The Old Ashmolean Building in Broad Street, Oxford, is now occupied by the Museum of the History of Science but recent building and refurbishment work has brought to light evidence of its original purpose, as the home of the Ashmolean Museum in the seventeenth century and the University's first official site for experimental science.
The title of the exhibition which displays some of these finds, 'Solomon's House in Oxford', is a reminder of the programme of learning and improvement within which the building was first conceived. Francis Bacon's vision of 'Solomon's House' as a institution for advancing natural knowledge and applying it for the benefit of mankind had a powerful influence in the seventeenth century and was emulated in a number of projects and institutions. Bacon imagined the staff of his institution working through collection, documentation and experiment.
The building in Oxford, completed in 1683, made provision for each of these activities. On the top floor collections, mostly comprising what we would classify as natural history, were organised, recorded and displayed. The middle floor was for teaching experimental natural philosophy through courses of lectures involving demonstrations with instruments and apparatus. This room was also used for meetings of the newly-founded 'Oxford Philosophical Society', the local counterpart of the Royal Society in London. In the basement the main room was a chemical laboratory, while anatomical dissections were performed in a smaller room behind.
As work commenced in 1999 on the foundations for the new special exhibition gallery to the south of the original building, an astonishing find was made of material thought, from subsequent archaeological analysis, to have been dumped there in the late eighteenth century and therefore to date from the first century of the Old Ashmolean. Between structural features from the time of the original building - a soakaway, a cesspit and a well (the last features in the current exhibition) - was more surprising evidence of activity within the building itself, namely chemical vessels from the laboratory and a large collection of human and animal bones.
The earthenware chemical vessels comprise, alongside many fragments, twenty-five crucibles, two retorts, two flasks and a stoneware bottle. Such material is not generally preserved and this is one of the most significant finds in Britain from this period. There were close to three thousand bones, including remains from at least fifteen humans and at least twenty-three dogs.
Some of the human corpses would have been acquired from the Oxford gallows, executed criminals being the only legitimate source for human dissection at the time. There was evidence, from drilled holes and copper wires, that the human material had been mounted for display. Dogs would have been dissected when human corpses were not available. A few bones are more exotic: the two badgers were native, but there are bones also from a North American raccoon and one from an African manatee, which was almost certainly displayed as part of a mermaid.
In addition to the material dug from ground behind the Museum, the lifting of floorboards for heating and electrical work on the top floor occasioned a different kind of archaeology. Centuries of dust had accumulated in a thick layer and careful sifting revealed many everyday fragments of eighteenth-century life at the Ashmolean Museum, from nut shells and fruit stones to labels and specimens from the collection itself.
The historical background and the finds themselves are described much more fully in a book, with the same title as the exhibition, published by the Museum and available from the shop (£8.50 + £1.50 p&p).