Pollen coring at Sydlings Copse, Oxfordshire

In December 2018 members of the FeedSax team visited Sydlings Copse, a small woodland in Oxfordshire, to obtain cores for pollen analysis. Today, the copse is surrounded by agricultural land, but the woodland was formerly part of Shotover royal hunting forest, mentioned in Domesday Book. It also provides one of very few pollen records with good coverage of the medieval period in Oxfordshire – previous analysis by Petra Dark (as S.P. Day, 1991, 1993) produced a record of vegetation spanning almost 10,000 years. We took new cores in order to increase the resolution of pollen and radiocarbon samples for c. AD 400-1450, to gain a better understanding of the nature of the landscape and the scale and type of land-use.

1_Sydlings copse
Into the copse

The palynology team (Mike Charles and Emily Forster) went to Sydlings Copse in early December to explore potential coring locations. We did several transects of an area known to have peat deposits, using a probe to test the depth of sediment/peat – fortunately the ground wasn’t frozen, despite a frosty start to the day! Palynologists usually search for the deepest deposits available as these are likely to cover a longer period of time. For FeedSax we are working on a relatively short time span compared to most pollen studies, but deeper deposits are still valuable as they often have a faster rate of accumulation than shallower sediments, meaning changes over time can be investigated in more detail by sampling at closer intervals.

Marking a transect
Using the probe

Having identified two suitable places for coring, we returned later in the month with reinforcements (Tina Roushannafas) and a Russian chamber corer. We took two cores of just under a metre in length, which should be more than enough to capture the medieval period at this site.

Taking a core
The results are out

Having brought the cores back to the lab, the stratigraphy was described and samples were taken for radiocarbon dating and preliminary pollen analysis. It will take a few months to get the radiocarbon dates to establish the chronology with confidence. However, an initial scan of pollen slides revealed several types associated with farming in what we would expect to be mid- to late Saxon samples (based on the age-depth model for Day, 1991, 1993), including a nice example of Hordeum-type pollen, which could originate from barley.

6_Hordeum type
Hordeum-type pollen

 Emily Forster


Day, S.P. (1991) Post-glacial vegetational history of the Oxford region. New Phytologist 119: 445-470

Day, S.P. (1993) Woodland origins and ‘ancient woodland indicators’: a case study from Sidlings Copse, Oxfordshire, UK. The Holocene 3: 45-53

2 thoughts on “Pollen coring at Sydlings Copse, Oxfordshire

  1. dearieme

    Pseudo-random question. I remarked to someone that Comberton (Cambs) presumably meant “where the Britons live”. He replied that it could mean “where barley is grown”.

    I can see that Britons surrounded by Anglo-Saxons might be uncommon enough to inspire a place name. But could the growing of barley be rare enough, and sustained enough, to do likewise? It somehow seems unlikely to this amateur.


  2. Good question. I agree that it’s extremely unlikely that barley cultivation was particularly rare in Anglo-Saxon Cambridgeshire. On the other hand, Debby Banham of Cambridge University has suggested that barley-related place-names (e.g. Barford, Barcombe, Barney) might in fact have denoted “the place where the lord’s crops were either grown or gathered”, on the basis that “bere” could have had a double-meaning as corn generally, as well as barley specifically (Banham & Faith, 2014, ‘Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming’, p.27-8). These names would arguably include the many Bartons – “bere-tuns” – around the country, so I guess that your disputant was putting Comberton in the same class.

    On the other hand… even if one accepts the barley-as-corn argument, one would still need to explain the “com-” in Comberton. At this point I must defer to the University of Nottingham’s encyclopaedic Key to English Place-names, which agrees more closely with your interpretation: “Probably, ‘Cumbra’s farm/settlement’ but perhaps, ‘Cumbrian Briton’s farm/settlement'” (http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/).


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