Oxford Archaeology at 50

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Exploring half a century of excavations

Founded in 1973, Oxford Archaeology is today one of the largest commercial units operating in the UK. Here we see one of its recent excavations, exploring a Roman villa estate at Priors Hall, Corby. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

With one of the UK’s oldest commercial units recently celebrating its 50th birthday, Carly Hilts spoke to its founding director, Tom Hassall, and current CEO, Ken Welsh, about how the archaeological profession has changed over this period – and what the future might hold for the ways in which we engage with the past

Back in CA 40, our Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk described being abandoned by a taxi driver and left to pick his way across a building site towards a row of condemned cottages. This unlikely setting was the scene of launch celebrations for a new arrival in the heritage world – the Oxfordshire Archaeological Unit – and, 50 years later, it was my turn to travel to Oxford to mark an equally important milestone: the unit’s half- century. Today, the organisation is known as Oxford Archaeology, and the festivities were held in the rather more comfortable surroundings of an airy conference centre a stone’s throw from the unit’s present head office in Osney Mead. Afterwards, I caught up with OA’s founding director, Tom Hassall, and its CEO, Ken Welsh, to share their thoughts about commercial archaeology’s past, present, and future.

Oxfordshire and the city of Oxford itself had long been a centre of archaeological activity, spearheaded by the Ashmolean Museum and with important fieldwork also undertaken by Oxford University’s Archaeology Society. As development boomed in the region, though, it was decided in 1965 to found a county-wide museums service to lead responses to the twin threats of urban growth and rural gravel extraction. The fledgling Oxford City and County Museum was unable to meet the accelerating demands of rescue archaeology, however, and a number of independent excavation committees sprang up to help (see CA 35). One of the first was the Oxford Archaeological Excavation Committee, founded in 1967 with Tom Hassall as its first director; the historic towns of Abingdon and Banbury also had their own dedicated committees, as did the Upper Thames Valley, and another team focused on the construction of the M40.

From its earliest days, the unit has been occupied with investigating rural sites – including gravel quarries and road schemes – as well as busy urban environments. This photo shows work at Frewin Hall, part of Brasenose College in Oxford. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

While each of these groups had specific aims, they soon found themselves competing for funds and personnel – and so they pooled their resources to create a single archaeological service that could tackle projects across historical Oxfordshire and North Berkshire. The result was the Oxfordshire Archaeological Committee, a registered charity with public benefit at its heart, which held its first meeting in the summer of 1973. Its fieldwork was to be carried out by the new Oxfordshire Archaeological Unit, with Tom at its helm. ‘“Unit” was the trendy word of the time, taking inspiration from the Research Unit that Martin Biddle had founded in Winchester in 1968,’ he added.

Tom’s team were riding the crest of a wave that was set to transform the way that archaeology was done in the UK. In 1971, the gauntlet had been thrown down by the creation of RESCUE and its campaigns for state funding of development-led excavations, and in this period the seeds of many of today’s major commercial units were sown. The York Archaeological Trust (born in another historic city facing a crisis of rapid development; see CA 400) was founded in 1972, while London’s Department of Urban Archaeology (a forerunner of MOLA) was established in 1973, and Wessex Archaeology began in 1979. Over in East Anglia, 1973 also saw Peter Wade-Martins founding the Norfolk Archaeological Unit under the auspices of the local council, and similar conversations were happening across the nation.

The Westgate site in Oxford, dug first by the Oxford Archaeological Excavation Committee (this photo is from 1969), then by OA. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

The new Oxfordshire unit hit the ground running, undertaking influential surveys of historic towns and excavating Iron Age and Roman remains in the Upper Thames Valley (see CA 86 and 121). Two of the most significant projects of this period, both on the outskirts of Abingdon, were at Barton Court Farm, the intended site of a new housing development, and on the Ashville Trading Estate, close to the old MG Car factory (which closed in 1980; see CA 63 for more on both sites). Ashville yielded Bronze Age ring-ditches and Roman field systems, as well as the remains of a long-lived Iron Age settlement, its frequently shifting footprint reflected in the intercutting outlines of numerous roundhouses. Meanwhile, Barton Court Farm was home to a Roman villa and associated cemetery, as well as a number of Anglo-Saxon buildings and a handful of furnished graves that had been inserted into the by-then ruined villa.

