Excavating the CA archive: Oxfordshire

12 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column belowcan be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 6 August. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI366, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Like many people during the coronavirus crisis, I’ve been thinking more than usual of my friends and family. This latest county-based column, therefore, is especially for those loved ones who live in Oxfordshire, in particular for my parents, who under happier circumstances regularly visit a host of historic sites across that county. This was also where I grew up and began my own archaeological journeys as a teenager, so it is a welcome return amid troubling times.


For many visitors to Oxfordshire, their first glimpse of the county comes from the less-than-picturesque environs of the M40, usually while stuck in traffic. This seems like a good place to start CA’s explorations too, a reminder of how much things change over time, even if they don’t always appear to. The M40 seems like something that has been there forever (and driving along it during rush-hour can feel like it takes forever), but the major sections of the motorway only date to the mid-1970s; CA issues 26 and 35 (May 1971 and November 1972) reported on fieldwork in advance of its construction. The first of these issues focused on work led by Trevor Rowley of Oxford University in partnership with a young man named… Mick Aston (yes, him) of the city and county museum. The report tantalisingly notes that this daring duo took to the skies in January 1971 to survey the route from the unheated cockpit of an ancient Puss Moth aircraft: if any reader of CA can provide photographic evidence of a young Mick wearing an early version of his famous woolly jumpers on one of these flights, then please step forward to claim a prize! CA then returned to the M40 in issue 35 for an update on the project and the host of different sites identified, the route being especially rich in Iron Age remains.

Oxfordshire has been visited by the magazine many times over the years, including in CA 35, which was a special issue focused on the archaeology of this region.

Focusing in on the aforementioned CA 35, this is a fascinating early issue of the magazine, essentially an ‘Oxfordshire’ special. Beyond the M40, the magazine travelled to Dorchester-on-Thames to explore why this Roman and later medieval city did not develop into the county seat, as opposed to Oxford; to the county’s major towns of Abingdon and Banbury to examine their origins; and to gravel-workings to the south and west of Oxford that revealed much about the prehistoric communities of the Thames river terraces. All in all, issue 35 is a splendid snapshot of what a close-knit archaeological community focused on a single county was like in the early 1970s, where the challenge of fast-paced development, largely uncontrolled by today’s planning regulations, was met by a primarily voluntary archaeological sector.


In 1990, CA 121 presented another Oxford-focused issue, looking at the work of the Oxford Archaeological Unit (now Oxford Archaeology)

It is always fascinating to observe in my surveys of CA the themes that emerge across the years. Searching the magazine’s back catalogue, the archaeology of Oxfordshire in the 1970s and 1980s is defined by a focus on the Iron Age/Roman transition (see, for example, issues 63, 66, and 72), and especially on the Romano-British potteries of the area (see issues 31, 53, and 86). Only later on does the earlier prehistory of the county come to the fore. On this topic, CA 121 (September 1990) is a fascinating counterpoint to CA 35, being another near-dedicated county special, only this time with a much stronger Bronze Age emphasis. Also in issue 121 is an in-depth examination of the Oxford Archaeological Unit (now simply known as Oxford Archaeology). It is one of the most successful of the commercial archaeological organisations that grew in this era, and flourished later on as the first formal archaeological planning control, PPG 16 (Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning), came into being in 1990. For those interested in this organisation, do also seek out CA 284 (November 2013), which includes an interview with Gill Hey, who was then the CEO, at the time that Oxford Archaeology was celebrating its 40th birthday.

Any mention of prehistoric Oxfordshire has to include what is arguably the most famous site in the county – the wonderful White Horse of Uffington. CA first visited the site in issue 142 (March 1995), surveying the history of archaeological explorations of this site, and the magazine has returned repeatedly since then, including in CA 215 (February 2008) during laser-scanning, CA 234 (September 2009) to report on the use of scientific dating there, and most recently in issue 359 (February 2020), reporting on the latest thinking on the site in David Miles’ excellent book The Land of the White Horse, which deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf. For those who are curious, the site is free to visit, ideal for a socially distant day out, and is cared for by the National Trust.

The White Horse of Uffington is one of Oxfordshire’s most famous archaeological sites, visited many times by CA, including in issue 234.


CA 196 examined an unusual tombstone belonging to a Roman army veteran who lived out his retirement near Alchester, where he was stationed, and was buried there.

When the presence of the Romans in Oxfordshire is considered, the commonly accepted vision errs towards villas and other ‘civilised’ sites – a sort of proto-Cotswolds for the Roman elites echoed by the modern-day down-from-London brigade. But issue 157 (May 1998) reported on a rather different Roman experience at Alchester near Bicester, a strategic military complex that sat in the disputed border territories of the Catuvellauni and Dobunni tribes, with a legionary fortress of the famed Legio II Augusta. The circumstances of the site’s discovery are as fascinating as what its excavation revealed. In 1990, archaeologist Simon Crutchley was examining Second World War-era RAF aerial photos when he spotted some unusual rectangular features. This sharp-eyed work led to a site-visit in 1991 and to fieldwork from 1996 onwards by the Oxford University Archaeological Society. The excavations identified the military camp, including its parade ground, surrounded by a characteristic Roman army V-shaped defensive ditch. CA returned in issues 173 (April 2001) to give an update on progress, and again in issue 196 (March 2005) when an inscribed tombstone was discovered of an army veteran who retired from the legion while stationed at Alchester, and remained in its vicinity until his death, although he originally came from north-west Italy – not the lifestyle choice we usually expect from retired legionaries.


Unsurprisingly given the historic riches that survive across the city, Oxford has itself featured regularly in the pages of CA down the years – too often to fully outline here. As a tantalising taste, however, I point you to CA 359 (February 2020) and CA 297 (December 2014) for an unusual meal of… porridge and treacle. To explain, CA 359 was back with Oxford Archaeology at the city’s castle and prison, exploring the decade-worth of work that followed the latter’s closure and the site’s redevelopment. In contrast, CA 297 explored the history of the holy well at Binsey, just to the north of the city. This has long been known in punning Oxford lore as the ‘treacle’ well that Lewis Carroll included in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. CA’s Chris Catling accompanied the Romanist-cum-clergyman Martin Henig on a tour of the site and its stories, a fascinating mix of narrative history and archaeology. In these times of uncertainty, such a peaceful spot for contemplation and healing seems like the ideal place to end this latest exploration of the CA archive.

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.