Transformative community archaeology project breaks new ground

Five-year Archeox project aimed to explore the untapped archaeological research potential of East Oxford’s suburban landscape

Initiated by landscape archaeologist and East Oxford resident Professor David Griffiths (Director of Studies in Archaeology at the Department for Continuing Education), the five-year Archeox project aimed to explore the untapped archaeological research potential of East Oxford’s suburban landscape.

As well as uncovering key finds, it created a thriving community of over 600 volunteer participants who developed knowledge and skills, enabling them to lead and train others as the project progressed.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and led by Griffiths alongside Dr Jane Harrison and Dr Olaf Bayer, Archeox was a field project designed to engage the local community in uncovering the rich history that lies beneath East Oxford in areas including Cowley, Littlemore and Blackbird Leys.

Methods such as test pitting (small digs of one-metre square), geophysical survey, archival research and the study of museum collections were combined with key excavations to demonstrate that archaeology can be carried out in suburban areas with impressive results.

Building a community

The success of the project has been underpinned by the collaboration between researchers and local volunteers. Archeox involved and trained more than 600 participants from within the East Oxford community who learnt as the project progressed.

Participants came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds — Archeox engaged community groups including local schools, homeless and mental health groups. This resulted in a diverse and vibrant group of participants working alongside each other without hierarchy, all focused on learning together.

Many expected the work to focus on digging, and were surprised to find a host of other activities to get involved in. The excavation of finds including pottery and animal bone was merely the beginning, items then needed to be cleaned, sorted, identified, recorded and analysed. One participant commented: “During Archeox activities I gained a good knowledge of post-excavation finds processing, illustration and how to develop abilities of archaeological report writing. I found these experiences very useful to improve my academic skills and they helped me to focus on my aspirations regarding museum management and cultural heritage projects.”

The project’s focus on ‘citizen’s science’ also allowed volunteers to lead and initiate their own research and ideas. One participant said Archeox had helped them develop their own ideas on a neighbourhood project for the whole of Oxford. Another was inspired to undertake their own research on the Iffley parish.

Research and training activities were also vital to the project, meaning there was a task for every volunteer, regardless of physical ability.

A man digs into the earth with a spade as a younger person kneels at the site of the dig, watching. Beneath the earth are bones and fragments of historical objects. A network of faces representing diverse ages, genders & ethnicities smiles down on the dig

Illustration by Jack Brougham

The key finds

The Archeox team were given unprecedented access to various parks, playing fields, meadows, allotments and gardens, leading to a number of significant discoveries.

The collaborative team of researchers and volunteers learnt more about the distribution of prehistoric settlements, the environmental history of the area, and the development of settlements from the Roman to Medieval periods.

Volunteers worked with curators at the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums to research and document archaeological material from the East Oxford area in the Oxford University museum collections. Another group researched and mapped the local place names of East Oxford using historical material from college archives, producing a completely new and original study.

Successful digs at the Medieval leper hospital at Bartlemas and cloisters and outbuildings of the Medieval nunnery at Littlemore, both sites of significant national importance, revealed substantial new data about economy, industry, diet and more.

Additionally, in 2013, the Archeox team discovered a new Neolithic site on the Thames gravels at Donington Recreation ground.

These discoveries will be used to propose improvements to the management of these sites going forwards and the rich data uncovered will have a significant impact on local planning permissions.

David Radford, archaeologist at the Heritage and Specialist Services at Oxford City Council, commented in the Archeox evaluation report that “there will be enormous impact in terms of sustaining the asset base because screening of planning applications will be better informed because of the new archaeological information coming through.”

Arguably, the true value of the project ran deeper still. Professor Griffiths comments: “You’re always asked what the best thing you’ve found is. In this project, the answer was common ground. By connecting communities, Archeox allowed us to learn from each other, to break down preconceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

The Archeox legacy

Archeox has left a considerable appetite for archaeology within the community. Volunteers continue to participate in Oxford-based archaeology projects such as the Westgate Redevelopment Outreach Project and the Appleton Area Archaeology Research Project. Several have gone on to pursue archaeology as an area of further study.

There has also been a substantial impact on the individuals involved, many of whom were vulnerable or from marginalised communities. One participant comments: “I had a break in my career due to anxiety and depression. I was finding it difficult to relate to people because of my anxiety. The people leading the project were allowing and understanding enough to deal with me, and let me get involved. It got me doing something practical and I was meeting people who I wouldn’t have met any other way.”

For the Department of Continuing Education, Archeox has inspired a change of approach. Dr Griffiths says: “ContEd used to be adult education focused, now it’s increasingly about access to higher education. We’re no longer just about putting on evening classes. We offer a different way to study at Oxford.”

In 2015, an assessment and evaluation of Archeox carried out by independent consultancy Isis (now Oxentia) found that 97% of responding participants felt the project had positively changed their views of the archaeology and history of East Oxford. An area like Blackbird Leys that might have been perceived as a modern residential estate without history, was now seen as a community living on the site of an extraordinary Roman pottery industry.

On a practical level, the project demonstrated how much can be learnt using methods that are suited to urban areas, such as test pitting, geophysical survey, archival research, and the study of museum collections.

Archeox was shortlisted for the British Archaeology Awards early in the project, and won the University of Oxford’s inaugural Vice Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research in 2016.

Project champion Andrew Smith MP reflected on the success of Archeox: “Community archaeology shows how our heritage is not a secret garden, but something we can all share in discovering and bringing to life.

“The success of the project has valuable lessons not only for the enormous potential for similar projects here and elsewhere, but more generally in how Continuing Education really can reach and engage the community.”

Read the full Archeox story in the PDF e-book “Archeox: The Development of a Community”, free for all to download.