Between road and river: Investigating a Roman cemetery in Leicester

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Until recently, Leicester’s Roman cemeteries had seen little major excavation, and their burial practices were poorly understood. Now an investigation in the city’s West End has given a wealth of new insights into the Roman town’s diverse population, as Mathew Morris reveals.

Leicester’s urban expanse covers a wealth of Roman archaeology, but until recently its cemeteries from this period were poorly understood.

Today, if you stand amid the Victorian terracing, the old factories, and the student bars in Leicester’s West End, it can be hard to imagine that only 150 years ago the area was still largely countryside. Yet centuries before that, this open space had proved a handy place for earlier communities to bury their dead, as the modern-day street names attest. Roman Street, Saxon Street: these labels recall the discoveries made by workmen in the 1890s of skeletons that had been buried in the vicinity with artefacts from those periods.

Accidental – and frequently poorly recorded – antiquarian finds in the 19th and early 20th centuries make it clear that there were large Roman cemeteries to the south, east, and west of the town, but until the early 1990s Leicester’s Roman funerary practices were poorly 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.

Location, location

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.

The majority of burials were supine, their occupants laid flat on their backs, but some were strikingly different – not least this individual who had been decapitated, their head placed under their knees. Closer examination of their remains reveals cuts to the mandible and vertebrae that suggest they were beheaded with considerable violence.

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.

In the past, prone burials have been interpreted as a sign of disrespect or punishment for the deceased (CA 244), or as a means of preventing the dead from returning to haunt the living – but there may be alternative ritual explanations, or even something as mundane as a shrouded body being accidentally buried face down, whether due to haste or lack of care. At Western Road, six of the prone burials lay on the fringe of the cemetery, which might lend credence to their proposed ‘outcast’ status – were it not for the fact that among the main body of the burials we had a number of other prone internments. Six of these contained grave goods that pointed to a rather more respectful treatment of the burial, while in one case two prone burials were ‘paired’, suggesting that they had been deliberately laid to rest together in the same manner.

Even more distinctive was an older adult, who had been decapitated and buried with their head placed beneath their knees. Beheaded burials have been ascribed motives as diverse as murder, criminal execution, and superstition or religious belief. In our case, however, a more violent interpretation seems to be the most plausible, as the individual shows multiple injuries that were inflicted with a bladed instrument to the head (particularly the face and jaw, resulting in broken teeth), neck, and upper left arm. Those to the neck had been delivered from the front and both sides, eventually achieving full decapitation. Whatever its motivation, the person’s treatment had been brutal.

There were also more benign insights to be uncovered from the burials. The presence of iron nails in the base of some graves suggests that nearly half the people whose remains we uncovered had been interred in wooden coffins – though it is possible that caskets fixed together using less durable means, such as wooden pegs (as have been found elsewhere in Leicester), may have occupied some of the other graves. Another burial also contained stone packing, perhaps wedged down the side of a coffin to prevent future disturbance. Meanwhile, a number of grave cuts that are too small to have realistically accommodated coffins may instead have held shroud-wrapped burials.

Grave goods accompanied the deceased in nearly half the Western Road graves. They included personal adornments such as bangles, bracelets, beads, belt buckles, hairpins, and a chain necklace, as well as a coin, pottery and glass vessels, and even a joint of cooked mutton. These people had been well provided for in the afterlife. Some of the items seem to have been placed inside the coffin, while the location of others suggests that they were being worn by the casket’s occupant, and still more appear to have been placed beside or on top of the coffin. Looking closer, some patterns emerge: overall, non-adults were more likely to be buried with personal items than adults, while women were more likely to be buried with such objects than men. Concentrations of hobnails found beneath or around people’s feet in many graves also suggest that at least a quarter of the individuals were buried with shoes, and therefore presumably clothed too, while one man had been laid to rest with a stunningly ornate belt-set.

The dead speak

For all that their grave goods and burial rites are illuminating, the remains of the citizens of Roman Leicester themselves also offer rare insights into their lives. Individually, we may not know the names of those buried at Western Road, but we can still begin to build up something of a biography for the local population.

