Visitors to Oxford often ask locals ‘where is the university?’ – a question which is traditionally impossible to answer, as it is composed of colleges each with their own identity.
The Bodleian Library perhaps?
The University Offices (not much tourism appeal there)?
Since 2010 however, a possible answer could be: ‘In a trench in a garden in East Oxford.’ Oxford University, through its Department for Continuing Education, has joined forces with locals in East Oxford to investigate this area of the city’s heritage.
Archeox: the Archaeology of East Oxford is a four-year community archaeology and history research project, based on funding of just over half a million pounds.
Most comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the rest from Oxford University’s John Fell Fund.
The idea began when I, a University Reader in Archaeology at the Department for Continuing Education, and doctoral student Jane Harrison, both East Oxford residents, were discussing how interesting and overlooked this part of the city’s heritage was.
From prehistoric landscapes to a huge Roman pottery industry, medieval villages and monasteries to the more recent heritage, East Oxford has it all, yet is overshadowed by the city centre.
Its story is one of immigration, urbanisation and change, not just in recent times, but over millennia.
How about getting the locals themselves to investigate this, providing training and education, and getting people skilled-up as archaeologists and historians?
Continuing Education is an ideal base, as it is the leading department in the university for getting the public involved in learning and study.
The project now employs Jane, together with Olaf Bayer, and Joanne Robinson on a bursary from the Council for British Archaeology.
A website was created, talks, events and guided walks put on.
People have volunteered in droves, total registrations now number around 600, but many more are reached through working with charity groups and schools (some for excluded or special needs pupils).
People from districts of the city like Blackbird Leys, Littlemore and Cowley have responded with tremendous interest and pride in their local heritage.
Perceptions of Oxford University have changed, for the better.
Instead of a remote ‘ivory tower’, it has presented a welcoming human face and a new interest in these areas.
Volunteers do ‘real’ archaeology from initial investigations to writing up, receiving proper standards of training.
Some go on to do courses in archaeology and local history run by the Department for Continuing Education.
Test-pits (small digs one metre square) have been dug in over 60 locations across East Oxford, providing finds and soil profiles which add to a bigger picture.
Geophysical surveys on open areas such as parks and meadows contribute survey data, while teaching IT skills.
Volunteers have also investigated maps and local collections in the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums.
The centrepieces have been two excavations on nationally important sites: Bartlemas, an ancient leper hospital off Cowley Road, and Minchery Paddock, across from the Priory Pub, Littlemore.
These are both medieval monastic sites, and the team found a wealth of structures, layers, burials and deposits which tell us about the history of the area’s past communities.
It’s fun, and in doing it the project has created a new, diverse and vibrant local network: a heritage community for East Oxford.
Everyone is welcome whatever their cultural or educational background or physical ability.
Register on the website, archeox.net, or phone 01865 270319.