Oxfordshire is bounded by the North Wessex Downs in the south, the Cotswolds in the west and the Chilterns in the east. It is thus full of beautiful, gently rolling landscapes. Although for most of its history Oxfordshire has been largely an agricultural county, the city of Oxford is also of course famous for its university and the Morris Motor Works.
Oxfordshire formed a border for much of the Anglo-Saxon period, firstly between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and then between the English and the Danelaw. The county boundary originally ran through the edge of the current City of Oxford, so in 1974 the Vale of the White Horse was transferred from Berkshire to Oxfordshire, giving a more practical (but not very historical) shape to the county.
Gravel extraction in the Thames valley has found some of the most remarkable archaeological sites in southern Britain. Stanton Harcourt and Yarnton, Sutton Courtenay and Dorchester-on-Thames, Ducklington and Standlake have all been the subject of extensive campaigns of excavation covering whole landscapes, but there is now little for the visitor to see at these sites. If you are looking for an archaeological day out in Oxfordshire, try the following places, which can all be visited.
- Uffington White Horse. Almost certainly the oldest, and probably the most famous of the chalk hill figures of southern England, recent research by Oxford University and Oxford Archaeology has shown that the horse was first cut between 1380 BC and 550 BC. Above the horse is Uffington Castle, a large Iron Age hillfort. The Oxford work found very little evidence for people living in the hillfort, concluding that it was probably used for ceremonies associated with the horse.
- Wayland’s Smithy is a Neolithic chambered long barrow about a mile from Uffington. Although it was used over 5000 years ago, the Anglo-Saxons named it after Wayland (or Weland), the legendary early-medieval smith who can be seen on the Franks Casket in the British Museum.
- The Devil’s Quoits is an intriguing monument to visit. Originally a Neolithic henge and stone circle, it was flattened by the construction of a 20th-century airfield, then excavated in advance of gravel extraction. It has recently been reconstructed to show its appearance in the Roman period.
- The Rollright Stones is a group of three monuments, a Neolithic ‘dolmen’ (burial place built from huge stones), a stone circle of the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, and a single massive standing stone which probably dates to the Bronze Age. An Anglo-Saxon burial has recently been found close to the stones (BERK-5105C9).
- Blewburton Hill is an Iron Age hillfort which has been extensively excavated. It seems it originally contained a village, then was abandoned for a century or two before being re-fortified and eventually burned down. There is no Roman occupation, but there was a small and poorly furnished Anglo-Saxon cemetery within the ramparts. one of Oxfordshire’s Historic Landscape Walks takes you from Blewburton Hill to Lowbury Hill, which has a Roman temple and rich early Anglo-Saxon burial on its summit.
- Wittenham Clumps is a pair of hills planted with beech trees in the 18th century. Castle Hill, to the south-east, is an early Iron Age hillfort; Round Hill, to the north-west, is still enigmatic despite a Time Team excavation in 2003 (Series 11, Programme 9; find the archaeological report here).
- North Leigh Roman villa. One of the largest Roman villas in Britain, at its peak it had 4 bath suites and 16 mosaic floors.
- Dorchester-on-Thames is one of Oxfordshire’s two small Roman towns (Alchester is the other) but it is also famous for its well-preserved Iron Age fortified settlement (or ‘oppidum‘) at Dyke Hills. Early 5th-century burials were found both at Dyke Hills and the nearby Queenford Farm, suggesting continuity of population from the Roman to the early Anglo-Saxon periods. In the 7th century, Dorchester was chosen as the seat of the first Bishop of Wessex.
- Wallingford is an Anglo-Saxon ‘burh‘ or fortified town, probably founded by King Alfred during the Viking invasions. The original 9th century street layout is still largely unchanged, and the town defences still stand to about two-thirds their original height. Wallingford has recently been the subject of a major research project.
- Oxford Castle was the scene of Empress Matilda’s dramatic winter escape from King Stephen, over the frozen river, camouflaged in white clothing. King Stephen also besieged Wallingford Castle, building at least five temporary castles in his unsuccessful attempt to take it. Wallingford was a favourite royal castle until the time of Henry VIII.