ULAS director Richard Buckley retires

31st May 2020 marks the retirement of Dr Richard Buckley, Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services after 40 years as a professional archaeologist. Nick Cooper, Project Manager at ULAS reflects on the career of Leicester’s foremost expert on the City’s Roman and medieval past.

Richard’s career has encompassed all the large-scale excavations that have preceded the City’s urban regeneration over the last 40 years, including the Shires and Highcross shopping centres, alongside landmark research excavations at Leicester Castle, Leicester Abbey and, of course, Grey Friars, the last resting place (but one) of Richard III.

“Much of what we know about Leicester City today is down to his hard work and dedication. Not only is his knowledge of the city’s history unparalleled, but his work building relationships with developers and planners has enabled the excavation of much of Roman and medieval Leicester. Having the opportunity to work with and learn from Richard has helped to shape my career. He has always been supportive and encouraging and his willingness to share his knowledge and expertise and his passion for archaeology have inspired me greatly. He will be very much missed by all at ULAS.”

Vicki Score, deputy director of ULAS

Richard was born in July 1958 and brought up in Queniborough just north of Leicester before attending Longslade School, Birstall. After completing his ‘A’ levels Richard went to study archaeology at the University of Durham in 1976 (Castle College), writing his dissertation on the Bronze Age round barrows of Leicestershire. Richard had already been involved in excavations in the City and County with the Leicestershire Archaeological Unit as a school boy (Austin Friars) and whilst a student (Sproxton Bronze Age barrow), and on returning to Leicester after graduating in 1979, joined the staff permanently. So started the career of Leicester’s most celebrated urban archaeologist, initially directing, and then managing, every major urban project undertaken since the late 1980s.

Richard (right) graduated from University of Durham in 1979 (image courtesy of Pam Lowther).

The early 1980s saw the excavation of Norfolk Street Roman villa, outside the west gate of the Roman town. Remarkably, the decorated wall of the reception room had collapsed into the villa’s cellar and museum conservator, Theo Sturge, reconstructed the wall painting that went on display in the Jewry Wall Museum. Richard unhappily spent the following winter looking at all the fragments that didn’t fit together! During this time, Richard also developed his numismatic expertise to study the Roman coins in the museum’s collection.

The Norfolk Street villa excavations in the early 1980s.

The summer of 1983 saw the excavation of the county’s first clay land Iron Age site at Grove farm Enderby with Patrick Clay as director and Richard as supervisor. It was the first time the Unit had taken on volunteers from the University as field course placements. That was the first time I worked with Richard and he introduced me to the delights of mattocking machine ruts and continually filling jerry cans from a bowser, to soak the sun-baked clay!

Richard (2nd left) soaking sun-baked clay at Grove Farm, Endeby in 1983.

The mid-1980s gave Richard the opportunity of working on Leicester Castle Hall and the adjoining John of Gaunt cellar.

The late 1980s saw the first major redevelopment within the city centre since the 1960s with the building of the Shires shopping centre, incorporating the façade of the old co-op building on High Street. Richard directed the St Peter’s Lane site which was predominantly medieval in date and John Lucas directed Little Lane, which was mainly Roman. The project was remarkable for its scale at the time and for the fact that the field staff were largely inexperienced diggers on the Manpower Services Commission employment training Scheme. The project also had public engagement at its heart, with site tours, a shop and Debbie Sawday’s booklet, Peepholes to the Past. My job was to teach the raw recruits about Roman Britain on a Thursday morning down at Vaughan College!

Richard (right) directed the excavation at St Peter’s Lane, Leicester in 1988.

In 1991, new government legislation opened the way for developer-funded excavation and Richard managed the first project of its kind in Leicester, when HMRC built the new tax office on Causeway Lane. This was the start of commercial archaeology as we know it today and the funding stream that has underpinned ULAS for the last 25 years. The next couple of years were spent managing the post-excavation project for Causeway Lane, but it wouldn’t be until the end of the decade that it finally came to publication, due to the momentous changes which took place in between!

Richard (back left) and the Causeway Lane excavation team, 1991.

