In 1973 when mains drainage was installed in Somerton, the pipe-work from the bottom of Church Street was taken across Rectory Close (below The Old Rectory) to join the other pipe-work at the pumping station at the bottom of Water Street. As there had been some previous excavation work carried out at the school and its surrounds, two members of the Oxfordshire Archaeological Unit came to record any findings from the trenches that were being dug, and to reappraise the Castle Yard area. One of them – R A Chambers – wrote a paper on the findings, with a general overview of the village’s history and its topography.
Somerton was considerably larger in the Middle Ages than it is today, and Rectory Close is the site of a deserted part of the medieval village and the remains of medieval fishponds. A little further to the North is the area known as Castle Yard. It would seem that any Somerton castle, probably dating from the 11th to 13th centuries, was initially a simple moat and walled enclosure, and subsidiary to the major castle at Deddington, built by order of Bishop Odo of Bayeux.
The most interesting finds during the 1973 excavations were made in the trench crossing the grounds of the Old School House – along the line of the public footpath – in Castle Yard. In particular, substantial evidence of human burials was found in what would seem to be the cemetery within the castle precincts. The graves varied from shallow to deep inhumations and at least some were in wooden coffins. Many can be related to the 16th century Roman Catholic chapel (which was bequeathed as a school in 1580). Fragments of pottery dating to the 11th to 13th Centuries were also found along the line of the trench from Rectory Close to Castle Yard.
Evidence was found of other stone buildings, perhaps a dry moat, and south of the Castle Yard area, in Rectory Close, the medieval fishpond complex, and the deserted remains of part of the medieval village, with enclosures, ditches and various pottery pieces. The hollow way, which showed evidence of a row of houses, extends into Grey’s Close below Church Street.
In the 19th century, several graves were found beneath a floor of the school building, (together with a silver cross which is now lost), and a further 12 shallow graves were discovered in the Castle Yard cemetery in 1953 and 1969. Some of these had a slab of limestone covering the skull which suggests they were Anglo-Saxon or early medieval burials, pointing to the existence of a settlement at Somerton before the Norman Conquest.
The above map shows the pipe trenches which were observed in 1973. The trench between M4 and M9 follows the line of the public footpath, which runs through Castle Yard, between the fishpond remains, to the lower end ofChurch Street.
R A Chambers’ full report can be seen at:-