The Archaeology of Abingdon
Bronze Coin of the Late Iron Age, from an AAAHS excavation in West St Helen Street, 1970.
Coin image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
The Abingdon area was attractive to human settlers from the earliest times, and important remains of every period of prehistory have been found in and around the town. Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and finds have all been discovered here. In the Iron Age (around 800 BC onwards) the area seems to have been well-populated by farming communities. The remains of their settlements have been excavated at a number of places: at ‘Ashville Trading Estate’ (Nuffield Way) and Wyndyke Furlong, ‘Barton Court Farm’ (Daisy Bank), and Thrupp (in Radley parish), for example.
Excavations on the site of the new District Council Offices in 1988 and 1989 revealed remains of another such settlement: some Early Iron Age pits and a number of round houses, along with grain storage pits and remains of craft activities, dating from the Middle Iron Age (around 300 BC onwards). These discoveries, proving that there is an Iron Age settlement underneath the modern centre, provide the basis for Abingdon’s claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in England.
The Iron Age settlement would have been based on farming, although its location at a ford of the Thames may have given it special importance. Later in the Iron Age, large defensive ditches and banks were constructed here, enclosing a wide area beside the Thames. Abingdon at this time seems to have become an ‘oppidum’ – a defended Iron Age ‘proto-town’ which was engaged in trade and craft manufacturing as well as agriculture.
Abingdon was clearly important at and just after the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. It continued to be a significant place throughout the Roman period, although its character at this time is rather unclear. It may well have been a local market centre. After the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410 AD, the Abingdon area became a focus for Anglo-Saxon settlers whose origins lay in northern Europe. There was a major Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Saxton Road, while traces of sunken-featured buildings, and pottery and other objects of this date, have been found in the town centre. Abingdon Abbey may well have been founded in the late seventh century AD, ensuring the town’s prominence for the next 800 years and more. Abingdon’s medieval market was established in the time of the abbey. It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 AD, and continues to the present day.
Many other towns in England have very long histories. Colchester In Essex can justly claim to be the oldest recorded town in England, as coins bearing the letters ‘CAM’, an abbreviation of the town’s Celtic name of ‘Camulodunon’, were being minted around the time of the birth of Christ. Colchester, however, has produced little evidence of Early or Middle Iron Age settlement, of the kind that has been found at Abingdon. Abingdon’s claim to be ‘England’s oldest town’ is a fair one.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014