Another key site of the 1970s was All Saints Church on Oxford’s High Street. Its entire interior was excavated ahead of its conversion to become Lincoln College’s library; Tom recalls members of the public ascending into the gallery to watch the dig. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

Back in Oxford, the unit’s staff were hard at work on the site of the new Westgate shopping centre. The planned development was set to cut a swathe through the city centre, crossing the line of its medieval defences and encompassing the site of the 13th-century Greyfriars friary. The team was also offered the opportunity to explore a slice of the main east– west route into Oxford, exposing a fascinating layer-cake of 19 late Saxon-to-medieval road surfaces.

The Westgate finds attracted so much attention that, when the late Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Oxford in 1976, they were shown the results of the excavations (and presented with a copy of the unit’s historic towns survey). Tom Hassall recalled: ‘When Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh were standing in the central square at Westgate, and I was showing them the archaeology and the architect was showing them the development, Prince Philip turned to me and said: “I wonder when they will pull this down and excavate it too”. As it happens, he lived so long that he did see the shopping centre demolished and OA excavate the site again – I have always found that amusing.’

Despite such a proliferation of work, however, the unit’s access to development sites – and their underlying archaeology – was far from guaranteed. In the decades before PPG16 formally embedded rescue excavations within the planning process, developers were under no obligation to allow archaeologists to explore their sites before construction began. Instead, every two weeks Tom and the County Museum’s field officer would go through all new planning applications for the county, trying to spot potential projects so that they could negotiate with the developers. They were given a tantalising early glimpse of how things could be, though, when Tom and some of his colleagues were invited to address the American Association of Archaeology in 1975. They came away with intriguing insights into how practices were changing Stateside. ‘We learned about a new law that stated that, in all federal development projects, the polluter had to pay for the archaeological work – “What an interesting idea!”, we thought,’ he said.

The Oxford Archaeological Unit in 1982; the carved stone relief above the door depicts the head of Janus, its original logo. This was a challenging period for the unit, which saw its financial model change and its transformation into a Limited Company. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

The later 1970s were a period of great opportunities for the Oxfordshire unit, but also significant challenges. In 1976, Northamptonshire County Council invited them to move outside their traditional territories to dig in Towcester, and investigations in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Kent, and Berkshire followed, prompting the organisation to drop the ‘-shire’ from its name, becoming the Oxford Archaeological Unit (this was simplified further to Oxford Archaeology in 2001).

Financial waters, however, were becoming choppy. The unit had always enjoyed the City and County Councils’ support, and had received core funding from the Department of the Environment. Towards the end of the decade, though, this model changed and the team suddenly had to apply for funding on a project-by- project basis. ‘Projects at the beginning of the alphabet seemed to get the larger grants, so I remember that we thought of putting forward the mythical site of “Abingdon Aardvark” in the hopes of securing massive funding,’ Tom said.

The Eton Rowing Lake project revealed Early Neolithic middens, Bronze Age ring-ditches, and important waterlogged wooden remains. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

In such trying times, job-creation schemes that had been set up to combat the decade’s high level of unemployment proved an invaluable source of staff for the unit’s projects: many volunteers from the Manpower Services Commission became permanent staff who remain with OA today. Oxford University’s Archaeology Society was another key place for recruitment; as the university only introduced an undergraduate degree in (Anthropology and) Archaeology in 1992, prior to that the Society was the main place to find students keen for fieldwork experience. Come the 1980s, though, and state funding and administrative support ended altogether: OA was on its own. The unit responded by becoming a Limited Company (but retaining its charitable status), and while it ultimately managed to weather the financial storm, this period was a useful introduction to the sometimes harsh realities of the commercial world that the organisation was about to enter.

The introduction of PPG16 in 1990 changed everything. Units were now able to submit competitive tenders for projects and to work anywhere in the country. OA, which was by now well-established in the south of England, was one of the first units to take advantage of these new opportunities – but such perceived incursions on to other groups’ turf proved controversial. Geographically based organisations and county units resented the arrival of ‘outsiders’ who were seen as lacking understanding of the local archaeology – indeed, OA’s present CEO Ken Welsh, who was working for the Department of Greater London Archaeology at the time, recalls his ‘outrage’ when he heard that Oxfordshire archaeologists were excavating in Southwark.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 407. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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