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What do Richard III, David Attenborough and a new road have in common? Businesses and organisations benefit from Oxford University software.

Oxford research unlocks secrets from the past

Image credit: Shutterstock

Bones dug out of the ground in Leicester, subject to intense speculation as to their original owner. A huge fossilised egg, a foot high and pockmarked by age, which featured in a famous television programme. Pottery found at excavations beside a new road in Buckinghamshire. Oxford research has uncovered their secrets thanks to a software package called OxCal.

OxCal has been helping researchers, businesses and amateur archaeologists since its inception in 1994. Initially developed by Professor Christopher Ramsey from the School of Archaeology for radiocarbon dating, it now supports several dating techniques, providing greatly improved precision when dating a range of materials. Standard radiocarbon dating needs to be calibrated with samples of a known age. In addition to performing this comparison OxCal also draws on other types of information to tighten up the dating process. It’s free to download, easy to apply, and accessed on average every fifteen minutes across the world by businesses, academics, researchers and students.

Without this type of user-friendly software and modular model construction, an application on this scale would simply not have been possible
- Archaeological expert

Businesses and public bodies are benefiting from OxCal. Accurate dating is a vital stage in understanding, conserving and, where necessary, valuation of buildings and artefacts. Oxford Archaeology (OA) are UK leaders in excavation and heritage management, and have often used OxCal in projects commissioned by large construction companies who are building or developing sites that may be of archaeological interest. When Skanska Construction (UK) Limited employed OA to carry out excavations alongside a new road near Milton Keynes, digs revealed artefacts and evidence from every period from the Neolithic onwards.

Further north, in Cumbria, OA and English Heritage excavated the earliest stone-built presbytery, built in about 1127. One of many burials within the presbytery was that of an abbot, accompanied by a spectacular gilded crozier and wearing a jewelled finger ring. Scraps of wood and fabric were also discovered, tested, and found to have made up part of the cloth that would have been wrapped around the stave and the head of the crozier. This was the most significant find of its type for the last two generations, and OxCal enabled the team to be confident in their dating of the artefacts.

Applications for the remarkable piece of software don’t stop at profit-making businesses. In 2012, building works for a new car park unearthed a skeleton, rumoured to be that of Richard III of England. Analysis of radiocarbon dates using OxCal, along with other archaeological and DNA clues, helped the team at the University of Leicester draw this conclusion: the skeleton was most likely that of the King, killed at Bosworth in 1485. When he visited Madagascar in the 1960s, David Attenborough found an extraordinary egg. 180 times bigger than a chicken’s egg, perfectly preserved, but with no clue as to the bird that laid it. In 2011 Attenborough had the egg dated and calibrated using OxCal. The dates showed that the parent bird had shared the island with humans, who probably caused the extinction of the species at the end of the 1st millennium AD.

OxCal has received funding from English Heritage, and is maintained by members of the NERC-funded radiocarbon facility at Oxford University.

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School of Archaeology