This belt buckle was found in the simple grave of a Roman soldier in Leicester

By Becky Snowden | 08 July 2016

The belt worn by a Roman man in Leicester shows he could have been an authority figure or a member of the elite

Photo of belt buckle from Leicester
This belt buckle found in Leicester is decorated with dolphin heads© University of Leicester
An elaborate military belt buckle with a belt plate and strap end has been found with a Roman military man’s skeleton in a mudstone grave in Leicester.

The simple grave had been dug on the west bank of the River Sour, close to Fosse Way, an important road in the old Roman Town. The style of the belt suggests that the man, aged between 36 and 45, was a Roman soldier or civil servant during the late 4th century or early 5th century.

The buckle is decorated with dolphin heads and the strap is adorned with crouching dogs – both common motifs during the late Roman period. It may have been buried as a symbol of office.

Photo of belt buckle from Leicester
© University of Leicester
“The survival of the delicate thin sheet bronze plate is remarkable,” said Nick Cooper, the Post-Excavation Manager for the University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

“It is cast in the so-called ‘chip-carved’ style decorated with interlocking spirals and would have been riveted to a wide leather belt or girdle with a thinner securing strap running through the buckle and ending with the strap end.”

The belt owner had survived ill health in his childhood but enjoyed a relatively healthy adulthood aside from a fracture to his left forearm which had healed but weakened the wrist. This type of injury is typically caused by raising an arm to ward off a blow or a falling object.

Photo of belt buckle from Leicester
© University of Leicester
There is also evidence of muscle wastage and damage consistent with the kind of overuse a Roman soldier might have suffered from.

Mathew Morris, of the university, said the 83 skeletons discovered in last summer’s excavation contained a mixed population but, “there was no evidence that any of the other people buried there were soldiers or officials.”

“About a quarter of those buried were non-adults ranging in age from 1 to 12. About a fifth of the adults lived to older age – over 46 years.”

Close up photo of belt buckle from Leicester
© University of Leicester
Similar belts have been found in other Late Roman cemeteries in London, Dorchester-on-Thames, Winchester and at the shore fort at Oudenburg in Belgium on the opposite side of the English Channel.

Researchers say the belts were worn across north-eastern France, Belgium, the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and along the soldier stations of the Rhine and Danube rivers, where soldiers were stationed.

Experts from York Osteoarchaeology, the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the British Geological Survey are also taking part in the excavation and analysis as part of a housing development at the site.

  • The buckle and other finds from the excavation, including an unusual silver necklace, will be on display on Sunday (July 10 2016) at a special family-friendly heritage day at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester. Entry is free. Visit the event page for more information.

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Photo of grave where skeleton of Roman soldier was found in Leicester
The grave of Skeleton 23, thought to be a late Roman soldier or civil servant. The belt buckle was found next to the right hip (circled)© University of Leicester
Three museums with Roman connections in the Midlands

Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery
The museum holds finds from a series of excavations in the town centre, mainly associated with the area of the Roman fort and the core of the medieval period town. The majority of the collections relate to the social and industrial history of Chesterfield and the surrounding area of north eastern Derbyshire.

, Leicester
The current exhibition, Flushed with Pride, highlights the history and science of public health in Leicester through historic exhibits.There is a talking toilet (in a modern bathroom setting), Victorian toilets and Roman water pipes and a working water pump powered by a paraffin engine.

Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester
The museum grounds contain one of Leicester's most famous landmarks, the Jewry Wall, part of the Roman town's public baths. It is one of the tallest surviving pieces of Roman masonry in the country.
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Very useful in providing the context and meaning of the discovery
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