Leicester Cathedral Revealed – The Romans are coming!

Today is ULAS’s last day in 2022 digging at Leicester Cathedral, we will be back in the New Year to wrap up the excavation by mid-February if all goes to plan. Whilst the team shuts down the site for the Christmas break, excavation director Mathew Morris reveals some of the latest discoveries from the site.

An archaeologist uncovers the remains of a Roman backyard. The compact pebble surface was laid down using local sand and gravel. Image: ULAS

In most of the excavation area, we are now below the burial soil and excavating features which pre-date the church. We are still finding burials which are in graves which have been dug deep into the underlying archaeology. These are potentially very significant in telling the story of St Martin’s foundation as a church but we will focus on these in a later blog. We have also started excavating the Roman archaeology and I thought that for this final blog before Christmas I would move away from death and burial and showcase some of the Roman artefacts we have found so far.

An archaeologist excavates a vertical section through the Roman archaeology. The Roman layers, representing the town’s history from the 1st century to the 4th century AD are about 1m thick and comprise alternating layers of yard surface (visible as bands of pebbles) and cultivation soils. The pale grey sand at the bottom of the section to the left of the archaeologist is the natural ground level before the Roman’s arrived in Leicester. Today, this is over 3m below modern ground level. Image: ULAS

For the most part, the Roman archaeology in this part of Leicester appears to represent outdoor activity, mostly garden soils and gravelled yard surfaces. The soils are producing large quantities of domestic waste, including broken pottery, animal bone, oyster shells and a range of more unique artefacts. The pottery and animal bone were probably introduced to the soil with more organic compost from a nearby midden (refuse heap) whilst some of the other artefacts, including coins and jewellery, may have been lost by people using the open space. This is consistent with this area being part of the backgarden of a townhouse which would have fronted onto a street either to the north of the dig site (where we know there was a Roman building beneath the Cathedral) or to the east.

A tray of Roman pottery from the Leicester Cathedral Revealed excavation. The tray contains a range of tableware and kitchenware, including samian ware bowls, greyware storage jars, white ware jugs, mortaria and amphorae. Image: ULAS

Gallery of finds (click on each image to see it in more detail).

Samian ware (also known as terra sigillata) was a glossy red tableware made on an industrial scale in Gaul (France and the Rhineland) during the Roman Empire. Some vessels had relief decoration, such as this sherd from Leicester Cathedral. The figure on the left appears to be a murmillo-type gladiator with his characteristic helmet, shield and sword. The head of an opponent gladiator survives to the right and the writing between them is probably a name. Image: ULAS
A very worn late 1st-century Roman coin. The bust is an emperor from the House of Flavian (AD 69-96), possibly Vespasian or his son Titus. Image: ULAS
Four late Roman coins. Clockwise from top left: Constans I (AD 347-48); a barbarous imitation of a late Roman coin (mid-4th century AD); Tetricus II (Gallic Empire, AD 273-74) – the die has miss-struck the blank when the coin was struck; and Constantius II as Caesar under Constantine I (AD c.320s/330s). Image: ULAS
A copper alloy head stud brooch dating to the late 1st or 2nd century AD. It is intact except for the pin which has broken off. Beneath the mud, enamel decoration is faintly visible.  Brooches were common dress accessories for men and women in the early Roman period and were used to fasten a cloak at the right shoulder. Image: ULAS
Two Roman hairpins. On the left, a pin with a spherical head carved from animal bone, and on the right a copper alloy pin with a grooved head (probably broken). Both are broken mid-shaft, with their tips missing. Hairpins were a new introduction to Britain in the Roman period and show that hairstyles amongst ordinary people in Leicester changed as the town Romanised. As today, hairstyles often followed celebrity trends, most notably that of the empress of the day, or other members of the imperial family. Images: ULAS
The bowl of a copper alloy spoon known as a cochleare. The small, round, shallow bowl would have attached to a long handle which tapered to a point. It is thought that this type of spoon was used to eat snails and eggs, as described by Martial in one of his epigrams – ‘Coclearia – sum cocleis habilis sed nec minus utilis ovis.’ [Snail spoon – I am convenient for snails, but no less useful for eggs]. Image: ULAS

Sadly, Christmas also marks the end of our Wednesday afternoon public tours at the Cathedral. It has been fantastic to be able to open the site up to so many people from the local community and to share what we have been finding live but we now need to knuckle down and finish the excavation. This isn’t the end of our outreach, however, and you can keep following the archaeological project here via our blogs (find them all here), the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project director’s updates page, on our social media pages and via the timelapse video, which updates monthly. Check out the November time-lapse below.

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

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