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Archeox Winter Newsletter (March 2014)

A .pdf of this newsletter with pictures can be downloaded here

It has been a busy Project winter, despite the weather.

All the finds from the Donnington Recreation Ground excavation have been cleaned, weighed and sorted by you. The pottery is now being analysed by Paul Blinkhorn and the animal bone by a specialist in Cambridge. The tiny seeds, shells and bones from the soil samples, also sorted and identified by volunteers, trained by Rebecca Nicholson of Oxford Archaeology, are with specialist Diane Alldritt. There was certainly enough burnt material to submit for radiocarbon dating. Those dating results will be coming soon.

Ian Cartwright, the photographer at the Institute of Archaeology, has undertaken RTI photography (Reflectance Transformation imaging) of two of our lithic finds, including the Minchery barbed and tanged arrowhead. This technique allows light to be directed across the object from multiple angles, not just one as in traditional photography. It brings out the surface texture of the flint to an almost miraculous level of clarity, and also allows the image to be rotated and enlarged for further examination.

A memorable event in the history of the project occurred in November 2013 when the human bone discovered in charnel pits at Bartlemas Chapel was re-buried at a religious service by the Vicar of Cowley St John, Revd Adam Romanis, with chronologically appropriate sacred music from local choir, the Bartlemas Singers. Project volunteers dug the burial pit just east of the chapel (recording more archaeology in the process, including a very interesting wall footing which may relate to the medieval chapel), bore the casket (actually a very nice wicker basket!), and completed the burial. Despite the heavy rain (which fortunately held off briefly during the outdoor committal), it was good to lay to rest the partial remains of these long-dead people, whose names we do not know, but with whom we share a connection to this ancient and inspiring place.

We are continuing to receive reports and radiocarbon dates for aspects of the excavations at Bartlemas and Minchery Priory. The water disturbance and reworking of material at Bartlemas made it quite hard to find suitable material for radiocarbon dates, but one of the bones bearing clear indications of leprosy returned a date range of 1013-1155 calAD. By contrast one of the robust long bones from the northern charnel pit was most likely to have dated from 1635-1684 calAD, raising the interesting possibility that the disturbed remains were from the Civil War period.

The archaeology at Minchery, especially in Trench 2, was far less disturbed and we were able to submit more charred seeds and charcoal for radiocarbon dating. Happily all the material returned dates within the life of the Priory, confirming the excellence of the archaeological preservation.  One of the dates for a pit within the southern domestic building (possible nuns’ priest’s or farm manager’s house) did however hint at the possibility of some activity on that site just before the Priory was built in the mid-12th century, with the earliest surface inside the house then dated to 1152 – 1260 calAD. One of the later floor surfaces within the same building returned a date of 1297-1405 calAD (the Priory was dissolved in the early 1520s). Burnt seeds and charcoal related to the large hearth in the outbuilding in Trench 2 gave a sequence of dates beginning in the mid-12th century. It was harder to date Trench 3 where the medieval archaeology had been disturbed by later farm buildings but a midden spread related to the use of the rectangular stone building found in the trench gave a date range of 1413-1467 calAD.

Iron finds from both sites are being worked on by Ian Scott of Oxford Archaeology, and Lynne Keys is about to begin work on the ironworking and smelting residues from the big hearth in Trench 2 at Minchery Priory.  The tile, pottery and animal bone reports from Minchery are due soon and many of the other reports from Minchery are, or are about to, go up on the website.

We continue to be very concerned about the state of the medieval Priory Pub building at Minchery, the last standing part of the nunnery. It has been empty and boarded up for nearly a year now. Sporadic efforts are continuing on the part of various heritage bodies to draw attention to its plight and its vulnerability to break-ins and vandalism. Developers seem to be moving forwards with plans to redevelop the area around it, but their plans for the future of the pub building have not yet been disclosed. We appeal to all volunteers and friends of the project to maintain vigilance, and keep reminding councillors of their duty of care (the City Council owns the freehold of the site, although not the lease of the building which is held by Mr Kassam). It would be a desperately awful tragedy if this lovely and historic structure, one of the jewels of East Oxford’s history, were to come to grief. 

Work we are doing with a team from Oxford Brookes University on the Holocene environmental sequences of East Oxford has progressed. Peat samples from Northfield Brook and Minchery Trench 1 have been added to other data gathered previously. They show an excellent sequence of landscape change over many thousands of years and we are just waiting for the radiocarbon dates to provide a chronological sequence for these samples. This will be the first time the environmental change registered in such peat samples has been pinned down chronologically.

Work on processing test-pit finds has come on a long way. A huge step forward occurred over the weekend of 8-9 March when the well-known medieval pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn held a two-day pottery identification workshop at Rewley House. Paul is a longstanding member of Time Team and also fronted the TV series ‘Pub Dig’ (would have been very appropriate for Minchery Priory!). Paul gave a very clear and informative series of talks on the medieval ceramics of Oxfordshire, and then volunteers used microscopes to examine and identify the test-pit pottery. Some very exciting sherds were identified: Late Saxon Stamford Ware from Cricket Road, early Saxon hand-made pottery from the Ark-T, from the allotments above the golf course and from the Fairacres Convent area. The discoveries help us to point towards some small clusters of Anglo-Saxon activity in east Oxford – possibly settlements – which have not been identified before. Looking at all the pottery finds together from all 72 test pits revealed how much Roman and medieval pottery has been excavated. Paul will now complete the final report. The test pit animal bones are also being given their final analysis by Chris in Cambridge.

With the publication of the project’s vast haul of data now rising up the agenda, volunteers have also been working on finds drawing.  Working with illustrators Jeff Wallis and Jemma Jones volunteers started by drawing stone tools and pottery from the Ashmolean’s collection and have now moved on to illustrating stone tools from Minchery Farm and Donnington Recreation Ground.

The place-names group has pushed forwards its studies, and is now writing them up, following a very informative presentation at the Xmas social. More of their writing  is coming onto the website and Katie and Peter are hard at work pulling everything together for the Project publication.

The Ashmolean group are having a splendid time with Alison Roberts and Senta German researching object biographies for artefacts either excavated by the Project or from the museum’s store. The objects under investigation include: a stone nun’s head, possibly from the old St Clement’s Church; old police truncheons; a shield boss found in the Cherwell; old brass dog collars from student dogs probably exercised (and used for hunting) in East Oxford; a bronze age pot and the magnificent key from Temple Cowley Manor house.

All in all it’s been a very busy winter, and confirms that archaeology is by no means just about getting muddy out on site!

Jane, Olaf and David

The Project Team

 A .pdf of this newsletter with pictures can be downloaded here