John Oxley has dedicated more than 30 years to the protection, investigation and communication of York’s heritage as the principal archaeologist for York City Council, with his pivotal work making an impact far beyond Yorkshire
The 64-year-old said: “I’m astonished and incredibly flattered that someone went to all the trouble of nominating me for such an award, for this honour - it’s fantastic, it’s amazing.
“Whoever it was, thank you very much! It’s an extraordinary thing that I should have this honour given to me."
"It was a total surprise," said John. "It’s something that I’d never contemplated."
'The Best Job In The Country'
John initiated the council’s policy of requiring all development-led archaeology to have some form of community involvement whether by participation in the fieldwork itself, open days or guided tours.
Through the Archaeological Forum, he has been instrumental in bringing together a great range of interest groups and stakeholders in the city’s archaeology, including Historic England, York University, the council for British archaeology and the York Museum Trust, to work together on projects of mutual interest.
"I’m one of those people who’s incredibly lucky because I’ve been paid to be an archaeologist," said John. "For the past 30 years I’ve been working in York as the city’s archaeologist and that is without the doubt one of the best - if not the best - archaeological jobs in the country.”
Born in Darlington, John moved to Scarborough in 2005 as "he always fancied living by the sea", now living in the Old Town.
The first from his family to go to university, he studied ancient history, medieval history and archaeology at the University of Liverpool in 1975. He stayed on for two more years to research an MPhil, teaching at the university for a year, before starting a job as a museum research officer in Southampton.
'Archaeology Is Under Threat'
John said: "It’s an interesting time, I’ve received this recognition for services to heritage, but actually it comes at a time when heritage is probably under threat in a way it hasn’t been for a long, long time.
The proposed closure of the University of Sheffield's world-renowned archaeology department and a Government review into planning legislation - making it easier for developments to take place, is a shame John said, but he recognises the need for more housing.
“It’s quite ironic that I’ve been given this award by the Queen for services to heritage at a time when the Government is looking to reduce funding to the arts and heritage within universities and it’s looking to reduce the protection and provision that has been so successful and that has allowed me to do what I’ve done over the last 30 years - it’s a really poignant moment."
John's role at York City Council ensured that where new developments took place, it was not at the expense of the archaeology, where he also managed the York City Walls.
"I worked within the local council and planning department speaking to developers," said John. "They wanted to build new buildings and we would go through a process where we would identify what archaeology is on the site and what can we preserve in situ, if it has to be excavated, can we make that process as open and accessible as possible."
'How lucky am I!'
John retired from his role in York in December 2019, though 2020 was not quite how he envisioned starting his retirement and has spent much of it getting involved with Big Ideas by the Sea.
John recalled the inspiration that led to his career when his mum and dad moved house.
He said: "In the early 2000s they came across this essay I had written when I was eight years old entitled ‘when I am twenty’ and it said when I am twenty I will be an archaeologist, where on earth does an eight-year-old get that sort of idea?"
Looking back, John said: “Having York during the day and that amazing job and then coming back to Scarborough; being able to walk past the minster at lunch and then walk along the beach home at night - how lucky am I!”