AN OXFORD archaeologist has described everyday medieval objects found at the site of the demolished Westgate car park as “rare as gold”.

The well-preserved leather and wooden artefacts will be displayed as part of this year’s National Festival of Archaeology, which has an open day tomorrow at Oxford’s Westgate demolition site.

Excavations will continue until December and so far Oxford Archaeology has recovered the remains of about 50 medieval shoes, along with a complete leather shoulder bag and a small wooden bowl.

The items were found on the soon-to-be shopping and restaurant site, which is set to complete by autumn 2017.

Archaeologists are currently focusing their efforts on former watercourses, the flood plain of the Thames and the site of the medieval Greyfriars.

Ben Ford, the project director for Oxford Archaeology said: “The finds are as rare as gold and often as informative.

“Gold tells the story of the elite, but these objects tell us about the everyday people, their lives, the objects they made and the clothes they wore.”

The area is in the Thames floodplain and the ground is very high, meaning that organic material – such as leather and wood – is preserved and protected from the normal processes of decay.

Mr Ford said: “It’s amazing to think these shoes were worn by people who walked the streets of medieval Oxford. The shoulder bag would have been a valued possession and probably belonged to one of the Greyfriars. Although there was nothing inside the bag, the details of how the leather was cut and stitched are really clear and reveal exactly how these items were made.”

The objects, which have now turned black due to the waterlogged conditions, are so well preserved they look like they were thrown away yesterday, but in fact are around 700 years old.

Mr Ford added: “The wooden bowl is my favourite object so far – it’s so perfectly carved and the grain of the wood is lovely.

“It’s quite delicate and to think it survived all these hundreds of years is incredible.

“During the course of the excavations we expect to recover hundreds of these types of objects.

“We hope to find other items, including clothing and more wooden items which will help to build a wonderful picture of medieval life in this part of Oxford. It’s all very exciting.”

Other parts of the Westgate site are revealing timber structures, with alignments of timber posts being plotted to show the locations of structures used to stabilize the muddy banks of the Trill Mill Stream.

In the base of one part of the stream, Oxford Archaeology found the complete remains of boards used in a sluice gate.

The boards were attached to uprights and would have been raised or lowered, acting as gates to control water through the channels.

The control of water would have allowed the flood plain to be managed, and water to be directed to a potential watermill, and to the Friary.

Rebecca Peacock, project officer for Oxford Westgate Archaeological Excavations said: “As part of the open day, archaeologists will be on hand to answer questions and share their experiences of working on one of the largest archaeological sites ever to take place in Oxford.

“There will be the opportunity to discover the ancient watercourse and to get close to the waterlogged remains of ancient plants, timber structures and skeletons of oxen that gave Oxford its name.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Digging: Oxford Archaeology at the Westgate

In addition, visitors to the exhibition will get a chance to see how the area of St Ebbe’s changed from fast flowing rivers created by melting glaciers 10,000 years ago to the area it is today.

They will also be able to look through survey equipment and talk to archaeologists about how they draw and describe activities.

David Radford, Oxford City Council’s Archaeologist, says: “The open day on Saturday will be a very rare and exciting opportunity to see a cross section through Oxford’s past from the prehistoric through to the modern period.

“The excavation across the Trill Mill stream that has been excavated by Oxford Archaeology has produced some very surprising results.

“I would certainly encourage Oxford Mail readers to go and have a look.”

Other events available on the day include the Oxford Westgate Pop-Up Museum in the Westgate centre, where finds from previous excavations are on display.

Finds from Peckwater Quad, Christ Church, containing the skillet and vessels associated with early scientific experiments that may relate to alchemy will be exhibited, alongside a Wellington boot from the First World War.

* The exhibition can be accessed via a gate in the site fence on Abbey Place at the junction with Norfolk Street. It is free and open10am to 3.30pm.


The project officer for Oxford Archaeology, Rebecca Peacock, shed some light on what the team’s discoveries tell us about Oxford. 

She said: “The artefacts that we have found tell us an awful lot about how the people of Oxfordshire have been living over the past 700 years.

“From the shoes, pots and bags that we have found, we can see that Oxford was a small scale industrial town and that there has always been a lot of trade and work in the area.”

Ms Peacock stated that many of the artefacts, particularly the leather shoes, suggested a high quality of life has existed in Oxford for many centuries and that people with money have always been prone to settling in the area.

On the other hand, several of the poorly made pots found suggested to the team that a prominent working class has been present in Oxford for centuries.  She added: “While we haven’t found any early settlements yet, we are hoping that we might find some houses and signs of life from the Iron Age.

“Finding artefacts on this scale would be incredibly exciting and it’s something that we’re all hoping to find in the coming years. For now, we’re looking forward to welcoming the people of Oxford to our exhibition so that they can get a small insight into how life in Oxford has changed over many many centuries.”