John Oxley wanted to be an archaeologist long before he knew what one was.
He discovered this recently thanks to a fragment of personal archaeology. Growing up in Darlington, he was the first in his family to go to university.
“When me mam and dad moved when they were downsizing, this is a piece of paper they found,” John says, turning his phone towards me. It’s a photograph of an essay he wrote at primary school in 1965, aged eight, in which he proclaimed: “When I am 20, I want to be an archaeologist.” He has no memory of those words or that early ambition. “Very strange for this lad in Darlington,” he says.
John, 63, retired as the City of York Council archaeologist this month after 30 years in the job. Back in October 1989, he was given the title of principal archaeologist – “which rather subtly obscured the fact that I was the only archaeologist; very York”.
Asked to pick his highlights, John is off, eyes glittering. He lists his first achievement as heritage management. York hadn’t employed an archaeologist before, so John created the archaeology advisory service from scratch. Before 1989, this work was generally carried out through museum services.
Archaeology across the country was in a bit of a mess at the time. There were “three almighty archaeological disasters in the country – someone, somewhere has got to write the book about those three disasters,” he says.
Two were in London. First was the Huggin Hill Bath House, where builders dug trenches through the scheduled ancient monument. Second was the site of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, discovered by the Museum of London as a development went up. “You had actors protesting outside the site, Dustin Hoffman joined them,” says John.
The third archaeological catastrophe was the Queen’s Hotel in York, a short distance from where we are sitting in a vinyl-themed café just below the last cobbles of Micklegate. “Where Sainsbury’s is now, that was a rather splendid Georgian coaching inn.” York was growing and attracting developers, including to the Queen’s Hotel site. York Archaeological Trust had pointed out almost since its inception in 1972 that the site had immense archaeological potential.
“But the council at that time in its wisdom had granted planning permission for an office block with a four-metre deep basement that would take out pretty much all the archaeology on the site,” says John.
His new post was one outcome of that disaster. “My team got on site, did a little bit of work, discovered evidence of a Georgian coaching inn, medieval tenement block, and underneath was this Roman building with walls three metres wide. Everybody fell out with everybody else, and in true British fashion a compromise was found, a little bit of archaeology was done. But most of it was lost.”
Since those disastrous days, York has preserved as much archaeology as possible, while showing developers a way through.
That balance was evident in the Hungate dig, which started in 2007, an urban excavation covering nearly 30,000 sq ft. The dig was carried out by York Archaeological Trust and lasted five years, before the developers moved in.
“The main research targets were the archaeology of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Viking Age deposits associated with the creation of Hungate, because Hungate used to run all the way through that site down to the Foss, the actual medieval street and the Scandinavian/Viking landscape underneath,” says John.
Those targets were all “spectacularly successful”, but more recent layers of history were explored, too. Archaeologists often used to machine off deposits from the 19th and 20th century city to reach what were perceived as more important deposits. “But we found during the 1990s and early 2000 that there was a lot of archaeology taking place in Australia on places that had been founded after 1700 and they were digging up all these objects that had been imported from the United Kingdom,” he says. “They would ask us: ‘What context do you find these objects in?’ And we weren’t looking for them.”
Such deposits proved a rich seam, backed up by Seebohm Rowntree’s report on poverty in the city, conducted between 1899 and 1901. “You have this wonderful social record of the area, and the council has these amazing records relating to mundane things such as sanitary improvements.”
Although he has a foot in the past, John regards York as a living city. “I think it’s important new buildings go up,” he says. “One of the things that makes York such a special place is that it’s been able to assimilate these things over the years. That Iron Age population assimilated these Romans coming in and probably in true Yorkshire fashion made a few bob out of them.
“We can’t freeze this city, we are a living historic city, each generation needs to be able to put a page in the book.”
Another personal highlight were the digs at Heslington East, a decade ago, in readiness for the new University of York campus. “There wasn’t a single stray find from the site record, no earthworks, no aerial photos. We knew absolutely nothing about that site.”
Three large areas were excavated, allowing archaeologists to follow a line from the immediate post-glacial period to the establishment of medieval fields.
“From those early origins the landscape’s cleared and it becomes more complex, it’s parcelled up into field systems, trackways running through, enclosures, round houses in the Iron Age that go out of use,” John says.
“Romano-British settlements occur just further up the hillside, for the first time we were able to look at the development of that landscape immediately adjacent to this important centre – so Heslington East has been a remarkable insight into how the landscape developed.”
Technology moves on and the sounding techniques of geophysical archaeology can work wonders, although nothing beats digging a hole.
“The problem for the most part is if geophysics doesn’t produce any results from a field, it doesn’t mean there isn’t any archaeology there. If there’s nothing there you can’t take it that there’s no archaeology, you have to dig a hole.”
One technological advance lies in re-examining samples excavated years ago and looking again at the stable isotopes in items from Roman burial sites.
John points to teeth enamel, which is complete by the age of eight, trapping the isotopes in the enamel. By studying the modern distribution of these isotopes and the makeup of populations, archaeologists can draw conclusions about where an individual spent the first eight years of their life.
Walking around the city today, John can’t escape what lies underfoot.
“I have this sort of three-dimensional model, not just what you are looking at but what’s below you,” he says. “I’m constantly aware of the surface I am walking on here being just the latest iteration of many other surfaces, and many different feet.”
He may value the old ways, but he believes digital technology has great potential. “In York we haven’t even been able to scratch the surface of how we can use digital media to enhance people’s experience of the city,” he says.
What, if anything, has remained undiscovered in his 30 years? “The Roman amphitheatre. The betting is on the Museum Gardens.”
He’d be back for that for sure.