Leicester Cathedral Revealed – One person’s rubbish is an archaeologist’s treasure!

Work to excavate the higher burials at Leicester Cathedral has now paused for Christmas, with the count currently at 87. We had hoped to have completed the excavation this year but there are at least a dozen more burials to lift and we will be back for a short time in the New Year to wrap things up. We now expect the final number of burials in this phase of work to exceed 100!

Two phases of burial are now visible and we have identified two more people by name (more on them in a later blog). The most recent burials, the early 19th-century graves are in neat rows aligned with the church. These have been dug through an earlier burial soil which contains 18th-century burials which are on a slightly different alignment. So far, our oldest dated burial is 1738, whilst our most recent is 1855.

But it isn’t the burials I want to focus on in this final post before Christmas. Instead I want to show you some of the artefacts being recovered from the excavation. Some may have originally been buried in individual graves but we are also finding that the soil in the grave yard is full of domestic refuse ranging in date from the Roman period to the 19th century. Some of this (the Roman material) is evidence of what was going on in this area of the town before St Martin’s was founded and gives us tantalising hints of what may be found during the main excavation next year. More recent material has probably come from the houses which surround the church, with the grave yard becoming a convenient open space for households to dump their refuse in the past!

Domestic refuse recovered from the burial soil at Leicester Cathedral. The material in this tray includes from left to right: Roman greyware, samian ware and a piece of roof tile (tegula); medieval green glazed ware (12th-14th century) and Cistercian ware (15th-16th century); post-medieval mottled ware, slip ware and pancheon ware (17th-18th century), and salt-glazed stoneware and china (18th-19th century), as well as broken clay tobacco pipes and glass. Animal bones and oyster shells have also been recovered. (Image: ULAS).

Whilst this might sound rather disrespectful to the dead, as an archaeologist this domestic waste is invaluable. It will give us a fascinating insight into the people who used and lived around the graveyard, and provides crucial dateable information which will aid our efforts to unravel the chronology of the burials.

So, here is a gallery of our favourite finds so far. Descriptions of each object are in the captions. Have a Happy Christmas and we will be back in 2022 with more updates from our Leicester Cathedral excavation.

The burial soil has produced hundreds of pieces of broken clay tobacco pipe. Some of these may have been discarded by grave diggers, mourners and other people using the graveyard, others have probably been dumped here as refuse from the surrounding houses. Pipe bowls have very distinctive styles at different periods and are very dateable; the pipe bowls here are mostly late 17th-century examples whilst the one with fluted decoration (bottom left) is from the 19th century. (Image: ULAS)
A 1799 George III halfpenny showing Britannia on the coin’s reverse side. This may have been dropped by someone in the graveyard but we have also found coins in a couple of graves, either lost by gravediggers or deliberately placed with the burial. (Image: ULAS)
Two brass 18th/19th-century thimbles, one adult-sized and one child-sized. (Image: ULAS)
Shroud pins. Hundreds of these pins are being found in graves and in the burial soil. They are the clearest evidence we have that most of the 18th and 19th-century burials were wrapped in a cloth sheet, held together by these pins, inside the coffin. (Image: ULAS)
An 18th/19th-century gilt coat button and two bone buttons. The coat button may have been lost by someone walking through the graveyard. The bone buttons were found on the chest bone of a burial and reveal that the person was buried wearing a shift or a shirt. (Image: ULAS)
A gilt sun motif, possibly a decorative fitting from a coffin.
(Image: ULAS)
A clay marble with painted yellow and blue bands. This is the type of object which could have been placed in a child’s grave but equally could easily have been lost by a child playing in the graveyard. (Image: ULAS)

Leicester Cathedral Revealed is a £12.7m restoration of the Grade II* Cathedral, made possible with the Heritage Fund. Find out more about the project at https://leicestercathedral.org/

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