New book explores life in Roman and Medieval Leicester

Artist's impression of how Roman Leicester may have looked in the late third Century. Credit: Mike Codd/ULAS

The most comprehensive book ever written on the archaeology of Leicester has been published by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS).

Walking through Leicester today it is difficult to appreciate that beneath its streets lie the remains of a 2,000-year-old settlement; beginning in the late Iron Age and subsequently re-shaped by a succession of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman invaders and settlers, each bringing something new to the developing urban centre and its people.

Drawing on evidence for what lay below the Highcross Leicester Shopping Centre, excavated by ULAS from 2003 to 2006, and the original Shires shopping centre excavated between 1988 and 1999, this new book describes what life was like for people living in Leicester during its ancient past.

Mathew Morris, project officer at ULAS and co-author said: “The scale of the excavations in Leicester are unprecedented. Over the past 80 years, nearly 15% of the ancient town has been excavated, making Leicester one of the most intensely investigated cities in Britain.

“The wealth of information generated has, for the first time, given us the chance to explore, in depth, the character of the urban centre and its people and over 2000 years of history.”

The book traces the development of the Roman town, beginning some 2,000 years ago, and demonstrates what a vibrant and diverse community lived within its opulent town houses, which were decorated with mosaics and wall paintings. It then looks at the ‘lost’ medieval parish churches of St Peter and St Michael, demolished 500 years ago, and the 1600 burials that surrounded them.

A 'curse tablet' written by a slave named Servandus. Credit: ULAS

Roman curse tablets

Intriguing evidence relates to two lead curse tablets, from the town house at Vine Street, which have transformed our understanding of who lived in the Roman town and their links to the wider Empire. These sheets of lead have the names of 24 individuals scratched on them. 

On the first, ‘Servandus’ lists 19 of his fellow slaves, who he suspects of stealing his cloak and asks for the god Maglus to kill the perpetrator within nine days. On the second, ‘Sabinianus’ seeks revenge following the theft of his money and lists three likely suspects, asking for them to be struck down in the Septizonium, a temple to the heavenly bodies of a type otherwise known only in Rome and North Africa.

Nicholas Cooper, post-excavation project manager at ULAS and co-author said: “The curses give us, for the first time, a cast of characters who we know lived in Roman Leicester, and 20 of them were slaves, a sector of society who are usually invisible to us, but who probably made up a good proportion of the population.

“Their names show that they originated from all over the Roman Empire, and the evidence of other objects, one depicting the Egyptian god Anubis, suggest their owner and his family had a military background in Egypt or Syria. Roman Leicester was therefore as multicultural as the modern city we know today.”

Everyday life in Roman and medieval Leicester

The evidence of plant and animal remains, preserved in latrine pits, demonstrate that people’s diet changed during the Roman period; they enjoyed fruits from the Mediterranean such as grapes, figs, and olives, flavoured their food with opium poppy seeds, ate a wide range of meat and fish, including oysters from the east coast, and drank wine from France and Italy.

The medieval town was equally as busy and a wide range of crafts and trades were undertaken including the production of textiles, leather shoe making, parchment making, bell casting and blacksmithing. Brewing was also a common occupation as the production of ale was the only safe way to drink water. A complete backyard brewery was found behind a property on Highcross Street.

Life was hard for many and the evidence from the cemeteries of St Peter and St Michael shows that 37% of the population died in childhood and only 2% lived beyond the age of 50. Ill-health was often related to poor diet, especially amongst the young, or to degenerative conditions such arthritis due to hard physical labour, for those in middle age. However, isotope analysis illustrates that the wealthier members of the community, who were buried within the church of St Peter, had enjoyed a protein-rich diet, not that different to Richard III.

Plague hits Leicester

The Black Death of 1348 did not discriminate by wealth and the fear of sudden death, in one case, was evidenced by the presence a lead seal or papal bulla buried with a middle-aged woman in St Peter’s church. The bulla would have been attached to a letter of indulgence from Pope Innocent VI who was pontiff from 1352 to 62, when the plague was ravaging Europe. Other epidemics went un-named but during the 11th or 12th century, one of them took at least 22 of the parishioners, who were buried together in a communal grave.

Richard Buckley, retired director of ULAS and co-author of the book said:

“Synthesising the results of these excavations into what is a wide-ranging and, we hope, compelling account of the lived experiences of the town’s population has been 15 years in the making and is testament to the close collaboration between city planners, the developer Hammerson, and over 100 archaeologists!”

Professor David Mattingly of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, who wrote the foreword to the book said:

“This volume is a testament to the high quality of the work and the dedication and professionalism of ULAS staff, from the excavation and recording on the ground to the lengthy and painstaking post-excavation analyses … it deserves to find a wide readership.”

Life in Roman and medieval Leicester: Excavations in the town’s north-east quarter, 1958–2006 is available in hardback from the University of Leicester shop.

Papal Bulla (or a lead seal) of Pope Innocent VI unearthed in Leicester. Credit: ULAS