Oxford – Stone Walls, Harry Potter, and an Archaeology Dig
I spent nearly five months living in Oxford in the United Kingdom. I moved there shortly after completing my graduate program in archaeology at Durham University in September 2011 and was looking for some warmer weather and a change of scenery. Oxford seemed like a gorgeous place to spend some time, plus with a world class university and countless publishing companies I wanted to see what all the buzz was about.
The bridge on High Street.
Oxford is as magical as you probably imagine, the roads are all lined by tall stone walls, most of which separate the university from the town. To visit most of the colleges at Oxford University you either need to be a student or pay, so I never visited any where that required any of my limited Pounds. There is one main street bridge on High Street that leads from the popular Cowley area of town into the city centre. I lived off Cowley, surrounded by bohemian shops, tasty chippies, and this really cool store that sold beers from all over the world. Stepping outside of my flat (apartment for my fellow yanks), if I walked right I would reach Cowley and all it had to offer, but if I turned left I would get to walking path that lead to the tree lined Barracks Lane and Cowley Marsh Sports Field. The field is a massive park with football (yes, I am talking about soccer, come on people, I’m flashing back to the United Kingdom here, it’s football), basketball and tennis courts, a playground, and plenty of grass for lounging about on a sunny day. I spent many a day with a book and the sun in early autumn, it wasn’t very rainy that year and with the right layering I could almost imagine it was really warm outside.
Pitts Rivers Museum
I was pounding the pavement looking for work, I visited job agencies and spent a significant amount of time in the library printing off copies of my various CVs. Not having a job at first definitely had it’s advantages, it gave me plenty of time to explore. I would spend days wandering the walled in streets, and even got signed up to be a volunteer at the Oxford Museums. After my first orientation I was leaving the Pitts Rivers Museum (which is an awe inspiring building that hosts the university’s anthropology and archaeology collections) and I saw Emma Watson enjoying the outdoor display of ancient trees with a friend. Feel free to envy me, I saw Hermione Granger from Harry Potter while in Oxford. (I also ate at the Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh when I lived there, where J. K. Rowling wrote a lot of the books, but I’ll save that for another post).
Yes, actual display of ancient trees.
That evening I was walking back home, down High Street and onto Cowley Road. As I was nearing my flat, there was a woman standing at the end of a long driveway holding a clipboard. I assumed she was asking for signatures for something, but behind her I noticed a small A4 size piece of paper with the words “Live Archaeology” printed in black. I hesitated before asking the woman what was going on. She told me that the East Oxford Archaeology and History Project was excavating a site just up the lane at Bartlemas Chapel, and directed me to follow the path and see for myself.
St. Bartholomew’s Chapel
I walked down the narrow lane and reached a short stone wall (yes, stone walls are prolific in Oxford and in this story) and was welcomed by another volunteer. Everyone was so friendly and were there to explain the history to any visitors, immediately I wanted to be a part of it so I asked how I could get involved. I was then introduced to Jane Harrison, the head of the dig. She asked me what I knew about archaeology and I told her I had just received my MA in archaeology but had very little on site experience. She said to come back the next day and I could dig in.
That’s me, pretending to dig for a picture. Awkward.
I spent the next week digging and collecting finds. I learned first hand about British archaeology and with the open nature of their project it didn’t require me to pay any money or to go through a long and complicated application process. It is an open archaeology project, and they advocate for engaging with the public, which really breaks down the inaccessibility of academic archaeology, making it accessible for everyone. I was able to excavate pits, improve my digging techniques, and learned about the particular finds we were uncovering, took site photographs, and excavated several new contexts (layers in the soil that mark time changes) which is always cool to do. We took a break each day and had tea, cookies, and lunch at the nearby rugby field. It was a blast and really fascinating.
Look at those streets!
Shortly after I started volunteering I was offered a job, so I regretfully couldn’t continue helping on the dig but once you are part of a community like that you never really leave it. I still get emails from the Archeox project and would recommend to anyone living in or visiting Oxford to contact them and learn about the local material history. Asking questions is definitely worth it, without asking people “Hey, what’s going on here?” opportunities like this wouldn’t come about. When you travel make sure you open up yourself enough to talk to people, making friends is the best way to travel. Sometimes you can really use digging to roam.
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