Excavations at Elizabeth House, (St Johns College, Oxford)

An excellent evening with Steve Ford of Thames Valley Archaeological Services detailing the evaluation and investigation of an area being redeveloped following the demolition of a 1950s building.  The new plans included basement levels, so deep excavations were included.

The area lies on local gravels overlain with alluvial soils.  An evaluation in 2008 uncovered medieval remains, a mass grave and an unexplained “linear spread” some 10m across.

This material was later shown to be the upper extent of a curving ditch, 7 – 9 m wide at the top, about 2.5m deep and between 120 – 150m in diameter with an outer bank i.e. an henge.  Decorated Beaker pottery, cow bones and charcoal was found and carbon dated to 2,200 BC.  At the very bottom of the dug out ditch were several red deer antler picks.  A separate finding, during pipe laying in a nearby road, confirmed that this was indeed a circular structure, 120m across.  Dating of a nearby hearth and charcoal gave a date of 2100 – 1950 BC.

A  wealth of Neolithic sites have and continue to be uncovered in the Thames Valley area; with well know henge ditches at Dorchester and Stanton Harcourt, each with large numbers of nearby ploughed-out barrows, ring ditches, pits etc. it obviously was a major bronze age area ending about 2000 BC.

Near to this ditch were human remains of 36 young males, muscular and tall, all showing evidence of a violent death, with sword and spear wounds, often from behind, limbs slashed clear through and decapitations.  The articulated bodies were then dumped in a mass burial, but no grave goods, weapons or clothes fastenings were ever found.  Bones were radio carbon dated to about 1000AD.

Steve detailed at some length, information that could be relevant.  In 994 Ethelred employed Viking mercenaries, paid in “land”.  In the 1300s John of Wallingford wrote of Athelred ordering a killing of male Danes, giving the year as 1004AD (Charter to Oxford).  Supposedly the Danes took refuge in a church which was subsequently torched.  The Danes were slaughtered and the church rebuilt later.  This event was later described as the St Brice’s Day Massacre.  Isotope testing of bones showed that many were from north and eastern europe, they were not people of local origin.  It fits, but whether true or not will probably never be known.  What is odd is that the burial ground does not appear to have been built on or used.

Medieval and later archaeology was uncovered.  The parish of St. Giles (Oxford) and the church date from the 12th century.  Evidence of buildings, ovens, a well and pits as well as a solidly constructed post pad were exposed.  Evidence of C13 occupation was found but there was little from the C14 and C15, the time of Plague and Black Death.

St John’s bought the land in the later C15.  The footings of two buildings are known as well as sections of wall.

Maps of 1587 and 1673 exist and give details of the current buildings, barns etc. and of the layout of streets and by-ways.  Black Hall farm and its outbuilding shown on the later map were demolished in the early 1700s and the area redeveloped as an ornamental garden, later to be built on again as the Oxford Universities increased.

This proved to be an incredible piece of land, not far from the middle of the city but with multiple layers of occupation covering a time span of 4000 years and re-writing much of the history of the area.

Gerry Platten

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