Looted stone of Roman mint reveals stories of prehistoric and medieval civilisations

By Ben Miller | 05 June 2014

A once-mighty coin mint was ultimately used for stone by townsfolk in Leicester, say archaeologists concluding a surprising dig at Blackfriars

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A Roman mint would have produced copper alloy coins on the site of a former villa in Leicester, according to archaeologists investigating pits full of pottery and moulds of valuable metal at the city’s Blackfriars productivity hive.

Enamelled brooches and medieval features at the site have been predated by waste and storage ditches and roundhouses at the settlement, based on the east bank of the River Soar.

Chris Wardle, a planning department archaeologist who has been part of a team responsible for a lengthy examination of the complex industrial terrain, said there was “something special” about the area during the 1st century BC.  

A photo of archaeologists in high-visibility jackets working on muddy terrain
© Adam Slater
“It had been realised for some time that Leicester began to emerge as an important tribal centre before the arrival of the legions in the mid-1st century AD,” he explained.

“The findings on the site add considerably to this picture.

“The proposed student accommodation at Blackfriars lies within the Roman tribal capital of the East Midlands.

“So it was always likely that there would be important archaeological remains on the site.

“The story of the development of this site is quite complex, with a number of false starts and with the intervention of the crash of the late 2000s.

“As a result, the site was the subject of trial trenching on two occasions, once in 2007, when the site still had a number of standing structures on it, and again in 2010, when almost all of these structures had been demolished.

“The two sets of fieldwork demonstrated that the part of the site where the proposed student accommodation is to be built contained important archaeological remains.

“These remains clearly contained very significant information on Leicester’s Roman and Iron Age past, and would have to be fully recorded by excavation before the development could proceed."

Realising the accommodation, which could rise to 12 floors, would “inevitably” cause the “total loss” of remains held by the archaeological deposits, council planners instructed developers Watkin Jones to produce a thorough historical report.

A black and white photo of a man moving a wheelbarrow full of mud on an archaeology site
© Adam Slater
“It will take many months before all the evidence recovered is fully examined by teams of specialists and the story of the site is as fully understood as possible,” said Wardle, stressing that the initial findings are “very much a first draft”.

“One of the more pleasing aspects of the dig has been the discovery of the Roman bricks and tiles bearing the imprint of animal hoofs and paws.

“These are glimpses of fleeting moments that took place many centuries ago, when animals wandered across the site where the bricks and tiles had been laid-out to dry in the sun.

“This was after the bricks had been formed, but before they had been fired in a kiln. Firing the bricks preserved these fleeting moments for the archaeologists to unearth centuries later.”

A photo of a pit at a light brown archaeological site
© Adam Slater
Although the original layout of the bricks and tiles may be removed from the precise grounds being surveyed, experts from Wardell Armstrong Archaeology believe the remains provide a broad picture of people who once lived and worked there.

“The discovery of the high quality imported pottery from Roman occupied Gaul reveals that some persons who lived on the site, or close by in the 1st century BC or early 1st century AD, were able to draw in this trade,” said Wardle.

“The discovery of the flat clay-moulds – in which slugs of valuable metal were poured as part of the process of making coins – shows that there was at least one person in the settlement with the authority and status to order coins to be made.

“The signs of intense activity proceeded into the early Roman period. Pits and ditches continued to be dug.

“The main differences were that some of the pits were much larger and of a different shape – probably quarries.

“The roundhouses were replaced by rectangular structures either of timber or of timber framing.

“The pottery and personal ornaments became characteristically Roman, and Roman coinage arrived and the local mint disappeared.”

The plinth of a mid-to-late Roman column was discovered when the first set of trial trenching took place.

“At the time, I thought this was evidence for an important Roman public building in stone, or else the residence of some grand Roman family,” said Wardle.

“The excavation seems to have revealed something different. We know from elsewhere in the Roman town that sometime in the early 2nd century, the layout of Roman Leicester was revamped, with a regular grid being set out.

“Some time after this, work started on a large Roman building. But the building never took on its planned form. Something prevented the original grand design from being completed.

“Whether the money just ran out, or the pits dug by previous generations meant that the original design could not be executed, we don’t know at present.

“The semi-completed structure continued to stand for many decades. But rather than being put to its intended design use, it was used and adapted for small scale industrial activity.”

The building was ultimately abandoned and dismantled or left to collapse.

“The area seems to have continued to be on the margins of the occupied part of the town,” suggested Wardle.

“There are few traces of structures, but there are many more rubbish pits dating from the Middle Ages than from the Dark Ages.

“And folk from the rest of the town who wanted stone for their buildings were clearly able to wander down to this part of town to grub-out the stone they desired from the remains of Roman buildings.”

The onset of summer has allowed the 14-week dig, which began in the mud and rain of January, to end in more archaeologically conducive conditions.


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Pics: Adam Slater

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