Digging for Britain: Leicester archaeology projects to feature on BBC

Projects led by Leicester archaeologists are to be showcased on the new series of BBC Two’s primetime TV series Digging for Britain in the New Year.

Three University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) projects from across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to feature on the latest series, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.

The major discovery of a one-of-a-kind Roman mosaic on Rutland farmland will be the focus of the first episode to be broadcast on January 4th at 8pm, following the Leicester team and undergraduate archaeology students as they painstakingly uncover part of the story of Greek hero Achilles.

Rutland Villa Project. A member of the team from ULAS/University of Leicester during the excavations of a mosaic pavement. Image: UoL

The 11m by 7m mosaic is the centrepiece of a newly discovered Roman villa complex comprising a range of buildings including a domestic focus, aisled barns, circular structures and what is thought to have been a bath house. The mosaic is unique in the UK, and one of only a handful from across Europe, to show Achilles’ battle with Hector at the conclusion of the Trojan War.

The story of an elaborately-decorated Roman bronze key handle excavated by ULAS experts at a site off Great Central Street in Leicester will feature in the fourth episode of the series, to air on January 11th.

The elaborately-decorated Roman bronze key handle. Image: ULAS

The handle portrays a ‘Barbarian’ grappling with a lion, together with four naked youths cowering in terror. It is among the first evidence from Roman Britain of executing captives by ‘throwing them to the lions’.

An excavation at Castle Hill Country Park is the third Leicester project, and will also feature in the fourth episode of the new series, investigating remains of a manor linked with the medieval Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller. 

Prof. Alice Roberts and site director Mathew Morris at Castle Hill. Image: Alice Roberts

While the Hospitallers are familiar by name, their sites are largely unexcavated in the UK – making this a rare opportunity to explore this type of monument. 

The project, involving volunteers from the local community and nearly 70 students from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History as part of their fieldwork module, concentrated on the Manor House site and its outer enclosure, and uncovered evidence of a large timber-framed hall with leaded windows and a tiled roof as well as many artefacts from the 13th and 14th Centuries. 

John Thomas is Deputy Director of ULAS and also managed the Rutland dig. He said:

            “ULAS is one of only a handful of UK archaeological units that operate in a university environment, and the variety of expertise that offers gives us many opportunities for collaborative working.  We’re really pleased to have worked with the School of Archaeology & Ancient History to provide vital student training on such wonderful archaeological sites.  To have three of our projects making a significant contribution to Digging for Britain is fantastic for everyone – hopefully the stories that are told about them will inspire future generations of archaeologists who will doubtless make exciting discoveries of their own.”

University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) is an award-winning commercial archaeological unit that undertakes contracts across the UK.

The team features experts from a number of different archaeological fields, and works closely with academic staff from the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

Leicester Archaeology students have the opportunity to gain valuable practical and professional experience with ULAS specialists during their studies.

Digging for Britain airs on BBC Two from 4th January, at 8pm and is also available on iPlayer.

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