pre-historians, on the Leopold Street hoard of Bronze Age axes ( a type sometimes referred to as ‘palstaves’), found in the Victorian period. The lecture took pace at the Ashmolean Museum Education Centre on Sunday 18 March, and thanks to Alison Roberts, Curator of Antiquities(and archeox steering group member!), both the Leopold Street Hoard and a very similar hoard from Burgess Mead on Port Meadow were brought out from storage to form the centrepieces of Richard’s commentary. Volunteers were invited to handle the artefacts (wearing plastic protective gloves - protective of course towards the objects, not the people!). The Leopold Street hoard was discovered by workmen during the building of stables in 1881. It was acquired for the Ashmolean by Sir Arthur Evans. The stables were constructed for the horse-drawn tramway which went from its Leopold Street eastern terminus down Cowley Road and up the High into the city centre. The stables were later replaced by a garage, the site of which has subsequently been built over with modern housing ‘Galpin Close’. Richard explained that the original find was accompanied by a large number of freshwater mollusc shells, and was probably located near a spring, which in the Bronze Age would have been on the edge of the former water meadow of Cowley Marsh (now largely drained and occupied by Magdalen Road, Cricket Road and surrounding streets). There was considerable debate about the meaning and purpose of such bronze axe hoards, interpreted as evidence of currency, ritual or warfare, and the semi-mystical role of the smith in early metal-using societies.

Ongoing activity includes GIS workshops aimed at supporting the mapping and place name work (place name work is focusing on the old village cores; mappers are putting together all the enclosure information from several maps onto one map of the whole area); three archaeological drawing workshops; and a renewed test pit campaign in spring focusing on Blackbird Leys amongst other places (see website for details and dates).There will also be a talk by Stephen Mileson on the South Oxfordshire/Ewelme project on the evening of 3 April, which comes during a week of work on environmental samples at Oxford Archaeology, to be followed by workshops on sorting the seeds etc. There will also be workshops on pottery and animal bones once these finds finally dry from their cleaning process. Four NVQ candidates are registered and we've had three sessions to start collating their evidence. All are doing individual projects which contribute to the overall research effort on: maps; finds; accessible guidance and medieval hospitals.

New staff members
Changes include one departure and two newcomers to the core project team. Paula Levick has left the project after working with us for 17 months. Her place as project officer is being taken by Olaf Bayer. Olaf is an East Oxford resident, and has recently completed a PhD in landscape prehistory at the University of Central Lancashire, after previously studying at Leicester, Sheffield and Bristol universities, and co-leading an exciting and innovative community archaeology project at Damerham in Hampshire. He will be taking the lead on geophysics, and is keen to investigate the prehistoric period in East Oxford (a great asset as Jane and David tend to be more at home working on the later periods!). Welcome Olaf! We have also appointed to a wholly new additional post, a traineeship in Community Archaeology which is funded for one year by the Council for British Archaeology and the Heritage Lottery Fund. This went to Joanne (Jo) Robinson, who has worked on ‘Dig Shakespeare’ in Stratford on Avon and for the Historic Environment Record in the Lake District National Park. Some of you met Jo at the test-pit planning meeting on 15 March. She is very keen to meet and work with as many volunteers as possible in extending and broadening the project’s appeal, and we are delighted to have her with us on our team.

David and Jane, March 2012