THE long-acknowledged capacity of the Duke of Edinburgh for stating the case in direct and uncompromising terms – which has not always endeared him to his wife’s subjects ­– was certainly demonstrated when he joined The Queen at the opening of Oxford’s Westgate Centre.

My allusion is not to the behemoth of recent creation, which – despite being on Crown Estate land – has yet to receive a royal visitor, but to the more modest shopping development that preceded it.

Her Majesty did the opening honours here in 1976, having eight years earlier inspected the archaeological investigation during the site clearance. The dig, directed Tom Hassall, was the largest undertaken in the city up till then.

Some no doubt wondered when next the archaeologists would have opportunity to delve into the past here. Hassall recalled that it was Prince Philip who pondered aloud on the matter at the opening ceremony, very probably thinking, given the impermanence of so much modern architecture, that it would not be long.

The answer to his question turned out to be about 40 years.

This story is told by David Radford, the Oxford City Council Archaeologist, in his well-written and highly enjoyable book The Archaeology of Oxford in 20 Digs, from Amberley Publishing (£14.99).

The author surveys 130 years of archaeology in the city focusing on 20 digs which are far from being – as he makes clear – the only ones of importance.

“The short aim of this book is to provide an introduction to [the subject] and promote a wider awareness of the pace and interest of ongoing discoveries,” he writes.

None could deny that this ambition has been admirably fulfilled. Present, too, in good measure in the book is something of the ‘ooh-er factor’, as I shall dare to call it – all those macabre discoveries, all those skeletons – that make the subject so fascinating.

“I wants to make your flesh creep,” as Dickens’s Fat Boy of The Pickwick Papers, perfectly puts it.

A good example comes in Dig 13, at the site of St John’s College’s Queen Elizabeth House, north of St Giles, 10 years ago. Here, as we shall see, various techniques of the trade were employed to investigate a surprise discovery in a major henge monument of the Late Neolithic period (3,000-2,500BC).

“This was . . . a mass grave of between 35 and 37 young men, mostly between the ages of 16 and 35, who had been brutally killed with a variety of weapons, stripped of their clothes and unceremoniously thrown in on top of one another without reverence.

“Subsequent radiocarbon dating of selected bone samples indicated that these men had lived between the late eight and early 11th century, Isotopic analysis measuring the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in the bone marrow indicated that a number of the victims had grown up eating more fish than is usual for the local population.

“While salted sea fish and freshwater fish may have been traded in Oxford, such readings suggested that the men had for a time lived closer to the sea.

“Taken together with results from the analysis of the teeth enamel, which showed that a number of the individuals appear to have grown up in a colder climate, it is possible that the mass grave represents the outcome of a violent episode between the local population and men of Scandinavian origin, perhaps Danish settlers or alternatively raiders.”

A “grizzly reminder of Oxford Prison’s brutal history” was revealed during the excavation (Dig 10) of Oxford Castle in 2003-5.

“When archaeologists excavated part of the motte ditch they encountered the poorly interred remains of prisoners from the castle prison dating to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

“Many of the skeletons showed evidence of malnutrition, and at least 15 individuals who had been executed had parts of their anatomy removed. In the 17th century, the University played an important role in the development of anatomical science. It is likely that the castle bodies had their organs removed by the anatomists of the Old Ashmolean Museum, Christ Church and other colleges for research and teaching purposes.”

There have been discoveries of a happier sort, too, an illustration of which came from the Radcliffe Infirmary site (Dig 14) where large quantities of drinking vessels from the 18th century were found.

“These were evidence,” Radford writes, “not just of the drinking culture that came with student life but also of the pragmatic use of ale as part of the calorific intake of labourers tasked with building and maintaining the town’s grand college and civic structures.” This is delightfully put, I thought.

The two Westgate Centre digs, of major importance both, figure as Nos 5 and 19. I meant to tell you about them – the second revealing “the lost landscape of the Franciscan friary” – but, alas, space is exhausted. So go buy the book. It will not disappoint.

THE Famous Five may well be enjoying their adventures on Great Western Railway’s new trains, no doubt complete with lots of lovely ices and lashings of lemonade.

But real-life passengers are rather less enamoured of the Hitachi Super Expresses, undeniably handsome as they are, with their gleaming Brunswick green liveries and purposeful nose cones.

First complaints focused on the discomfort of the seats. A pal who commutes between Oxford and Paddington said it was like sitting on an ironing board. I refrained from asking how he could possibly know.

Now we discover that the trains’ unreliability has meant that often they have not been running at all – which is a sort of relief, I guess.

I suspected something was amiss during the recent blastingly hot spell when services usually operated with Super Expresses were observably being replaced by the older (and infinitely more comfortable) HST trains.

Now the specialist magazine Modern Railways has reported why this is so – information passed on to a wider readership by Private Eye.

The problem arises from the decision by then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to cut back on electrification on GWR routes.

This obliged Hitachi to alter trains previously designed to operate exclusively with electrical current picked up from overhead wires.

Now they needed diesel engines shoehorned into spaces beneath the carriages to supply power when the electricity supply ran out.

The absurdity of this arrangement is at once apparent in economic terms when you consider the extra cost of lugging this heavy equipment around when the train is under electrical power.

Crammed as they are, moreover, it was discovered during the heatwave that poor ventilation led to overheating.

On one day, reported Modern Railways, half of GWR’s Super Expresses were unavailable for use.