Oxford is the largest city in the UK that does not have a Roman foundation. The assumption has been, therefore, that it began with settlement by the Anglo Saxons in the tenth century. But what was there before? Oxford is situated on a gravel spur embraced by two rivers, the Thames and the Cherwell, and the water meadows that still exist between rivers and town have always been there, at least since Neolithic times. Because of the glories of its medieval architecture, there is scant opportunity for archaeology, but such opportunities have arisen in the past decade as colleges strive to offer better accommodation and facilities.
It is in the Science Area that most pre-development archaeology has taken place, and the marks of barrows and a cursus have been discovered. Then, in 2008, something extraordinary was unearthed when work began on the Kendrew Quad for St John’s College: a section of a ring ditch of vast size. ‘Oxford’, it seems, had been a sacred sanctuary with a ritual henge marking the place where two rivers meet. A similar henge at Stanton Harcourt, now reconstructed (see last post), marks the confluence of the Thames with the Windrush; Big Rings at Dorchester is where Thames meets the Thame. It seems to be a feature of the sacred landscape of the Bronze Age in the Upper Thames Valley, to build a henge at a confluence.
The Oxford henge was described in a paper by George Lambrick published in Oxoniensia 2013. It’s not exactly Hello magazine, and precious few people of Oxford are aware of its discovery. A cover-up? Yes, and a very literal one. From that one section, however, they have been able to determine that it was 155m in diameter and therefore one of the largest in the country. It dates to the early Bronze Age, c. 2200, and was a construction of the Beaker People. It’s girth encompasses Keble College and University Museum.
It is fun to think that that mystical-literary group, The Inklings, which included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, met in a pub that would have stared into the ditch, had those two epochs coincided. And it leads to – even more fanciful – speculation that, for a start, the foundation of the university here was not as arbitrary – or as weird – as some suppose; and that Oxford’s tendency to breed academic dons with a genius for writing children’s fantasy stories may not be so much marsh gas as a sacred emanation from our storytelling ancestors of the deep past.
For some reason, someone saw this spur rising above water meadows as an ideal place for a university. Perhaps it was holy-island-thinking. A university where the great subjects would be studied, with a view to furthering knowledge of God and Cosmos. A university which has hosted some of the greatest minds of the kingdom. The henge was destroyed, probably by time, and was not built over until the 19th century. For all that time, it remained under grass, while young scholars studied the liberal arts, as ignorant as the Inklings of what lay beneath.