Travel back in time with new University of Leicester book

Posted by mjs76 at Jul 20, 2011 03:35 PM |
Drawing on research by our archaeologists, Roman and Medieval Leicester is brought to life through detailed, accurate paintings in a great new publication.

Visions of Ancient Leicester is a brand new book, published by the University, which shows what the city of Leicester looked like in olden times. Based on research from the excavations which formed part of the Highcross retail development, a series of superb, detailed paintings were specially commissioned from acclaimed artist Mike Codd.

A few years ago, researchers from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and our School of Archaeology and Ancient History had the chance to excavate a number of city centre locations that were due to form part of Highcross, a £350 million shopping/leisure area which opened in 2008, adjacent to the Shires Shopping Centre. During demolition and construction, developer Hammerson worked with ULAS to allow our archaeologists unprecedented access to the past.

This new book, featuring 22 specially commissioned paintings, presents the results of this work and uses the newly acquired understanding of Leicester’s past to show how the city has developed over the past two millennia.

Shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43, a garrison was established on the River Soar where the Corieltavi tribe had a settlement. Less than a hundred years later this was a small Roman town, Ratae Corieltavorum, which started to expand after being designated a regional capital or civitas. There was a forum, a basilica, a temple to the god Mithras and an enormous public baths, parts of which can still be seen at the Jewry Wall Museum.

Third century Leicester viewed from the Northeast. The tallest building is the macellum, with Jewry Wall baths behind it. Click on the image for a larger version.

By the late 3rd Century Ratae Corieltavorum was a thriving city, trading with other locations right across the Roman empire. One of the most amazing discoveries from the Highcross dig was a layer of masonry rubble which turned out to be a collapsed wall from the macellum, a shopping centre full of Roman retail units and stalls (a sort of early Highcross!). From the position of this 70sq.m. chunk of wall, archaeologists have been able to estimate the macellum’s overall height as about 16m (equivalent to three or four storeys).

Excavations at Vine Street revealed a large Roman townhouse. But rather than a single snapshot of Roman life, the dig’s many layers have enabled researchers to piece together how the buildings on this particular plot of land or insula changed between the early 2nd century and the late 4th century when Roman occupation ended. A series of four paintings from the same angle graphically depict how new buildings were erected or extended as earlier buildings were torn down or fell down. Turning each page is like sitting in a time machine, jumping forward several decades without moving from the spot.

Roman central heating: part of a hypocaust from the townhouse excavated on Vine Street.

After the Romans left, much of their infrastructure crumbled, often being reused by the city’s Saxon inhabitants for their own buildings. By the time of the Domesday book, seven centuries later, Leicester was once again a thriving community and over the next few centuries a series of churches, abbeys, priories and other major buildings were added to the city.

By the 15th century, the defensive walls were being demolished as suburbs developed outside them, although parts of Leicester were still semi-rural. Beyond the city itself were the three great open fields common to Medieval cities. Two long-lost Medieval churches – St Peter’s and St Michael’s – were believed to lie under the Highcross development area and were discovered as part of the dig, together with their graveyards which yielded nearly 1,600 skeletons.

All of this is documented and beautifully illustrated in Visions of Ancient Leicester. Artist Mike Codd has used accurate measurements and data from the archaeologists to present accurate depictions of life in the city. Not just the buildings but the citizens too. Every painting bustles with life: men, women, children and animals filling the street and the squares. You can almost smell the smoke rising from the fireplaces (although you probably wouldn’t want to smell too much else from those times). Codd has produced historical paintings for other British towns and has also illustrated many books and book covers, from children’s Bibles to Modesty Blaise paperbacks!

Where's Wallus? This close-up of a Roman marketplace shows the level of detail in Mike Codd's paintings.

The accompanying text by ULAS’ Richard Buckley and Mathew Morris provides a fascinating, succinct history of the city and describes the importance of the Highcross dig while placing it in the context of what was known from earlier 19th and 20th century investigations into Leicester’s history. There are also photographs of the excavations and of artefacts recovered, including two brilliant ‘curse tablets’. These small lead sheets would be thrown into a sacred pool, imploring a particular god to take vengeance for a wrongdoing.

Those who have stolen the silver coins of Sabinianus, that is Similis, Cupitus, Lochita, a god will strike down in this septisonium, and I ask that they lose their life before seven days.
Curse tablet discovered at Vine Street dig, 150-250AD.

Visions of Ancient Leicester is published by ULAS, in association with Leicester City Council, Hammerson, Highcross Leicester and MLA Renaisance. The 64-page full-colour softback costs £8.95 and is available now from the University of Leicester bookshop and Leicester City Council museums. You can also order it online from our retail website.

One of the few surviving Medieval buildings in Leicester is the magnificent 14th century Guildhall, which is where the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Bob Burgess and the Leicester City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, officially launched the book on Wednesday evening.

ULAS Highcross dig webpages:

And this is what the place looks like now.

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