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Investigating the history hidden in Girton's grounds with an archaeological excavation

Pottery found at Girton College during an archaeological excavation

In 1881, when tennis courts were being built in Emily Davies Court, an unexpected discovery was made; graves from a cemetery stretching in use from the Roman period into the early medieval. Over the next few months over 200 inhumations and cremations were excavated by Francis Jenkinson, along with tantalising hints of Roman settlement. However, the quality of the 19th-century excavations was lower than would be expected today. Our records of what was found are incomplete, only select finds were kept, and the exact location of the cemetery remains unknown. Despite several excavations related to new buildings around the College, the site of the cemetery had, until recently, remained unexcavated in modern times.

Following the results of a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey in September 2023, we excavated a total of seven trenches across Emily Davies Court. A group of 20 undergraduates, postgraduates and Fellows worked together alongside experienced archaeologists. Some were students in Archaeology or related degrees such as Classics and Anglo Saxon, Nordic and Celtic Studies, but most had never been on an excavation before. This was a chance to learn new skills and to put into practice things they had learned in the classroom, and for the fellows it was a new experience altogether. Everyone was involved in excavating, recording the trenches through drawing and 3D mapping, and in cleaning and sorting finds.

Some of the anomalies identified on the GPR survey turned out to be red herrings; trench 1 revealed a geological feature, and trench 2 contained a tree stump. But these trenches did shed light on the construction of the college buildings. We found lots of building material, nearly 250 fragments of brick and tile from trench 1, which had been dumped to level the lawn. 

Some of the smaller trenches also contained only building material and in some cases field drains from the farmland which existed before the college. But in other trenches, we encountered the area of the 19th-century excavations. In two, we were able to re-excavate parts of graves that Jenkinson had dug. They were empty, but this helps us narrow down the exact location of the cemetery in relation to the buildings, something which Jenkinson never recorded despite his otherwise detailed plan. 

By excavating through the old backfill, we could recover artefacts which were either missed, or were not considered important enough to keep. This included a Roman brooch, sherds of early medieval pottery, and most importantly human bone. We have very few human remains from the original excavations, and it wasn’t clear whether they had been disposed of or were lying unlabelled in a museum collection somewhere. The quantity of cremated bone found in one of the trenches suggests that the cremation urns were simply emptied out and the bone thrown back when the trenches were filled in. This demonstrates a completely different attitude towards human remains than the one archaeologists take today, and these remains will now be studied and curated with respect. This material was all mixed in with 19th-century pottery, clearly showing that we were in an area which had been previously disturbed.

Going forward, there is still a lot of work to do to study the remains we have excavated. The pottery will be studied by a specialist to provide more precise dating of the Roman and early medieval occupation. The brooch will be x-rayed and conserved. And the bone will be a particular focus of study. We don’t know how many individuals are present in our sample, but the bone itself has a lot to tell us about how they were cremated, and there are a number of scientific techniques we can use to learn more about these people and how they lived.


We visited Dr Emma Brownlee mid-way through the excavation to see what the group had found so far. Find out more from Dr Brownlee in the video below.