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Building Developments

Autumn, 1999

DESPITE continuing to be closed for building work, the Museum remains one of the most popular visitor attractions in Oxford. Large numbers of passers-by in Broad Street now stop to marvel and take photographs of the deep excavation that exists in front of the building.

The excavation consists of a large hole, of 455 cubic metres in volume, occupying almost the whole of what was once the cobbled Broad Street frontage of the Museum. As can be seen above, the void extends under the wall, railings and heads, which are currently supported, in mid-air, by a cage of steel girders.

The hole forms the space that is to be occupied by the new library, education room, and archive store. It was created by first shoring the perimeter with fifty steel piles. The hole having been excavated, the floors, walls and roofs of the rooms are now being formed out of reinforced concrete. Permanent concrete columns buried underground will also support the original seventeenth-century wall, replacing the temporary steel structure currently visible.

While the greatest spectacle is at the front of the building, work continues to advance on the new special exhibitions gallery and mezzanine office behind the Museum. The woodwork for the roof has been completed and lead weatherproofing is now in the process of being laid. The gallery ceiling is also partly completed, pending installation of heating and electrical services. It is already possible to get some idea of the character of the new spaces, and overall the impression is encouraging.

In the previous issue of Sphæra it was reported rather prematurely that the archaeological survey which took place before building commenced had resulted in few finds of any significance. Further excavations at basement level at both the front and rear of the building have completely reversed this state of affairs. It is now possible to report that a large number of items have been discovered, of considerable significance to the early history of the building.

The first archaeological features were discovered at the rear of the Museum after the stone paving that formerly covered the area had been lifted. They consist of a number of service structures integrated with the building: two circular brick-built pits and a stone-lined well. Of the pits, one is likely to have been a soakaway for waste water, the other a cesspit with a brick culvert taking discharge from the basement. The material in the pits has been analysed, and particularly high levels of contamination found for mercury, zinc and lead.
The pits have now been backfilled with foamed concrete to preserve them, while the well, which is understood to date from the period of the building, will be visible through glass in the floor of the special exhibitions gallery. A soakaway similar to the one in the town ditch has also been found at basement level at the front of the building, together with a larger stone-lined pit, square in section. This was found in the vicinity of the former cellar under Broad Street, which itself was discovered to have a stone wall surrounding the brick lining formerly visible from inside.

More remarkable than these constructions are numerous individual finds from beneath the stone slabs in the town ditch. These include a collection of intact earthenware chemical vessels and a large number of bones related to early work in the Museum.

The earthenware vessels constitute the most significant archaeological find of chemical apparatus yet made in the British Isles. They comprise some twenty-five ceramic crucibles, two retorts, a flask and a stoneware bottle, as well as a large number of fragments. Many of the crucibles retain residues of the chemical experiments performed in them.
The bones number over two thousand. They include the remains of at least fifteen humans, ranging from all stages of life, including three foetuses. There is evidence both of dissection and of preparation for display: many bones have drilled holes, and attached wires or stains from corroded copper.
Eight hundred bones are from animals, two hundred of which can be classed as the remains of domestic activities and butchery waste, but over six hundred, a very high proportion, are from dogs. There are at least twenty-three individual dogs, most deposited as more-or-less complete skeletons. Dogs were often used for dissection when human corpses were not available.

The discovery of chemical vessels accords with the use of the basement of the Museum as the University’s first chemical laboratory. To explain the bones, however, it is necessary to dig a little further into the early history of the building. Originally, anatomy took place in the basement alongside chemistry. In 1710, for example, the German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach attended a lecture on the production, nutrition and classification of bones, reporting that ‘The place devoted to this Cursus Anatomicus is a small vaulted room under the Ashmolean and behind the Laboratory, and well adapted to Anatomy on account of the coolness.’

Anatomy and chemistry were conducted side by side as part of the study of natural knowledge. A link between an empirically-based knowledge of nature and improvement of the human condition was the common creed of this investigative programme. Edward Chamberlayne, writing in 1684 about Oxford, made this point specifically in relation to the Museum: ‘The design of this building being not only to advance the Studies of true and real Philosophy but also to conduce to the uses of Life and the improvement of Medicine.’ That the basement was seemingly under the jurisdiction of the Regius Professor of Medicine again reinforces this.

The recent finds were not only restricted to the outside of the building. When the floorboards were lifted on the top floor a number of discoveries were made: discarded manuscripts, printed fragments from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coins, seeds and other botanical remains. These have been collected and await further study.

A full report about the chemical vessels can be found in this issue of Sphæra; accounts of the bones and floorboard finds will follow in the next two issues. It is clear that all three groups of discoveries have great significance for the history of science in Oxford and the early history of museums. They will provide the theme of the inaugural exhibition in the new special exhibitions gallery, which will take place, appropriately enough, over the spot where most of the finds were made.