Leicester Cathedral Revealed – The story so far

Our dig team has now been on site at Leicester Cathedral for over a year! This has included nine months of excavation within the footprint of the new Heritage Learning Centre as well as monitoring of other groundwork both inside and outside the Cathedral. Archaeological work is due to continue for another couple of months as the team wraps up the excavation of the burial ground and transitions to investigating what lies beneath. In his latest blog, excavation director Mathew Morris provides an update on the story so far.

First, the burial count. At the time of writing, we have excavated 850 burials from the basement area of the new Heritage Learning Centre, an incredible density given that we are only investigating a 195 sq m area (measuring 13 x 15m or 9% of the total graveyard). We are not done yet, either. We still have burials in our original access ramp, which we are now excavating, and we expect the final count to be over 900.

Then and now: The excavation in June (left) and November (right) 2022. Images: Messenger.

I’ve written previously about our 18th and 19th century burials and how they are providing a fascinating insight into the development of the funeral trade in Leicester (you can read my previous blogs here). We now have eleven named individuals, and their stories really bring this period of Leicester’s history to life. All have connections with the church. Many were born in the parish, were baptised in the church, married in the church, and lived and worked in the streets around it. Some never left the parish; others, in later life, moved away to more affluent suburbs around Leicester but still chose to retain a link with their church in death. Three have memorial plaques inside the Cathedral and we have also found surviving gravestones for three re-erected in Welford Road Cemetery and Saffron Hill Cemetery. I’ve already written about John Ottey and Anne Barratt, and I will tell the stories of our other named individuals in future blogs – they include a mayor of Leicester and a surgeon at the Leicester Infirmary.

Archaeologists excavate a brick-lined burial vault. The brass nameplate read ‘John Slater, died 29th March 1837, aged 77 years’. Image: ULAS.

We are now excavating the earliest graves in the burial sequence. These appear to date to the 12th century. At present we have no clear evidence for Late Saxon burials and it is looking increasingly likely that this part of the burial ground does not pre-date the Norman Conquest – we won’t have definitive evidence for this, however, until we start our programme of radiocarbon dating after the excavation is complete. If this is true, it raises interesting questions about the foundation date of the church. The earliest reference to St Martin’s by name is 1220 and the burial ground may only pre-date this by decades rather than centuries. Does this mean the church was founded after the Norman Conquest? Or was it founded earlier without a burial ground? Or have we simply not found the earliest part of the burial ground?

For the most part, these medieval burials are very simple, earth-dug graves containing a shroud-wrapped body placed directly into the ground. Coffins, occasionally distinguishable by lines of iron nails or a bed of ash beneath the body, are uncommon and are typically rectangular or trapezoidal boxes. ‘Ash burials’ have previously been recorded in Leicester during the excavation of St Peter’s churchyard (today beneath the Highcross shopping centre). Given that the ash is only found in coffins, the rite appears to be associated with more affluent members of the parish and at St Peter’s and elsewhere it appears to be a practice which dates from the late 13th century through to the mid-15th century.

An archaeologist excavates a medieval burial. The coffin outline is defined by a layer of ash beneath the skeleton. Image: ULAS.

The ash may have been used to help counter foul odours and soak up fluids produced during putrefaction, especially if there was to be a delay prior to burial. However, as it was not used in every coffin it may have also served more than just a practical purpose. The practice is reminiscent of the sentiments “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19) and “They shall lie down alike in the dust, and the worms shall cover them” (Job 21:26) and it is possible inclusion of ash in a coffin was part of a rite associated with repentance and humility.

Some of our earliest un-coffined burials contain arrangements of stones deliberately placed around the body, including ‘pillow stones’ supporting the head and stones placed intermittently around the edge of the grave. These likely supported a cover of wooden boards or planks over the body or provided protection for the head, framing it and making it a focal point of the burial. Certainly the head was important in medieval liturgy, particularly in the 12th century, with emphasis on a person’s place of burial being where their head was buried. Other suggestions, that the stones could represent the tomb of Christ or the supports for Jacob’s ladder to heaven, are more tenuous.

Excavation of a burial with ‘pillow stones’ supporting the head. Image: ULAS.

Regardless of the exact meaning, what we see in the inclusion of ash and stones with these burials is a carefully thought through burial rite. This can also be seen in the posture of the skeleton in the ground, laid out neatly with the arms either placed beside the body, or clasped over the pelvis or crossed over the chest. These are not hasty burials. Instead considerable thought and respect has gone into the interment of the body in the ground.

During excavation, many of these skeletons show few signs of how they lived and died (this information will come through later analysis) but there have been poignant discoveries: a broken leg which hasn’t healed properly, leaving the person permanently disabled; someone with scoliosis more severe than King Richard III’s; a mother who died during labour; an infant buried cradled in an adult’s arms, a parent perhaps; and a child with a craniotomy, evidence of an autopsy, to mention a few. Children, from new-borns to adolescents, make up approximately a third of the burial assemblage and illustrate how precarious childhood can be in societies without modern medicine.

An archaeologist excavates the burial of an adult and infant. The adult’s head is supported by stones and they are cradling the infant over their left chest and shoulder. Image: ULAS.

The burial ground was not established on virgin land, Leicester is a city which is over 2,000 years old. The earliest graves are dug into gravel surfaces, possibly early medieval or Roman yard surfaces, and large pits, probably dug to quarry sand, gravel and clay, are also present. The pits had an impact on the burial ground, and at least one was probably re-used as a burial pit. They have also caused considerable damage to the underlying Roman archaeology, but what lies beneath the burial ground must be left to a future post.

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/

One Comment Add yours

  1. Marian says:

    Incredible ground work from you guys, this is fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s