Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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Continuing my tour of the East Midlands, I head south in this column into Leicestershire and neighbouring Rutland. Unlike most of my county-based surveys, I will work in reverse chronological order here, so that I can commence with the most famous archaeological ‘face’ of Leicestershire: that of Richard III.
To play the king
The discovery, excavation, and analysis of the monarch’s remains in Leicester between 2012 and 2015 was one of the most famous archaeological projects of recent times, drawing global attention to the city. Current Archaeology reported on the unfolding story in detail, with no fewer than three ‘cover’ features, in CA 272, CA 277, and CA 294 (November 2012, April 2013, and September 2014), alongside many other mentions, most recently in CA 303 (June 2015), when Richard III was reburied, amid appropriate ceremony and grandeur, in Leicester Cathedral. Beyond the king, mention is merited for the city’s other medieval remains – featured most prominently in CA 81 (March 1981) – as well as its Roman origins, which featured, for example, in CA 319 and CA 332 (October 2016 and November 2017).
Drop the dead donkey
Focusing on medieval finds made more widely in the county rather than just the city, Leicestershire has some real jewels worth sharing. An intriguing example among these is the story of what was thought to be a medieval donkey found near Market Harborough in 1994. CA 144 (August 1995) picked up this (shaggy?) tale, highlighting that while donkeys and mules were commonly used in the Middle Ages, their remains rarely survive, so this nearly complete example appeared to be a national ‘first’. Alas, CA 159 (September 1998) then dropped this particular dead donkey: Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating showed it to be of much more recent date, from the late 18th or early 19th century. The search for Britain’s surviving medieval donkey remains continues to this day – do please keep CA informed, excavators.
A different story of genuinely medieval endeavour had already featured in CA 134 (May 1993), with the rare find of surviving medieval coal mines at Coleorton near Ashby-de-la-Zouch. British Coal was undertaking open-cast mining operations there in an area known to have been mined since at least the 16th century, and the archaeological team working alongside them identified a chronology of previous excavations as they dug down, including some oak pit-props. These were sent off for radiocarbon dating, delivering results of AD 1450-1463, at least a century earlier than it had previously been thought that mining was undertaken there.
Shrines to a Roman way of life
CA 188 (October 2003) first reported on a site – at that time unnamed to protect it from looting – that produced some extraordinary Roman finds which have featured repeatedly in the pages of the magazine. We now know this site as Hallaton, and finds from the location are on permanent display at the Harborough Museum in Market Harborough, nine miles from the findspot. Most prominent among these is a spectacular Roman ceremonial cavalry helmet, made of sheet iron covered with silver sheet and partly decorated with gold leaf. It is the only Roman helmet ever found in Britain that still has most of its silver-gilt plating attached. CA 188 began the story, reporting on excavations around a site (initially discovered by members of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group in 2000) with 14 discrete hoards of over 5,000 Iron Age and Republican Roman gold and silver coins, alongside other finds, including that of the helmet.
CA 202 (March 2006) then focused on the helmet, and CA 264 (March 2012) returned years later to show it in its conserved, and contextualised, glory. The latter issue makes clear that, while the helmet is the most spectacular find, the site itself is seriously noteworthy, being a shrine with carefully ordered pockets of activity. Coins were concentrated in separate hoards inside and to the north of the entranceway, while pig carcasses – possibly the detritus of ritual feasting – were dumped on the opposite side of the ditch. Silver objects were placed in the southern length of ditch. This ‘structured deposition’ of high-value objects, possibly as religious or ceremonial offerings, suggests a native British shrine was active at Hallaton in the mid-1st century AD. Another Roman shrine, of similar 1st- to 2nd-century date, was then featured in CA 285 (December 2013) in Rutland – literally, since it came from Rutland Water itself, the artificial reservoir that opened in 1976. Excavations for Anglian Water by Northamptonshire Archaeology on wetland habitats in the area found the unexpected remains of a Romano-British shrine there. This discovery allowed the story of the cult centre’s creation, usage, and abandonment to be told.
Mammoth finds in the heart of England
An exceptional site discovered under the most unexpected of circumstances featured in CA 173 (April 2001). At Glaston, in Rutland, just east of Uppingham, a team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services were nearing the completion of the pre-development excavation of a medieval settlement. Heavy rain had weathered the base of a trench, revealing a curious group of animal bones projecting from what had previously been considered the ‘natural’ surface. As the site had been in use as a farmyard until relatively recently, the first thought was that these were from a modern animal burial. However, as works progressed, many more bones were discovered, some of which were extremely large, and among them was a beautifully crafted flint blade. The team soon realised that they had made the find of a lifetime: a unique open-air Upper Palaeolithic site dating to around 40,000 to 30,000 BP. With additional time and funding, further excavations occurred, clarifying that the site fell into two parts, possibly of two very different occupations with many years between them. One had a human presence focused on the flint tool; the other was a hyena den littered with woolly rhinoceros bones.
To round off this survey of Leicestershire, I turn to CA 146 (January 1996), where an Early Bronze Age site from Lockington in north-west Leicestershire was the magazine’s cover story. There, a remarkable group of artefacts comprising two gold armlets, a copper dagger, and two pottery vessels was discovered during the excavation of a barrow in advance of the construction of the Derby Southern Bypass. This unexpected find rivals in importance the rich ‘Wessex burials’ discovered by the antiquarians William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare during the 19th century. It is a fitting place to end my review of a county full of surprises, with twists and turns in its archaeological narrative. Let the motto be: don’t underestimate Leicestershire, nor overlook Rutland. [Editor’s note: This was timely advice from Joe: the discovery of a Roman mosaic featuring scenes of the Trojan War was announced in Rutland as this issue was being put together].
About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.