Revealing one of the city’s finest mosaics

Overlooking part of the largest and most intricately decorated mosaic that was discovered inside the townhouses.

The largest excavation undertaken in Leicester for over a decade has shed vivid new light on the city’s early Roman history, as well as revealing evidence of luxurious dwellings, including one of the biggest fragments of mosaic floor found in the city in 150 years. Gavin Speed reports.

Until recently, the block of land in central Leicester known as ‘Stibbe’ was a factory-filled industrial area packed with premises for the manufacture of goods including hosiery, boots and shoes, and cigars, as well as engineering products. This phase of the site’s life was not to last, however, and its last industrial buildings (the Stibbe engineering works) were demolished at the start ofthis century. After this, the area would lie largely untouched for almost two decades – until, last year, landowners Charles Street Buildings Group decided the time was right to redevelop the site, sparking a project that would uncover an array of much earlier remains beneath the modern buildings.

Found in the main reception room of an elegant townhouse in the heart of Roman Leicester, this is part of one of the finest mosaics to be excavated in the city in 150 years.

Magnificent mosaics

The discovery of elegant Roman townhouses at Stibbe was not entirely surprising: it was already known that this area had been home to high-statusresidences, with one substantial structure excavated at Vine Street a decade ago, and another discovered during the investigation of an adjacent insula early last year (see CA 325). We have now doubled this total, though, uncovering the foundations of two more luxurious dwellings dating from the later Roman period (after AD 250). These were glamorous, well-appointed homes boasting desirable locations on one of the main streets through the town, and had been decorated with careful attention to detail and the fashions of the day. Fragments of painted wall plaster suggest that most of their rooms were adorned using a variety of colours and patterns, while both houses were also furnished with colourful mosaic floors. These ornate surfaces only survive in fragments today, but their remains show us quite how impressive these houses must once have been. The best preserved of these was truly outstanding, though: the largest and highest-quality mosaic to have been uncovered in Leicester in over 150 years.

The fine mosaic’s imagery included shield, or peltae, patterns.

Decorated with complex geometric patterns, this floor had been cut by medieval pits and a 1950s cellar, but enough survives for us to reconstruct a surface stretching 10m in length and 6m wide. Its intricate design included a border composed of four intertwined strands (known as a guilloche), surrounding shield (peltae) and Greek key (meander) patterns. Expert analysis suggests that this is one of the finest mosaic floors yet found in Leicester, showing quality and workmanship comparable to the Blackfriars and Peacock pavements that were found in the town in the 19th century and are now housed by the Jewry Wall Museum. Its doubtless proud owner, probably one of the town’s social elite, had chosen to show off their wealth by installing the impressive mosaic in the main reception room of their house, covering the hypocaust system that provided underfloor heating. An interactive 3D model of the floor in situ can be found at https://skfb.ly/6ps9y.

Images from the arena?

As well as mosaic floors, the townhouses yielded a wealth of other clues to the occupants’ tastes and interests, from vast quantities of pottery and coins to personal items like brooches, beads, and hair pins, as well as objects such as gaming pieces that hint at how these well-off individuals liked to spend their leisure time. None of these are unexpected finds for a high-status Roman residence – but one object, recovered from between two floor surfaces, was more enigmatic.

This ornate handle, possibly for a knife or a key, was found in the townhouse with the fine mosaic. It depicts a man being attacked by a lion, possibly an arena scene.

Cast in copper alloy with a square iron tang running through it, the ornately decorated artefact is slightly curved and fits comfortably in the palm of the hand, although it is surprisingly heavy. We have interpreted the find as a handle for a knife or key, but its decoration is of an exceptionally high standard. The main element shows a male figure, possibly a Roman caricature of a Germanic ‘barbarian’, dressed in trousers with a wide waistband and his neck-length hair swept straight back. The details of his face are strikingly well preserved: a short beard covers his chin from ear to ear, and we can also see his broad nose and outsized eyes. These staring eyes could suggest fear – certainly the man’s position is perilous, as he is shown under attack from a male lion, which clings to the unfortunate individual’s waist with its jaw gaping wide and its tail curled around his left leg.

What could this tableau mean? The composition is surprisingly complex for such a small object (other known examples tend to have limited themselves to just one or two figures in their decoration), and it was clearly designed to exploit the handle’s three-dimensional possibilities, revealing different details as the artefact is turned. We have also captured these details in three dimensions for further study: an interactive digital model of the (partially cleaned) handle can be found at https://skfb.ly/68w99.

As for its subject matter, it has been suggested that the central figure might represent a damnatio ad bestias scene, depicting a condemned captive facing execution by being thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre. Indeed, it would be particularly apt if the handle does represent some form of (albeit grisly) public entertainment, given that the townhouse in which it was found once stood just 50m from what may have been a Roman theatre.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 332. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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