The relationship between the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University and the Unit were not particularly close during the 80s. Following the excavations at Enderby, they hosted work placements for some of us on the Post-excavation studies MA, which is how I first got to know them all in 1985, and a number of students from the course went to work for the unit in 1991. However, it was the arrival of Graeme Barker as Head of School in 1988 that provided a turning point, when he instituted the Museum’s visiting fellowship in 1990, which brought in a member the Unit or Museum staff for one day a week (including Richard, and Patrick Clay) over the next few years. The Drayton II Villa field course, which had started in 1988, also became a vehicle for working alongside Unit staff and the Employment Training Scheme up until 1993.

“The school is extremely proud to have worked in partnership with Richard Buckley and ULAS for more than 20 years. It is a remarkable contribution to UK heritage to have completed over 3,000 archaeological projects over that time. Richard has received many personal accolades along the way, and jointly with ULAS they have gained international acclaim with the discovery of Richard III. The award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2013, held jointly with the University of Leicester, recognised ULAS’ long record of exceptional research, commercial archaeology and public engagement in history and heritage for Richard can take much credit. Richard Buckley and the ULAS staff are an important part of our research and teaching in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History. They provide important opportunities for students to gain professional skills, within CIfA accredited programmes, ahead of their future employment beyond the University of Leicester. All of us in the School recognise the value of having a commercial enterprise like ULAS working in partnership with the academic community in the School. We all look forward to future collaborations as researchers, educators, and sometimes, as with the wider public, as fans of the archaeological discoveries.”

Dr Huw Barton, head of School of Archaeology and Ancient History

This all helped to forge a closer relationship between the two institutions and when the worst happened in February 1995, and the staff of the Unit were made redundant, the climate was right for alternative arrangements to be made. There were a number of Archaeological Units embedded in University departments at the time at Birmingham (BUFAU), Glasgow (GUARD) and Sheffield (ARCUS), and Graeme Barker was keen to expand the School to include one at Leicester. University bureaucracy was lightweight in those days and with help from various quarters, Patrick and Richard put together a business plan that would underpin the formation of University of Leicester Archaeological Services in July 1995. It all started on a very small scale with just a handful of staff from the Unit. The first big project which Richard managed was the Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Bronze Age cemetery at Eye Kettleby in 1996, directed by Neil Finn.

ULAS first big project was the excavation of the largest Anglo-Saxon settlement in Leicestershire at Eye Kettleby in 1996.

Projects in the city were mainly focused on the south suburb; Neil had worked on Bonner’s Lane in 1994 before LAU folded and subsequently Lynden Cooper directed work on the Roman cemetery on Newarke Street in 1996 and James Gossip worked on Republic Car Park/Bowling Green St.

ULAS began overseeing the provision of student field courses for the School in 2000 and this provided an opportunity for Richard to launch a major research project into Leicester Abbey, to the north of the city. The project ran for ten seasons until 2009, allowing a re-evaluation of the 1930s excavations of Beddingfield and reveal a much more interesting story because so much of archaeology still remained untouched.

The year 2003 saw Leicester on the threshold of a major new makeover, when the big London developer, Hammerson’s, proposed a huge extension to the existing Shires, to create the Highcross shopping centre. This was development on an unprecedented scale, with excavations taking place over a period of three years from 2004-6 coupled with other large excavations along the defences at Sanvey Gate. ULAS was employing around 100 archaeologists at this time with four sites running concurrently on Vine Street (Roman Townhouse), Vaughan Way (St Peter’s Church and cemetery), Freeschool Lane (collapsed macellum wall) and Sanvey Gate (Roman and medieval defences). Elsewhere in the city, the BBC Radio Leicester building (the Norman undercroft) at 9, St Nicholas Place, the Castle Street Roman ‘delicatessen’, and Merlin works site on Bath Lane (Iron Age coin production) (2006-7) proved to be the last gasp of the ‘noughties’ building boom before the financial crash of 2008. Richard had managed all these projects and built a trust and rapport with these developers over many years that has helped keep ULAS financially solvent and raised the public profile of archaeology in the city.

The ‘noughties’ building boom saw ULAS excavate extensive areas of historic Leicester, all managed by Richard.

