Why are we digging here?
New developments have to be assessed for the impact on any archaeology as part of the planning process and developers are responsible for funding archaeological surveys and any measures that may be required to record or preserve discovered remains. In this case Oxford Archaeology (OA) has been commissioned by Beard Construction, on behalf of the developer, Oxfordshire County Council, to carry out an excavation on the site of a new children’s home on Back Lane in Aston. The excavation was required by the local planning authority as a condition of planning permission. The scope of the excavation has been agreed with the Oxfordshire Planning Archaeologist, who is responsible for monitoring developer-funded archaeological work in the county.
How do we know what archaeology is here?
During the planning process we looked at a wide range of evidence to give us clues as to what archaeology would be found here including:
• The Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record, a database of known sites and monuments in the county;
• Historic maps, going back in this case to the 18th century;
• Aerial photographs which can show cropmarks of ancient sites, particularly during very dry weather;
• Lidar data is a detailed map of surface topography covering much of Britain which has been gathered by the Environment Agency in recent decades and made publicly available. Lidar data can show up archaeological earthworks in great detail. Aston has extensive areas of permanent pastureland where ancient features survive as hump and bumps in the present ground surface.
• Two trial trenches were dug on the site, which produced evidence for medieval settlement, in the form of pits and ditches containing medieval pottery.
What previous archaeological investigations have taken place in Aston?
Apart from the trial trenches OA carried out on the site there have been seven recorded archaeological investigations within the Aston area. These have recorded a range of Roman, medieval and post-medieval remains. The evidence is summarised by period below:
Prehistoric Period (500,000 BP–AD 43)
There is little evidence for prehistoric activity in the Aston Area, apart from a few flint tools, discarded by prehistoric people as they passed through the area.
Romano-British Period (AD 43–410)
Within Aston itself remains of a small Roman settlement were recorded during a watching brief at Barry House on Back Lane in 2002. Several features were recorded including a ditch and several pits and postholes that contained pottery dating from the late 1st or early 2nd century to the early 3rd century. This evidence represents a previously unknown Roman settlement site, probably a farmstead.
A number of Roman roadside settlements have been recorded in the area surrounding Aston at Wantage, Frilford, Asthall and Gill Mill. These indicate that the area was quite intensively settled during the Roman period. The Roman road known as Akeman Street (connecting Alchester to Cirencester) was located 20km north-west of Aston. Extensive excavations at Gill Mill, 5km north-east of Aston, recorded a late Iron Age–early Roman settlement and an early 2nd-century nucleated settlement that extended over 10 hectares. The settlement was characterised by ditched enclosures containing a number of structures and paved roads extending along and across the Windrush Valley.
Early Medieval Period (AD 410–1065)
Aston formed part of the principal manor of Bampton in the late Saxon period. Its name translates as ‘east-tun’ or eastern enclosure or farmstead, as it was located due east of the parent manor. Aston is mentioned in a charter of AD 958 and this may be the first documentary reference to the village. In AD 984, King Aethelred (known as ‘the Unready’) granted 2 cassati (hides) at Aston to his 'minister' Aelfwine. The hide was a measurement of land taken to mean 120 acres or 48.5 ha. The boundaries of Aston were described in grants dating to the 10th–11th century, and the village may have been founded during this period.
Aston was not listed in the Domesday survey in 1086 because it was part of the manor of Bampton at the time of the Norman conquest.
LiDAR analysis indicates a number of NW–SE- and NNW–SSE-aligned earthworks located in the Back Lane area (Figures 6–8). Several are over 500 metres long and may represent medieval boundary banks. A number are truncated by ridge-and-furrow earthworks, which suggests that they pre-date the medieval agricultural features.
Later Medieval Period (AD 1066–1550)
By the later 13th century, Aston and the nearby village of Cote had around 70 households (mostly in Aston). In 1377, 156 inhabitants paid the Poll Tax, suggesting that the population was fairly stable between the late 13th and late 14th centuries, despite the impact of the Great Famine in the early 14th century and the onset of the Black Death from the mid-14th century onwards.
The medieval road network of Aston probably formed a rough triangle as it is now. This included Bampton Road from the west leading eastwards to the High Street and onwards to Cote and North Lane lead north-eastwards to Ducklington. Prior to the 19th century, Bull Lane was the main route to Cote until Cote Road was built in the early 19th century.
Aston and Cote were still part of Bampton parish in the later medieval period, and there was no church in the village during this period. The focus of the medieval settlement was probably along the High Street and Bull Lane, with a number of houses and farmsteads extending northwards along Back Lane and North Lane. Evidence for medieval settlement has been recorded west of Back Lane, west of North Street and north of the High Street. This includes 11th–12th-century pits discovered at four separate locations and a possible medieval ditch located just north of the High Street.
Aston has a number of earthwork hollow-ways and house platforms, visible on the Lidar plot, which are thought to be part of a possible deserted or shrunken medieval village. Extensive ‘ridge-and-furrow’ earthworks, also visible on the Lidar plot, represent areas of medieval and post-medieval strip cultivation.
Post-Medieval Period (AD 1550–1900)
The 1841 tithe map shows that settlement at Aston had expanded by this period, spreading along Bull Lane to the south-east of the village. The main concentration of houses were along the High Street and at the junction of Back Lane and North Street. Cote Road was built in the early 19th century. A handful of houses were located on either side of Back Lane and North Road.
The Church of St James was built in 1839. A Baptist chapel was also built in 1845 and a number of other post-medieval listed buildings are recorded in the village.
The tithe map of 1841 shows that the development site at that date was a rectangular pasture field owned by Henry Hippisley Esquire. The Hippisley family of Lambourne in Berkshire had inherited the manor of Aston and Cote in 1838 and they owned a large amount of land in the village in the 19th century. The manor remained in their family until 1920 until it was sold to local tenants.
Modern (20th century)
Historic maps indicate that there has been little change to the site due to be developed since the late 19th century.
What do we hope to learn from the archaeological excavation?
What are the origins and nature of nucleated village settlement in the medieval period? Documentary evidence suggests that Aston may have been founded in the 10th century. This excavation provides a good opportunity for developing our understanding of how Aston developed during this formative period.
How were villages impacted by the demographic disasters of the 14th century?
The 14th century saw the reversal of centuries of demographic growth as a series of disasters including famines and epidemics caused population levels to plummet across Europe. In places such as England, recovery did not take place for more than 200 years. Any further evidence of this shrinkage or shifting in the settlement pattern will be useful in understanding the broader pattern of village shrinkage during this period.
What dietary evidence is there and what can it tell us?
The environmental (plant and animal) remains on site are known to be well-preserved and could provide a valuable resource in looking at variations in diet during this period. These could reflect availability but may also variations in social status, which could aid our understanding of medieval social organisation.