Last autumn, a small team of archaeologists from ULAS found themselves burrowing beneath the floor of the once-bustling Jewry Wall museum in the heart of Roman Leicester. Site director Jennifer Browning reports:
This was the site of the Roman town’s public baths and was the first large-scale archaeological excavation in Leicester, undertaken by Kathleen Kenyon between 1936 and 1939. In 2019, however, the scene was more reminiscent of the dwarves hall in ‘Lord of the Rings’! We were working in semi-darkness, with only the resounding clang of mattock on stone and the distant hum of the generator punctuating the stillness and silence of the cold cavernous space.
We were excavating the footprint for a new lift shaft as part of the renovations of the museum and former Vaughan college. It was a small but interesting trench (c. 6m x 7.5m) positioned over part of a structure that Kenyon originally interpreted as a water reservoir. This was described by Kenyon as a ‘grid like building’ divided by an open channel and continuing west beyond the edge of the excavation. It was thought to be one of the later structures at the site and part of a system to supply the baths with water. The parallel walls seemed to form a massive base to spread the weight of something very heavy, such as a water tank. During Kenyon’s excavation the upstanding walls were about a metre higher than when encountered in 2019. Prior to the construction of the museum in the 1960s they were demolished and the stone spread over the area and compacted, making our task of separating the in situ wall from the rubble rather difficult. Only the base of the foundations was left, which appeared to have been constructed on levelled ground not in a foundation trench.
More unexpected was a much earlier pit below one of the walls, pre-dating the Roman structure. It produced plentiful pottery and charcoal but unfortunately, due to lockdown restrictions at the University, we haven’t as yet been able to date the pottery. It will be very interesting to see how this feature compares to early pits previously excavated on the site. Is it contemporary with one of the earlier phases of the Baths, built in the mid-2nd century AD, or does it pre-date the Baths and relate to Conquest period (mid-1st century AD) activity in the area? It will be great to find out!
On a different note, we can definitely recommend doing archaeology beneath a roof (especially during the heavy rains of late 2019!).