The period from 2006 saw Richard overseeing the post-excavation programme for the Highcross Project, and completion of the developer reports in 2009 was due to be swiftly followed by production of an ambitious publication synthesising all the results (soon to be published 10 years later!). A popular volume ‘Visions of Ancient Leicester’, summarising the results, appeared in 2011, but certain events then intervened. Following the down-turn, re-development in Leicester halted and along with the rest of the World, ULAS had a difficult few years, and 2011 sadly saw a number of experienced staff take voluntary redundancy.

Then, shortly afterwards, a strange request came across Richard’s desk from Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, which quite literally changed his life, and single-handedly raised the profile of the City (and the University), in the same way as winning the Premiership did again in 2016 (of course the two were linked!). It had always been known that Richard III was buried in the church of the Greyfriars in Leicester but a research project to exhume his remains and rehabilitate his reputation had never been conceived until now, and Richard thought it was a longshot at best.

The search for Richard III’s last known resting place began in 2012. L-r: Richard Buckley, Annette Carson, Philippa Langley, Michael Ibsen, Turi King and John Ashdown-Hill launch the project in the Leicester car park where the king’s remains were found.

The results of that three-trench evaluation in late August and early September 2012 made headline news across the world and the press furore continued for much of the following year as the story of Richards III’s DNA, his life story and grisly end in 1485 unfolded and were retold in a series of documentaries viewed by millions of people. The intrigue continued as the battle for the reburial of the remains continued in the law courts and the decision was made for him to finally rest in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015. For Richard B, in contrast, there was no rest and fun never stopped; the requests for lectures continued, including two tours of the USA, and the accolades flowed in. The project won Current Archaeology Award and Times Higher Education awards for best research project for 2012 and 2013, and as part of the ULAS team, the University was awarded the Queens Anniversary Prize in 2013 for the research impact of its projects. Richard was then awarded an OBE in the New Year’s honours for 2014, for services to archaeology. In recognition of Richard’s huge contribution to Leicester’s Archaeology, the University awarded him his doctorate later in the year.

Richard and members of the Richard III team accept the Times Higher Education Research Project of the Year award in 2013.

After a long wait, redevelopment of the city centre resumed in earnest in 2015, with excavations in the southern part of the Roman town at Southgates Bus Station. Roman cemeteries outside the south and west gates were also excavated along the south side of Newarke Street and on Western Road, respectively. The scale of work was now starting to resemble that seen in the early noughties, as the sites along Vaughan Way, at the Stibbe Building and the old brewery site, were then followed by those in the Northwest quarter at Bath Lane and the Waterside project between 2017 and 2019. Post-excavation analysis of these projects continues, and indeed new excavation sites are visible on the horizon, but the figure who has overseen them, Richard Buckley, will take a step back and let the youngsters have a go!

Richard’s contribution to archaeology has been immense and our understanding of Leicester has been transformed. But no less important has been his dedication, alongside Patrick Clay who retired in 2017, to building ULAS over the last 25 years and ensuring the livelihoods of the fifty archaeologists it employs, whilst developing the careers and experience of the team who will take the reins from now on. For all these things we have reason to be eternally grateful!

“The work of ULAS and the wider academic team at Leicester demonstrated how advanced academic thinking can reshape our understanding of the world. I am tremendously proud of what ULAS and the Richard III team have achieved. Theirs is a lasting legacy marking the culmination of the first centenary of the university – and offering hope for more exciting discoveries and innovation as the university prepares for its second century. We wish Richard a happy retirement – and he will forever remain our very own King Richard.”

Professor Nishan Canagrajah, President & Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester


Have a long and happy retirement Richard!

Dr Richard Buckley OBE FSA MCIfA, archaeologist.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Chris Wardle says:

    It was lovely o come across this tribute to Richard B. I had the pleasure to work with him, from 2004 to 2015, during my time as City Archaeologist. It was rather a sock to me to be working alongside folk with a greater knowledge of the archaeology of the city’s archaeology than me. The City Archaeologist is supposed to know more about the city’s archaeology than anyone else!
    Foremost amongst those with a greater knowledge of the city was Richard, who began to learn about the city’s archaeology back in the ’60s. But Richard is a lovely guy and easy to get along with. So I too wish him a long and happy retirement .

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