Leicester (G-B) : Roman mosaic floor discovered during city centre excavations

David W Owen
Source -

Archaeologists have uncovered the largest Roman mosaic floor found in Leicester in the past 30 years.

The excavations in the city centre, being carried out by a team from the University of Leicester, offer a unique insight into everyday life more than 1,500 years ago in the then town of Ratae.

The project, on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way, next to the John Lewis car park, has been running since November. It is taking place before the site is developed into apartments.

Discoveries so far reveal evidence of a Roman street, and three buildings – including a house once floored with mosaic tiles; a villa featuring signs of "good living" such as under floor heating, and one containing a possible shrine.

Unspecified1Photograph by Mathew Morris
Mathew Morris, site director for University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), said: "The mosaic is fantastic.

"It's been a long time since we've found a large, well-preserved mosaic in Leicester

"Stylistically, we believe it dates to the early fourth century AD. It would have originally been in a square room in the house.

"It has a thick border of red tiles surrounding a central square of grey tiles.

"Picked out in red in the grey square are several decorations, including a geometric border, foliage and a central hexafoil cross.

"The intricate geometric border follows a pattern known as 'swastika-meander' – the swastika being an ancient symbol found in most world cultures and it is a common geometrical motif in Roman mosaics."

The excavation covers nearly two-thirds of a Roman insula, or city block, and is giving the archaeologists a rare opportunity to investigate life in the north-east quarter of the Roman town.

Highcross6Reconstruction of what a courtyard house in Vine Street might have looked like in the late 3rd century AD (Artwork by Mike Codd)
Today, Highcross Street still follows the line of the main road leading from the Roman forum, beneath Jubilee Square, to the north gate, at the junction with Sanvey Gate.

The villa has been uncovered on the western side of the site.

UnspecifiedA lion-head spout from a Roman Samian ware mortarium (mixing bowl) dated from the late 2nd century AD found during the excavation.
Mr Williams said: "At least one room had a hypocaust, what we would call under-floor heating, and it's likely that this is a large townhouse."

The archaeologists have been particularly drawn to a "curious" small building in the centre of the site.

Mr Morris said: "It has a large sunken room or cellar, and it possibly has a small apse (semi-circular niche) attached to one side.

"Currently, the building has no obvious purpose, but sunken rooms are relatively unusual in the Roman period."

He added: "There is a lot of speculation about what this building might be.

"It seems to be tucked away in yards and gardens in the middle of the insula, giving it privacy away from the surrounding streets.

"And the possible apse is only really big enough to house something like a statue, which makes us wonder if it is something special like a shrine."

The excavation is funded by Ingleby, which will be developing the site into apartments.

Archaeologists will be onsite through February. It is hoped evidence will also be found of St Johns' Hospital, Leicester's earliest hospital founded in the 12th century, and the town gaol.

The artefacts will be conserved and are expected to go on display.

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