bove Leicester’s urban expanse covers a wealth of Roman archaeology, but until recently its cemeteries from this period were poorly understood. A recent investigation at Western Road (which lies against the left side of the park shown bottom left) is set to redress this.
understood because no large-scale excavations of these burial grounds had taken place.
Thanks to redevelopment, however, over the last 25 years a number of these cemeteries have been subject to modern archaeological investigation – including, between 2010 and 2015, a burial ground to the west of Leicester, where the remains of 83 people were uncovered by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). Spanning the early 2nd to the early 5th century AD, many of the graves also included artefacts or displayed burial customs not previously seen in Leicester. What we found there gave us an exciting new insight into the lives of the people who lived in the town over 1,600 years ago.
Our site, close to what is now Leicester’s Western Road, lies on a shallow ridge of dry ground on the western bank of the River Soar, and to the southwest of the Roman town, in keeping with contemporary taboos against intra-mural burials. Our discoveries, combined with antiquarian finds in the immediate area, suggest that the cemetery once stretched over 200m along the line of the Fosse Way, then the main road into the town from the south-west. This prominent position would have made the burial ground visible not only from the roadside, but also to passing river traffic. Radiocarbon dates taken from ten of the skeletons we excavated suggests that the cemetery was in use from the early 2nd century through to the early 5th century, while grave goods indicate that the majority of the burials took place in the 3rd and 4th century.
The make-up of the cemetery itself revealed something more unexpected: in contrast to the neat, orderly rows of Roman graves that have been discovered elsewhere in Leicester, here the distribution of burials appears almost random, with no apparent zoning according to burial rite and ritual belief. At first glance, the scatter of graves could indicate that there was no management of the cemetery, but in the apparent chaos we can infer the deliberate placement of graves: a number of the burials are paired in a T- or L-shaped arrangement, invariably with a child buried close to an adult. Could these represent family groups? Moreover, the fact that few of the graves intercut, despite the cemetery’s prolonged use, hints that the location of many earlier graves remained visible or at least known – perhaps because they were marked in some way.
Among the burials, we can see a variety of different practices, perhaps reflecting a range of personal beliefs. The most favoured custom was for the body to be laid out supine – that is, flat on their back – with the head pointing in a northerly or westerly direction, although other orientations were employed to lesser extents. A surprisingly high number of people (nearly 15%) were buried prone – face down – however. This is a trend not seen elsewhere in Leicester, although the practice is not uncommon in other parts of Roman Britain, particularly in the 4th century.
right The Western Road graves appeared almost random in their distribution, but closer investigation revealed method in the apparent madness.
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