Christian burial found in Roman cemetery at Oxford Street, Leicester?

Early this year ULAS carried out an excavation of part of a Roman cemetery between Oxford Street and Newarke Street in Leicester. John Thomas report, the site lies in the town’s southern suburb, adjacent to one of the main routes into Roman Leicester, about 130m outside the town’s south gate – reflecting the prohibition in Roman law against burial inside urban centres.

Medieval occupation behnd the Oxford Street frontage, looking west.
Medieval occupation behnd the Oxford Street frontage, looking west.

The earliest evidence for activity on the site indicates early Roman occupation superseded by a Roman cemetery in the 3rd and 4th century AD. By the medieval period, the site is clearly in the backyard areas of properties fronting Oxford Street and a large number of pits were recorded across the site, including a couple of stone-lined cess-pits. A massive ditch aligned on Newarke Street may relate to the town’s Civil War defences and adds to a number of other such features found on nearby excavations.

Overlying this was an intriguing building built of re-used brick and sandstone pieces. This appears on the early maps of the area and may represent early re-occupation of the southern suburbs after the Civil War. Many of the sandstone blocks are curved, possibly coming from a dismantled tower, turret or circular staircase – quite where from remains a mystery but the quality of the stonework suggests it could have originated from a high status building.

John Thomas and Tony Gnanaratnam excavate Roman graves at Oxford Street, Leicester.
John Thomas and Tony Gnanaratnam excavate Roman graves at Oxford Street, Leicester.

In all, thirteen late Roman graves were excavated, containing the remains of men, women and children, and representing a diverse range of burial practices. The majority of the graves were arranged in orderly rows on an east-west alignment, some with their heads to the west, another was buried face down while one of the east-facing burials had been decapitated. Dated to the early 4th century AD, many of the individuals had been interred with personal items including hairpins, belt buckles, and hobnailed boots, while one – a slightly-built individual possibly a female – was wearing a jet ring decorated with what may be an early Christian symbol, its enigmatic markings possibly interpreted as the letters I and X overlain in an iota-chi, a motif representing the first letters of ‘Jesus Christ’ in Greek.

Jet ring decorated with possible early Christian symbol.
Jet ring decorated with possible early Christian symbol.

The ring was found on the individual’s left hand, together with another ring, made of iron and decorated with silver, while beneath the head was a bone object with iron rivets, possibly the remains of a comb. If this interpretation is correct it suggest that some of the cemetery does include Christian burials which Lynden Cooper had suggested in his first report on the cemetery in the 1996.

In contrast the grave of a young child, found close to that with the ring and thought to be near contemporary, was oriented north-south, with the body laid on its side in a semi-foetal position, with the head removed and placed near the feet alongside two complete 4th century colour coat pottery jars. This appears to be a very pagan burial, suggesting that this cemetery catered for a range of beliefs that were important to people living in Leicester at this time.

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