The human history of Oxfordshire: bringing the past to life
A recent project from the School of Archaeology coordinates business, local government and academic research, and engages people with their local history.
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Oxfordshire has a rich human history. Bronze Age and Iron Age hill fortifications scatter the landscape. Alfred the Great was born in the county, and Oxford University has been drawing people to the city for over 900 years. This history leaves traces in the landscape and in the built environment, which give us an insight into how people used to live. There are also clues underground, as those who lived and worked in the county died and were buried. These clues are spread wide and buried deep, and only come to light when development disturbs them. A whole network of burial grounds dots the county, but their location and their secrets had not been brought together until now.
There is a clear need to collate and review the available data on excavated assemblages and to clarify research aims - David Radford, Archaeologist, Oxford City Council
In 2014, archaeologists at Oxford University started a coordinating project. Previously, information about burial grounds had been held independently by academics, commercial archaeologists and local government. There was no central database of what was buried where. Developers are responsible for the added cost of archaeological investigations when developing land for housing or retail, and the lack of information on buried history often leads to uncertainty and higher costs. It also made it difficult for laypeople to engage with the archaeology of the county. The School of Archaeology was determined to change that. The most important part of the project was to draw together information about all the previously excavated burials in Oxfordshire into a single database.
The database incorporates archaeological details of over 7,000 burials in Oxfordshire, combining information about the sites and the bones themselves with the location of paper and skeletal archive, which was scattered across several museums and local government offices. This information had not previously been brought together in one resource, which had meant that details couldn’t be cross-referenced. For commercial archaeologists and government planning archaeologists who that need to access this information, this created a complex paper-chase: now the process is quicker and easier. Communities are also benefiting from the team’s public engagement activities. School children and local people have had the chance to hear about what the School of Archaeology is doing, and to learn about the work of Oxford Archaeology, a national archaeology business. Students were even able to handle human remains and grave goods, which proved to be an electric introduction to archaeology.