Oxford Archaeology: 40 years young

6 mins read

Oxford Archaeology, one of the oldest archaeological units in the UK, celebrates its 40th birthday this autumn. CA caught up with Chief Executive Gill Hey to hear about the triumphs and tribulations of four decades of developer-driven archaeology.

Gill Hey is Chief Executive of Oxford Archaeology and Regional Manager of Oxford Archaeology North.

Happy birthday! So why was Oxford Archaeology (OA) formed in 1973? It all came out of the rescue archaeology movement, really. In the Oxford area there were many disparate groups, like the Thames Valley Archaeological Committee, the Oxford Excavation Committee, the field department in the Oxford City and Council Museum, all trying to investigate sites that were about to be destroyed. And they were all competing for the same pot of money. Many of these committees had the same people sitting on them, and there was a growing sense that it was wasteful of effort, resources, and equipment to have these separate groups. So instead they banded together and built a unit to serve Oxfordshire.

Unusually, the unit was independent from the beginning. It came out of the county council and was linked to the county museum, but it was independent of them: the first of its kind. Barry Cunliffe, Trevor Rowley, and Tom Hassall — the first director — wrote an Antiquity article together at the very beginning, saying why the unit was set up and what its aims were. The idea was to educate the public, and communicate the results of our work. We would also dig the most important sites, not rush around trying to do everything.

Over time some of these aims slipped into the background, perhaps, but these things are firmly back on the agenda again now. There’s not very much that’s new, is there?

I think that the very first excavation the unit tackled was in a gravel quarry at Appleford in south Oxfordshire. I was a student at Reading at the time, and I actually dug on that site with the unit. Astonishing, really.

Appleford, Oxfordshire, in 1973, one of OA’s earliest excavations. The cooling towers of Didcot Power Station are in the background.

What has OA’s contribution to archaeology been over the last 40 years?

I think that OA has made a very big contribution because we have focused on being both flexible and at the forefront of developments. We have made important contributions to research, and been assiduous in publishing our results. Because we espoused the whole PPG 16 ethos [Planning Policy Guidance 16] very early on, we were able to take advantage of our experience and do some of the large projects, such as High Speed 1 — or the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, as it was known.

I think that large projects in particular allow us to see ancient landscapes as never before. Our understanding of how settlements develop and articulate with each other is much improved. It also allows us to find all kinds of archaeology that is otherwise hard to spot. The Neolithic house we dug at Yarnton, for instance, was only discovered because huge areas were stripped for development.

The Neolithic house from Yarnton in Oxfordshire, under excavation.

I am a prehistorian, and it is certainly true that this approach has revolutionised the way we think about prehistory. We don’t just see monuments now, we see how people lived, how they moved through the landscape, where they stopped for a while and knapped some flint. So you get a feel for the whole range of what people did, rather than one particular aspect, such as where they buried their dead or undertook particular ceremonies.

Our understanding is much more sophisticated, and the picture is much more interesting because we are getting to grips with people, not just processes and big events. We are closer to that ideal of seeing day-to-day life in the past, rather than just exceptional events. It is understanding the whole picture, rather than just little pieces. In my opinion, it’s exactly what we should be focusing on.

I might add that we have also made important contributions to the development of Environmental Impact Assessments, for example for High Speed 1 in the 1990s, and strategic initiatives, such as the evaluation of archaeological decision-making processes and COSMIC — Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation.

You first got involved as a student volunteer. Are there opportunities for students and community groups to dig with OA today?

This is a big issue that faces archaeology at the moment. I think that we are getting better at including local people and students in our work. It still isn’t as good as it should be, and it isn’t as good as it was when the unit was first set up. We used volunteers a lot more back then, but it is difficult when you start getting involved in large development projects. When construction is going on at the same time, the health and safety requirements are very serious, and it is hard for people to get access.

Volunteers at the HLF-funded Dig in the Park with the Levens Local History Group and the National Trust at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria.

I think perhaps we have sometimes used that as an excuse, or we haven’t worked hard enough to find routes for other people to come in. I think it’s a failing that we are addressing, because people do love to have hands-on involvement in archaeology — they absolutely love it! So we need to work harder at that.

If we don’t involve people in what we’re doing, if we don’t communicate our results effectively, we’ll cease to be relevant. If people think, ‘Well, why are we paying for that?’, we’ll cease to exist as a profession. I feel passionately about that.

How has the heritage scene shifted over the last 40 years?

Hugely. In the 1970s money for individual projects mostly came from government or, if we were lucky, from local councils.

Aerial view of a middle Iron Age hexagonal enclosure at Preston on the A419 Swindon-Gloucester road improvement scheme. Excavated between 1996 and 1997, with the results published in 1999, the scheme is an early example of work undertaken under PPG 16.

Obviously that changed with PPG 16 and 15 in the early 1990s. It was a revolution. But now that companies had to pay for archaeology in advance of development, they wanted to choose the people they used. So the regional units suddenly had to start working in the same business environment as the developers themselves. That’s when competitive tendering came in, which was completely radical and new. It meant organisations would tender against each other: we worked in London, Wessex worked in London, MOLA worked in Oxford. Suddenly everything was up for grabs, and the whole regional structure broke down. That changed the game hugely. It made it almost unrecognisable. Later, we began the process of building a regional office structure, when we amalgamated with the Lancaster University Archaeological Unit, which became OA North in 2001. We were also fortunate to join up with the former CAMARC, now OA East, in 2008.

Now things are changing again, because the planning framework is changing. I think it will be for the better, but archaeologists haven’t quite got to grips with how it will work yet.

What do you think the next 40 years hold?

I think it holds some exciting challenges! There may not be as much money for archaeology. There is quite a lot of pressure on archaeologists, and I think that we have got to fight our corner much harder, because we have to prove that we’re relevant. I think that’s going to be a big issue.

Another big challenge is that so much data has been accumulated. How do we deal with it? How do we communicate it? How do we share it, and make sure it is being used to best effect? There is the archives and storage issue as well — we’ve dug all this material out of the ground, and now there is nowhere to put it. We urgently need to grasp that nettle.

Excavating the site of a Roman bathhouse in Southwark as part of the Thameslink project undertaken by the Oxford Archaeology-Pre-Construct Archaeology (OA-PCA) partnership.

One opportunity I am excited about is working much more with the academic community. We can work together on projects, and enhance the results. The organisation can tap into some of their specialist expertise, and the university can get a research opportunity that it might not otherwise have.

I’m sure OA will still be here in 40 years’ time. We’ll be different. It will probably involve more wide-ranging partnerships, both in the UK and beyond, and hopefully also interacting more with local communities. I am optimistic for the future, but I think you have to be in this job.

What does archaeology mean to you personally?

It is a very personal thing. I am a field archaeologist, and that’s what I love: being out on site, working with other people, and that sense of conviviality. But, even more, I love those moments of discovery and feeling that you are out there, making a difference to our understanding of the past. Every year I try to get out and dig for a couple of weeks. And I do try to visit sites and talk to people as well, because it can be easy in an organisation of this size to lose touch with the people who work for you. You can’t know absolutely everyone, but you can show that you care about what they’re doing. And I do, because that’s my background. I’m quite envious when I see them head out to site. Though it is nice not to have to go out in the winter any more!

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