February - Archaeology, here, there, and everywhere

February - Archaeology, here, there, and everywhere

The discovery of the remains of St Mary’s College under the new student development for Brasenose College, off New Inn Hall Street, will no doubt draw crowds when it opens to the public on 19 February, able to gaze at the carefully uncovered stones with experts on hand to explain what they have found from times past. It is an odd dichotomy, that development is the best friend of the archaeologist, who wants to know more.  Nowadays, the practice of the great C19th century dig is no longer fashionable, or indeed allowed, and the ground must be left undisturbed, unless that is, a change is occurring, and planning permission is granted.   It is only then that investigations can happen, giving the chance to find out more, adding another piece to the jigsaw of Oxford’s past history. And it is but a moment in time, as once this investigative work is done, everything that can be is left in its place and quickly covered up, so I hope you have not missed your chance. 

It is hard to imagine how buildings of such significance and scale as a College can have been demolished, when we are so familiar with a planning world of protection and listed buildings. Yet this did happen with priories, abbeys and castle keeps removed.  This was witnessed in the largest archaeological dig in recent times when it took 50 archaeologists to excavate under the old Westgate car park ready for the new shopping centre. The extensive remains of  a 13th century Franciscan Friary were there revealed, having suffered at the hands of Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s.   Back in 2015 open days were held, to include at Oxford Open Doors when 2000 people queued down the street.  Oxford Archaeology, who are also running the current project, went on to win a number of national awards for their work.  It is a shame that everything now lies hidden, other than a preserved mosaic of a rather stunning  tile pavement from the Greyfriars Cloister Walk, rather unceremoniously placed out of eyesight above the first-floor lifts.  There is also an interactive archaeological history trail available for those guests seeking out the experience.

All this reminds me of OPT’s work at Oxford Castle where an underground tunnel to provide disabled access to the 12th century crypt was dug from here to St. George’s Tower.  As it remains in our hands we have, at least, been able to leave it undisturbed, as found.  Visitors can now walk through history and perhaps begin to imagine that wherever you are in Oxford there is something else beneath your feet, below the pavements, the streets and the buildings themselves. 

Archaeology can also be hidden above ground, as seen in my recent very special visit to see some ongoing works at Christ Church.  The area known known as the old Library is the site of original Cardinal College, the college that Cardinal Wolsey founded around the same time as St Mary’s, and which later became Christ Church.  A few years ago painted ceiling panels were revealed, some of which were removed to Duke Humphreys library at the Bodleian.  These latest interventions as they look to upgrade some student rooms, have revealed an even earlier past, and the remains of part of the  south range of the Augustinian priory cloister, dating from the 13th century In a cupboard in the corner of a student room double doors can now be opened to reveal a vaulted ceiling with original paintwork,  - lucky is the student who gets that room allocated, even if the doors are to remained firmly locked.

Whilst there may not be the chance to get unfettered public access to our city’s past, though we do our best for OPT members and at Oxford Open Doors, there is plenty of information to be found.  In 2018, the city council’s archaeologist David Radford who we are all lucky to have working here, with his commitment to sharing what is found, published The Archaeology of Oxford in 20 Digs[1], In 2019 the information of the archaeology found at Oxford Castle came out[2] and in 2021 this was followed by The Oxfordshire Archaeological and Historical Society’s ‘The Archaeology of Oxford in the 21st Century’[3], The extensive research and books on ‘The Stones of Christ Church by the archivist Judith Curthoys are also a must. 


[1] David Radford, The Archaeology of Oxford in 20 Digs, (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018)

[2] Andrew Norton, Anne Dodd, Daniel Poore and Julian Munby, Excavations at Oxford Castle 1999-2009, (Exeter: Short Run Press Ltd, 2019)

[3] The Oxfordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, The Archaeology of Oxford in the 21st Century, (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2020)

[4] Judith Curthoys, The Stones of Christ Church, (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2017)

(Image: Simon Gannon)