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TVAS News: Kendrew Quadrangle, St Johns College, Oxford

An archaeological team led by Sean Wallis from TVAS is close to finishing its excavations in Kendrew Quadrangle, formerly Queen Elizabeth House, St John’s College, between St Giles and Blackhall Road, Oxford.

Most of the archaeological deposits found date from medieval into early post-medieval times, but the chief interest of the site lay deeper buried, in the form of human remains. At least twenty individuals had been buried together in a mass grave. At the moment we think they might all be male, but detailed analysis will be needed to confirm this. This is clearly not an organized cemetery, nor is it a collection of disarticulated bone such as a charnel pit; complete or near-complete, articulated skeletons form the majority of the remains, but all bundled into the ground together: and therein lies the mystery.

The human burials are at present undated, except that they lie beneath the medieval levels on the site, so they are probably Saxon or conceivably Roman. They were buried with no grave goods or finds of any sort, so dating will have to rely on the bones themselves. Radiocarbon dating should establish their date definitively, but this process will take several weeks or months to complete, and in any case will not provide a precise date, only a range of possible dates.

For the moment, it is tempting to speculate that they may be related to a known slaughter of Danes resident in Oxford on St Brice’s Day (November 13) AD1002 or reprisals by the Danes when they attacked and burnt the city in 1009. Should the carbon dating show that these dates are within the possible range, further scientific analysis (eg., DNA testing) might be able to establish if the remains are those of natives or foreigners.

Above these are features dating from at least the 12th century in an area of the site which would once have been garden and yard areas for medieval buildings which fronted onto St Giles. Most of these features are pits backfilled with rubbish but other features such as hearths and ovens, a well, cess pits and boundary ditches are present. All of the features are providing a wealth of artefacts mostly of pottery and animal bone. Above these again, the foundations of a range of stone built post-medieval buildings and associated yard and floor surfaces have been uncovered, which seem to relate to structures shown on 17th century maps of Oxford.

Underlying these later deposits is a massive ditch containing Early Bronze Age pottery in its deeper fills, and Roman pottery on top: the graves lie on top of this ditch.

Planning permission has been granted by Oxford City Council to redevelop the site for new college accommodation. A planning condition attached to the consent required the excavation of the archaeological deposits present on the site prior to the new construction work. The fieldwork is being carried out by TVAS on behalf of the College.

Click on the image thumbnails below for larger versions:

View of the excavated skeletons. Three skeletons lying where they landed when were thrown into the grave.

General view of the grave excavations. The excavated skeletons cut into by a modern drain (left)

The remains of Skeleton 1889. Detail of the excavated skeletons showing the chaotic nature of their burial.

Tightly packed bodies in the grave. Using chopsticks to excavate the grave.