Archaeologists return to Roman mosaic site

In Autumn 2014, ULAS archaeologists returned to a site in Leicester, that they first investigated in 2012, to carry out a second phase of work. The site is on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way, between All Saints’ Church and the John Lewis multistory car-park. In 2012, archaeologists excavated seven trenches in order to characterise the extent and date of any archaeology on the site as part of a strategy to aid its redevelopment. Unfortunately, several derelict buildings still standing on the site at the time prevented a full investigation. So, in 2014 archaeologists returned to excavated two new trenches close to Highcross Street, finding further evidence of Roman and medieval Leicester.

All-Saints (1)
The site during work in 2012. View from the John Lewis car park with All Saint’s church behind the trees on the right.

A substantial find of the original excavation was the largest fragment of Roman mosaic found in Leicester in recent years. The panel, of which approximately a quarter survives, measures c.3.2m by c.2.6m. Its pattern, picked out in red and grey tesserae, includes a ‘hexafoil cross’ central motif surrounded by an octagonal band, heart-shaped leaves, swastika-meander and a thick red border. It is thought to be 4th century and its presence, together with wall lines and other surfaces, likely marks the site of a substantial Roman town house in the north-east quarter of the Roman city, just south-west of another previously excavated by ULAS beneath the adjacent car-park between 2004 and 2006.

All-Saints (2)
Archaeologists carefully clean the mosaic pavement.
All-Saints (3)
The mosaic pavement.

Roman archaeology was present across the site in all trenches except Trench 6, with features ranging in date from the late 1st century AD through to the 4th century. Along the northern side of the site, compacted gravel street metalling for an east-west Roman street running between Insulae IV and X was recorded in Trenches 1, 7 and 8. Early Roman features either pre-dating this street or contemporary with its early use were found in Trenches 1 and 4. These appear to date to the late 1st century or possibly the early 2nd century AD. In Trench 1 a beam-slot/gully appeared to be at right-angles to the street; whilst in Trench 4 early occupational trample and yard surfaces were of broadly contemporary date. Possible early Roman gravel surfaces were also seen in Trench 9.

All-Saints (6)
Plan showing the important Roman discoveries.

Later Roman activity next to the street was recorded in Trench 7. Here a narrow gully running parallel with the street, post-holes and the robber trench for a road-side wall were all dug into soil containing mid-late 2nd century pottery. Activity appears to have continued into the mid-late 3rd century, when a substantial concrete floor was laid over later soil deposits. The noticeable absence of Roman roof tiles in this trench may suggest that the floor was some sort of heavy-duty external surface and the wall a boundary wall surrounding a property rather than part of a building.

All-Saints (4)
Roman street surface with street-side wall and gully, Trench 7.

Further south, set back in the centre of Insula X, was evidence for timber and masonry buildings. The timber buildings, found in Trenches 2 and 5, survived as beam-slots and floor surfaces. These were a mixture of earth and concrete, each floor often separated by a layer of made-ground containing pottery dating to the latter half of the 2nd century AD, redeposited roof tiles and painted wall plaster. Little can be said of either building’s plan or appearance at this stage.

Robber trenches for stone wall footings were found in Trenches 2, 3, 4 and possibly Trench 5. As with the timber buildings, little can be said about the plan or the appearance of these masonry buildings. In Trench 3, the corner of a building was present; whilst in Trench 4 in-situ floors and robbed walls suggest a sizeable Roman building in the vicinity. Further west, closer to line of the north-south street leading to the town’s north gate, the remains of the early timber building in Trench 5 were sealed beneath a substantial mortar and stone floor. It remains unclear whether this was part of a later building.

No Anglo-Saxon or Saxo-Norman occupation was found on site, but 10th and 11th century pottery was present in later medieval features, particularly in Trench 5 close to Highcross Street. The few medieval pits excavated dated to the 12th or 13th century.

All-Saints (5)
A post-medieval stone cellar (left) and possible medieval building (right) on Highcross Street, Trench 9.

Extensive evidence of medieval and post-medieval activity was found along the Highcross Street frontage in Trenches 5 and 9. Of note was a substantial masonry wall footing at the southern end of Trench 5. This was at right-angles to Highcross Street and may be part of St John’s Hospital or the Town Gaol which replaced it in 1614. The wall was demolished and rebuilt in the 18th century or later. In Trench 9, islands of medieval and post-medieval archaeology survived to a considerable depth beneath the modern overburden, including a small stone cellar of probable post-medieval date and an earlier stone building of possible medieval date. The archaeological survival along this site’s street frontage is remarkably similar to that excavated c.100m to the south during excavations on Freeschool Lane, which uncovered extensive evidence for well-developed street properties from the 8th century through to the present day. Evidence from Trenches 5 and 9 suggests archaeological survival may be similar on this site, potentially making it a rare example in Leicester of a site with an intact medieval frontage.

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