Revealed, recorded and reported: 25 years of remarkable archaeological discoveries

Remarkable remains of Leicester’s ancient past are being celebrated by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) team with a new publication entitled Secrets of the Soil marking a quarter of a century of discoveries unearthed in Leicestershire and Rutland.

A wide variety of buildings and areas have been investigated by the archaeological unit over the past 25 years, most famously including the lost grave and remains of King Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, excavated from under a city centre car park in Leicester in August 2012.

Dr Gavin Speed, who compiled Secrets of the Soil said: “The University of Leicester’s archaeological unit holds a long record of exceptional research and commercial archaeology and this has led to some truly remarkable discoveries in Leicestershire and Rutland over the past 25 years.

“The sites and artefacts explored in Secrets of the Soil span a huge period of time, from early prehistory to the recent past. The book is essentially an in-depth, celebratory glance into our ‘greatest hits’, but also provides insight of how such incredible findings have, in some instances, transformed our understanding of Roman, early Anglo-Saxon and medieval Leicester and Leicestershire.”

He added: “The result of the passion of individuals contributing, alongside the support of so many organisations who have helped fund projects over the years, is that we can be proud of Leicester as one of the most intensively excavated cities in the UK. This would never have been possible without the determined characters who toiled through hard weather and difficult working conditions, all for the potential of finding something astonishing!”

The archaeological unit’s very first big project in 1996 - an Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Eye Kettleby - discovered over 50 structures along with pottery, brooches, and tools. This excavation still holds the title for the largest Saxon settlement excavated in the county.

Vicki Score, Director of ULAS, said: “We will continue to work for many years ahead, especially with developers in advance of construction, to safely reveal, record and report on the fragile remains of our ancient past.

"We are confident that the next 25 years will see our archaeologists making many more new and exciting discoveries!”

Findings noted in Secrets of the Soil span across time, with the earliest from a quarry just north of Leicester at Brooksby, where - in 2006 - a Palaeolithic river, bones from a straight-tusked elephant, along with hunter-gather artefacts from 500,000 years ago were uncovered.

Other highlights from the book include:

  • Fascinating details found on remains of constructed bomb shelters built by Leicester schools during the Second World War, including graffiti depicting aircraft, cartoons, and even a Hitler caricature
  • An excavation close to Fosse Park on the outskirts of Leicester which revealed a 2,300-year-old bark shield. Shields are rare in British prehistory and one constructed from bark is unprecedented, making this discovery the only known example in Europe
  • Three ‘lost’ parish churches rediscovered, along with their accompanying cemeteries. Over 2,000 skeletons were carefully exhumed from three churchyards, combining to make one of the largest investigations of a medieval town’s population in the East Midlands
  • An excavation revealing a sacred place. The finds include a superb Roman cavalry helmet along with thousands of silver and gold coins, transforming historian’s understanding of pre-Roman societies in the East Midlands and throwing new light on the Roman conquest
  • Archaeological work ahead of the new BBC Radio Leicester building which revealed extensive medieval domestic and industrial structures of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. As well as a number typical narrow urban building plots, the excavations uncovered a stone undercroft built between 1150–1250, the first example from Leicester of a type of structure long recognised in other medieval towns.

The new book describes these projects and more, accompanied by many photographs and reconstruction illustrations.