From castle From castle to prison above a decade of investigations by Oxford archaeology on the site of Oxford Prison has revealed finds spanning over 1,000 years. This photo overlooks ‘Area A’ of the excavations (shown on the plan opposite), bordered by prison buildings.
Uncovering 1,000 years of life and death in Oxford
When HMP Oxford closed its doors in 1996, the site was scheduled for redevelopment, presenting a unique archaeological opportunity to explore features spanning the AngloSaxon period to the present day. Ten years of excavations shed vivid light on Saxon defences, life in a Norman castle, grim executions, and Georgian prison reform. Carly Hilts explores some of the key discoveries.
At its 12th-century zenith Oxford Castle would have been an imposing sight, with its mighty Norman motte – one of the largest in the country – crowned by a stone shell keep, and its bailey defended by tall walls and towers, a sturdy earth-andclay rampart, and a vast ditch. Today, though, most of its medieval features have vanished from view, demolished to make way for an equally intimidating fortification: a prison.
After this latter institution closed in 1996, a decade of investigations by Oxford Archaeology, undertaken ahead of redevelopment, shed vivid light on over 1,000 years of human life – and death – on the site. The full findings of these excavations were recently published in a wide-ranging monograph (see CA 356 and box on p.32); here, we explore snapshots of three very different
– but all strongly defended – incarnations of the site: as a Saxon burh, as a Norman castle, and as the county jail.
Finding FortiFiCations Oxford was transformed into a burh amid the bloody first wave of Viking raids that seared across early medieval England in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the face of this onslaught, Alfred the Great and his successors created a number logy rchaeo a