Review – Excavations at Oxford Castle, 1999-2009

6 mins read
By Julian Munby, Andrew Norton, Daniel Poore, and Anne Dodd

Oxford University School of Archaeology, £25
ISBN 978-1905905454
Review by Carly Hilts

Built in 1071, Oxford Castle was an imposing fortification with one of the largest mottes in the country. Largely abandoned by the late 16th century – though it was briefly refortified in the Civil War – the castle ultimately evolved into a prison that operated until 1996. When this institution closed, redevelopment of the site gave Oxford Archaeology the opportunity to carry out a decade of investigations between 1999 and 2009 – uncovering finds spanning the 11th century to the present day.

The discoveries, detailed in this absorbing new book, are as varied as they are fascinating. Highlights include the identification of part of Oxford’s late Saxon defences pre-dating the castle’s construction; and the authors’ careful tracing of how the castle itself developed, piecing together material evidence (curtain-wall foundations, decorated tiles, window glass), historical accounts, and early images of the site drawn both from historical mapping and artistic depictions (a generous number of which are reproduced for readers to pore over) produced before many of its medieval features were demolished. Through these diverse clues, a wonderfully coherent picture is built up.

The material evidence sheds vivid light on life in the castle. The motte ditch has yielded an exceptional assemblage of late 11th- to early 12th-century leather, including fragments of at least 84 shoes. These were high-status footwear, made from fine leathers and exhibiting a wide range of decorative techniques, including fancy stitching, appliquéd elements, contrasting colours, and the long, curling toes that became fashionable around the time of William II. Despite their aesthetic appeal, though, the shoes were heavily worn and repaired – perhaps they had been subsequently handed down to servants or sold on before they were finally discarded, the team suggests.

Food-refuse speaks too of luxury living, with abundant evidence for the consumption of beef and pork, and prestigious bird species like quail, partridge, crane, and swan. Another bird bone, that of a sparrowhawk, adds to this picture of elite pursuits. By contrast, only very slight evidence for this site’s military use survives among the artefactual evidence: a single stone ball, probably from a trebuchet. Darker aspects of the site’s past are in evidence, however: the skeletons of 62 individuals, as well as the disjointed bones of many more, had been consigned to the unconsecrated ground of the motte ditch, and are thought to represent the remains of executed felons (although some may have died of disease within the overcrowded prison). The skeletons are mostly those of young men aged 18-35, though 15 are thought to have been aged between 12 and 18 at their time of death, and 22 women are also present among the dead.

Executions were carried out in public until 1868, whereupon a change in the law accorded condemned individuals the relative dignity of meeting their end within the privacy of the prison compound. The Oxford motte ditch burials are thought to date from the late 15th century/early 16th century, continuing into the 17th century. Another stark insight into the times in which these individuals died is granted by the fact that some had been dissected after their death – probably by the anatomy schools known to have operated in Oxford at this time which, until 1832, were only legally allowed to use cadavers from executed criminals for their studies.

These aspects of the site’s use are described with dignity and detachment, but also a vivid turn of phrase – in this part of the site, we are told, ‘conditions would have hindered decomposition. It is likely that the motte ditch was a foul and rancid site in its early years.’ Prison execution cemeteries are rarely excavated, and the Oxford findings are illuminating.

The site also preserves evidence for how the prison system evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries, as reformist attitudes came to the fore. The buildings at Oxford represent some of the best-surviving examples of how these ideas were put into practice, and the chapter detailing this incarnation of the site deftly explores various developments and how they are reflected in the material record.

Each historical period has its own section, as do the human remains, while finds are grouped by their materials – pottery, coins, metalwork, glass, ceramics, stone, leather, wood, and a separate discussion of tobacco pipes. Illustrated with a wealth of historical images and photographs from the site, this is an impressively comprehensive and significant publication, while also being a very clear and interesting read.

This review appeared in CA 356. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.