Birth of the House of Wessex project

posted on September 12, 2018

Professor Helena Hamerow, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, has provided much of the academic expertise for the House of Wessex project. We asked Helena to summarise how the House of Wessex project came about.

Archaeological excavations at Sylva Wood Centre September 2016

Archaeological excavations at Sylva Wood Centre September 2016

Sylva quotes

Helena Hamerow said

The idea for the ‘House of Wessex’ project came about as the result of an archaeological excavation by the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology and Department of Continuing Education on land owned by the Sylva Foundation. The aim of the dig was to establish whether a rectangular cropmark identified in aerial photographs was the footprint of a rare type of building: an Anglo-Saxon hall.  The excavations — directed by DPhil student Adam McBride and Dr Jane Harrison in 2016 – were part of a wider investigation led by Professor Helena Hamerow called ‘The Origins of Wessex’. The project aims to gain a better understanding of the emergence in the Upper Thames valley of a leading dynasty referred to by Bede as the Gewisse, who later became known as the West Saxons.  Long Wittenham seems to have been a key centre of the Gewisse, as indicated by two richly furnished cemeteries excavated here in the 19th century, and a group of cropmarks indicating the presence of a ‘great hall complex’, of which the excavated building appears to be an outlier.

The dig uncovered the foundations of a large timber hall, radiocarbon dated to the seventh century. This period is sometimes known as the ‘Age of Sutton Hoo’ and is the time when the first Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged. The dig led to conversations about the importance in the Anglo-Saxon world of timber (an Anglo-Saxon word that referred not only to the building material, but also to building itself). This in turn led the Sylva Foundation to pursue the exciting possibility of reconstructing the building in its original setting.  The project offers researchers as well as the local community an exceptional opportunity to learn more about the resources needed and methods used — as well as the challenges faced — by those who constructed these extraordinary buildings.

Read more about Professor Hamerow on the School of Archaeology pages

Comments (0)

Anglo-Saxon building discovered at the Sylva Wood Centre

posted on September 27, 2016

An Anglo-Saxon building has been discovered on our land at the Sylva Wood Centre.

The large house or hall was excavated in autumn 2016 by a team comprising local people, volunteers trained in archaeological techniques through a now completed HLF project in East Oxford, and archaeology students from Oxford University Department for Continuing Education (OUDCE). The team was led by University of Oxford archaeologists from the School of Archaeology and OUDCE.

Archaeological excavations at Sylva Wood Centre September 2016

Archaeological excavations at Sylva Wood Centre September 2016. Photo Adam McBride.

It seems that the village of Long Wittenham lay within the heartland of the early kingdom of the Gewisse, later known as the West Saxons. The area has produced evidence of a wide range of early medieval activity, of which the recently-excavated Anglo-Saxon building forms an important part. Two early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries containing richly furnished weapon burials indicative of links with mainland Europe, and an adjacent complex of large, high-status buildings visible in aerial photographs, lie just a few hundred metres from our building.

The excavated building is likely to date to the seventh century, a period that saw rapid social change in England including the emergence of the first English kings and the conversion to Christianity. Timber remained the building material of choice for Anglo-Saxon kings and nobility, even several centuries after stone construction was reintroduced for building churches. Indeed, the word ‘timber’ is an Anglo-Saxon one and was synonymous with the act of building itself.

Oxford TV visited this week and interviewed Jane Harrison from University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education, DPhil student Adam McBride, and volunteers – watch the clip below.

Category: Announcements

Comments (1)