ARCHAEOLOGISTS in Oxford are up for a national award after a literally groundbreaking dig at the Westgate Shopping Centre.

Judges of the British Archaeological Awards said they were impressed by the use of drones and volunteer helpers to uncover a medieval friary beneath a now-demolished multi-storey car park. They nominated the work for Best Archaeological Project Award.

The Westgate survey is thought to be the biggest ever carried out in the city, with more than 60 people brought in at its height.

It focused on both the 19th century housing of St Ebbes and later the remains of the Franciscan friary, which was home to the Greyfriars before they fled England during the Reformation.

Oxford Archaeology used cutting-edge technology to build a picture of what the site would have looked like in its day.

Project director Ben Ford added: “We are still on site and uncovering some wonderful archaeology, such as a beautiful 13th-century decorated tile pavement.

Oxford Mail:

  • Ben Ford, of Oxford Archaeology, with 13th century tiles

“This rare survival formed the floor of the Cloister Walk and would have been seen a serious amount of foot-traffic over its 300 years of use.”

Teams on the ground used drones to take pictures and also created 3D computer models of the dig site, where archaeologists painstakingly uncovered the friary’s church, kitchens, dormitory, toilet block, dining hall, storage areas, cloisters and chapter house.

Several parts of the structure were well-preserved and members of the public were given a tour of the vast site during open days last year.

John Lewis, chairman of the awards judging panel, said: “What impressed the judges most was how a large commercial project was able to go beyond the ‘norm’ and engage the public on this scale.”

In all 4,000 people are thought to have come along to the open days and there were a further 7,500 visitors to ‘pop-up’ museums showing some of the finds.

Oxford Mail:

  • One of the 3D computer models of the site, generated using a drone

Oxford Archaeology has also shared most of its findings and pictures online, with experts even able to work out what the Greyfriars were likely to have eaten: This mainly consisted of nuts and cereals, often “supplemented by cheaper fish, such as herrings, eels and dried cod and whiting”.

The dig was largely wound up last year to allow the £440m redevelopment of the Westgate centre to proceed.

Neil Read, of the Westgate Oxford Alliance, said: “We have been amazed at the extent and quality of the archaeology discovered throughout the investigation phase.”

Oxford City Council leader Bob Price added: “I am particularly pleased that the redevelopment of Westgate Centre will not only give the city a fabulous new retail quarter, but will also leave a rich legacy of archaeological insights into the city’s long and very rich history.”