We can tell, for example, that non-adults filled nearly a quarter of the cemetery, ranging in age from around one year to late adolescence, although the majority were aged 1 to 12 – something unsurprising given that child mortality was typically high before the advent of modern medicine. Among the adults, individuals of both sexes and all ages were present – although men predominated – and around a fifth of the population had survived into mature adulthood, past the age of 46. We can also see that the average man was 5ft 6.5in (168.9cm) tall, and the average woman 5ft 3in (160cm) – a stature that is comparable with their contemporaries elsewhere in Roman Britain.

Outside the coffin of one adolescent (aged 16-19), at the foot of the grave, was a large collection of personal items, including three pottery vessels, four copper-alloy bangles, and a glass hairpin.

Closer examination of the individuals interred yields further clues concerning what their lives were like – including the first evidence of people from the wider Roman Empire residing in Leicester. Previous hints that immigrants were present had emerged in 2006, when the excavation of a large courtyard house in the town’s north-east quarter revealed a carved ivory panel from a Romano-Egyptian box, and a lead seal from the Legio III Cyrenaica, a military unit that only served in Africa and the Middle East. This is clear evidence of the long-distance movement of goods and perhaps people across the Empire. At Western Road, we discovered the corporeal counterparts to such contacts.

There is some suggestion that four men had mixed ancestry: analysis of stable isotopes preserved in their teeth and bones (which hold unique chemical signatures from the food and drinking water that they ingested during their formative years, and which can be linked to a specific geology) indicates that two had spent their childhoods in Britain, but away from Leicester – perhaps in the Pennines – which might suggest that they were descended from migrants, and there has been some suggestion of African ancestry. Research is ongoing to discover the origins of the other two. Another, more poignant hint of far-flung homelands came from the remains of a child who had been suffering from severe rickets at the time that he or she died. While isotope analysis has not yet been carried out for this individual, their rickets is so severe that we wonder if they had been born in a much sunnier climate, only moving to Britain just before they died. If this is the case, the move to a more northerly environment, which received much less sunlight, could have put the child at greater risk of developing vitamin D deficiency, especially if they had darker skin.

There were other signs that poor health and malnutrition in childhood were widespread in Roman Leicester. Four of the children we examined were notably small for their age, perhaps suggesting that their growth was impaired, while two more were afflicted with rickets. Possible healed traces of this disease were also seen in a number of the adult skeletons. One adolescent may have had scurvy, while other individuals showed signs of tuberculosis, and one man likely had hypertrophic osteoarthropathy, a condition affecting the joints, particularly of the hands, possibly as a complication of respiratory disease – which affected a fifth of the cemetery population – or cancer.

The most common complaint was maxillary sinusitis, which was seen in almost half of the adult skeletons. This upper respiratory tract inflammation is caused by infection, allergic reactions, or inhaling air polluted with smoke or dust. Given this latter factor, it is intriguing to note that women appear to have been more prone to developing sinusitis. Might this suggest that they were spending significantly more time in the home than men, and thus were more exposed to the health complications caused by smoky living environments? If so, this adds an interesting social dimension to the statistics.

Meanwhile, perhaps unsurprisingly, older individuals had increased frequencies of osteoarthritis and other age-related disorders. Dental health also worsened with the passage of time, and increasing frequencies of tooth decay and dental abscesses contributed to the loss of teeth over the course of a long life.

A high proportion of those buried within the cemetery had faced an episode of trauma over the course of their lives, including soft-tissue injuries, dislocations, broken teeth, and healed fractures. Almost a quarter of the Western Road adults had broken a bone, mostly probably in accidental slips, trips, and falls, but interpersonal violence cannot be entirely ruled out. In addition to the decapitated skeleton discussed above, one man had broken his forearm in a manner that would fit with a defensive injury, while two others had fractured bones in their hands that could also be linked to violence. Another man received and survived a depressed fracture to his forehead, perhaps brought on by a blow from a blunt object, while another had a deep perimortem cut on the back of his left thigh just above the knee.

