Archaeologists exploring the remains of a ‘lost’ university college in Oxford have discovered underlying traces of much earlier activity: a burial mound and surrounding ring-ditch probably dating to the Bronze Age.
Oxford Archaeology found the limestone foundations of St Mary’s College for Austin Canons (which was founded in 1435 and fell into disrepair after the Dissolution of the Monasteries) earlier in the year on a development site where construction firm Beard is building student accommodation on behalf of Brasenose College.
As for the earlier archaeology on the site, it has long been known that the gravel promontory between the River Cherwell and the River Thames, on which Oxford sits, was home to prehistoric activity. ‘Archaeological discoveries over the last decade or so suggest that in the Neolithic period the Oxford promontory was probably a sacred area, which remained significant in the Bronze Age when it became an extensive burial ground to commemorate important people within large earthen barrow monuments,’ said Ben Ford, Senior Project Manager at OA.
These burial sites have been mapped by George Lambrick (Oxoniensia; www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/2013/Lambrick.pdf), but the mound uncovered by OA was previously undocumented. ‘At these other sites, the nearest of which is just 60-70m to the north, the central mound had not survived. On this site the level of preservation is really unusual,’ Ben told CA.
Parts of the newly discovered mound and ring-ditch had been cut away by subsequent late-Saxon and medieval features, but a sizable portion of the original earthwork (above) still survived. ‘The parts of the surrounding ring-ditch we have found suggest the monument was one of the larger examples at around 30m in diameter,’ Ben added. No intact original human burials have been found but they are thought to be represented by the disarticulated skeletal remains, including teeth, parts of a jawbone, and fragments of skull, pelvis, tibia, and femur recovered from the fills of nearby medieval pits.
‘The monument has been less affected by the later activity than we have seen on the rest of the site, suggesting its presence probably influenced the way the site was used thousands of years later,’ Ben said. ‘We are grateful to Brasenose College for supporting this excavation.’