Oxford University wants to recruit volunteers and community groups to uncover East Oxford’s hidden history.

At the launch of the university’s biggest outreach of its type yesterday, academics said they would spend the next four years working with residents on digs, excavations, and surveys tracing their communities past back to prehistoric times.

The project, backed by £330,000 of Lottery funding, will include hundreds of residents digging pits in their gardens to look for hidden treasures.

Schools and community groups will also take part in bigger excavations and geo-physical surveys.

Project officer Jane Harrison said: “East Oxford was vitally important in the context of the city and in its own right from pre-history to the modern day.

“In Roman times, the whole ridge from Headington to Nuneham Courtenay was a national centre for pottery.

“And in Saxon times, the villages that now form East Oxford were as old and busier than the centre until the burgh of Oxford was founded.”

Volunteer Alan Hart, 68, of George Moore Close, uncovered three wheelbarrows full of Victorian medicine bottles while digging a pond in Boundary Brook Nature Park. It is thought they were dumped by a pharmacist more than 100 years ago.

Mr Hart said: “I was digging a pond and started to uncover more and more things that were interesting. What should have taken me a couple of weeks to dig ended up taking five.”

One find was a bottle once containing ‘Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup’, a opium-based teething remedy given to babies to stop them crying. After dozens of babies died, it was eventually banned.

Fellow volunteer and Cheney School pupil Nick Clarke, 16, of York Road, Headington, said: “My ideal find would be something of personal significance – an item that once meant something to somebody, even if on the face of it does not seem that valuable.”

At the launch event at mental health charity Restore’s Manzil Way headquarters yesterday, university vice chancellor Prof Andrew Hamilton said: “Oxford University is an international, world-class university that spends a lot of time looking out at the world, but we are also totally grounded in the local community.

“The university is 900 years old, but this will find many things that will go far beyond that period.”

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith added: “I really think this will grab the imagination of local people in a big way. There are whole chapters in Oxford’s history about which relatively little is known, and the means of understanding it is literally under our feet.”

  • For more information, visit archeox.net