Other signs of serious injury may be attributable to an underlying medical condition: one man had multiple healed fractures to his shoulders and torso, coupled with ruptured triceps muscles, but instead of attributing these to a brutal assault (although, again, interpersonal violence cannot be completely eliminated as a cause), we wonder if this individual might have suffered from seizures that caused frequent falls. His remains could also offer potentially illuminating insights into Roman medical treatment. How should we interpret his unusually flattened ribcage, something more commonly seen in corset-wearing women centuries later? It is possible that the man’s torso had been tightly bound following an injury, perhaps to aid healing and provide support.

A surprising cemetery

What, then, can we learn from Western Road? Although the few dozen graves we uncovered are probably only a small portion of a much larger cemetery, when combined with finds from two other burial grounds around Leicester that have also been recorded under controlled conditions, we now have a set of close to 300 inhumations, which under close examination are starting to yield good data on some of the beliefs and the demography of the Roman town. Work continues, and in many respects our site stands apart from the others in its make-up, but these findings nonetheless seem very promising. Until recently, burials recorded to the east and south of the town have been uniformly supine, laid out in orderly rows and largely lacking in grave goods. The lack of uniformity, at least in the area we explored, is therefore not typical of these other urban burial grounds, nor is the presence in it of both prone and decapitated burials, nor is its use of grave goods. Moreover, while elsewhere in Leicester early Roman burials are presumed to be represented by cremations, of which about 60 have been recorded todate, radiocarbon dates from Western Road indicate that a transition to inhumation was already taking place in the later 1st century or soon after – far earlier than previously assumed.

One of the more unusual finds from Western Road was this small, leaf-shaped, copper-alloy seal box with an enamelled hinged lid, which had been placed in the grave of a middle-aged man in the 2nd century. Such a box would originally have protected a wax seal fixed to a document, but in this case may have been reused as a pendant.

Another surprising trend emerging from our site also runs counter to what has been argued from the evidence of later inhumation cemeteries, where orderly burial rites reflect Christian traditions, and that the small minority of non-conforming graves are likely to be pagan. At Western Road, however, the graves suggestive of non-typical Christian practices are in the majority, despite being broadly contemporary with those in the other cemeteries. Might this suggest that zoning according to burial rite and ritual belief was beginning to emerge at the cemeteries in the later Roman period? This is an argument that is being reinforced by recent work in the southern cemetery, where what appear to be two contemporary burial zones, each catering to different burial practices, have been discovered.

Some of Western Road’s unusual diversity might be explained by the fact that, so far, it is the oldest Roman inhumation cemetery to be excavated in Leicester, pre-dating other known sites by some 100-200 years. This longevity is supported by the striking absence of earlier archaeology beneath the graves, in contrast to elsewhere around the town, where cemeteries are clearly established on the site of older extra-mural activity. Moreover, antiquarian records that describe the discovery of skeletons with Anglo-Saxon grave goods in the immediate vicinity suggest that the burial ground continued to be used into the 6th century – a span of at least 500 years – an indication of continuity through generation after generation of Leicester’s Roman and post-Roman inhabitants.

Equally exciting, at this site we are also possibly starting to see evidence of the town’s migrant population for the first time: it appears that at least 6% of the cemetery’s population may have had African or mixed ancestry. As our analysis continues, this new data is providing fascinating new insights into Roman Leicester, whose inhabitants were clearly as diverse and multicultural as those who reside in the modern city.

This article appeared in CA 319.  Click here to subscribe!


1 Comment

  1. About 10 years ago I worked at a shop that was based on western road , Leicester. During my time working there many things happened that I couldn’t explain.
    One day I was stood at the counter going through some paperwork when,out the corner of my eye, I saw someone walk from one side of the shop to the other. I was surprised as I didn’t realize there were any customers in the shop at the time.
    I walked down towards them to see if they needed any assistance only to find there was no one there!…..there were no doors or windows down there that a person could use so I was baffled. I kept this to myself and tried to forget it.
    During my time there these things happened more and more. I started to feel there was something there that wasn’t of this realm.
    I still wonder about it to this day. Today out of interest I just Google western road history and stumbled across this sight. It’s really interesting. It’s had me gripped.
    I feel like I’m no longer mad and maybe there was a reason for what I kept seeing.

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