The Archaeology of East Oxford: free book available for download

‘The Archaeology of East Oxford’, a new book which explores the fascinating history of East Oxford, is now published online and free to download from the ADS (Archaeology Data Service)

East Oxford – often overshadowed by the world-famous heritage of Oxford and its colleges – has a rich history. The district includes Prehistoric sites, Romano-British pottery industries, a Medieval leper hospital and nunnery, Civil War defences, farming landscapes and industrial sites.

‘East Oxford is the most vibrant and diverse part of our city, but its history is not as well-known,’ said Professor Martin Williams, Oxford University Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education. ‘This fascinating book sheds light on the area’s many past lives, stretching back over millennia. The project that underlies the book is an exemplar in community engagement in research, and has successfully bridged the city’s town-gown divide.’

Researching East Oxford

From 2010 to 2015 a ground-breaking and award-winning outreach archaeology project, ‘Archeox’, took place in the area, with funding from the Heritage Lottery and John Fell Funds. Excavations included those of national importance for which little information was known. New data was gathered about life and death, diet, economy, and the topography of the area. After 2015, Archeox continued as a writing group, working towards publication in 2020.

‘The Archaeology of East Oxford’ is published by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education in the Thames Valley Monographs Series.

The 260-page book, illustrated with many maps, drawings and photos, was written by departmental staff and associates David Griffiths, Jane Harrison, Olaf Bayer, together with volunteers Katie Hambrook and Leigh Mellor – and has no less than fifty contributory authors.

Professor David Griffiths, who edited the book with Dr Jane Harrison, said, ‘This book seems like a neat and tidy story, but it is the culmination of an enormously complex and diverse effort: a game-changer in the way we see people and their heritage, and university-town relationships.’

The landscape and heritage of East Oxford

East Oxford forms a large part of the city, extending from the  River Cherwell to its eastern boundary. Located away from most of Oxford’s famous colleges and historic centre, the area has not until now seen the same level of archaeological interest.

Professor Griffiths and Dr Harrison created the project principally as East Oxford residents as much as academics. The intention was to open up the area to archaeological research, studying the development of its landscape and settlement since Prehistoric times, whilst at the same time engaging the community in the research.

Over five years, more than 650 people became active volunteers, and partnerships were established with charities, schools, and with the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums. Existing data, finds and historical information from East Oxford were revisited. Seventy-two test-pits (small excavations) were dug across the area, aimed at researching past settlement patterns, and groups were formed to study place-names, historic maps and buildings. 

Lepers and immoral nuns

The project excavated two important Medieval ecclesiastical sites. Bartlemas Chapel in Cowley is the site of a leper hospital founded in around 1127. The history of construction of the chapel was defined, with an earlier phase detected under the present fourteenth-century structure. A number of burials were exposed, which were sampled in–situ. Leprosy was detected among the human remains. Almost hidden from view, this wonderful and atmospheric site deserves to be better known as a key place in Oxford’s history.

Further out towards the edge of town, near the Oxford United stadium, are the remains of Littlemore Priory, a Benedictine nunnery found in around 1150. One part of it survives as a standing building, a former pub which is now boarded up. The priory was closed in 1525 following lurid accusations of insubordinate and immoral behaviour among the nuns, which are described and set in context by Katie Hambrook in the book. Excavations in 2012 found a range of now-vanished ancillary buildings, including part of the cloister and a kitchen midden, giving insights into the nun’s diet and the economy of the priory.

Community heritage

‘The project described in the book was fundamentally about people – people in the past, but also those who inhabit the area today,’ said Professor Griffiths.

Encompassing some of Oxford’s more deprived areas and housing estates, the project tackled educational exclusion by encouraging everyone who wished to take part, and providing the training needed for total beginners to become functioning archaeologists.

The vivid and wonderful human story is described alongside the project’s archaeological findings.

‘The Archaeology of East Oxford’ is available as a free ebook from ADS (Archaeology Data Service).



Published 30 October 2020