Intricate mosaic and underfloor heating among features for ancient Roman houses in Leicester, Britain

underfloor-heating-ancient-roman-house-britain_1A typical Roman domus.

1500-year old ancient Roman houses in what is now the Leicester city-center exhibited its fair share of opulence, as could be evidenced by a recent archaeological project. To that end, archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), currently continuing their work on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way (close to John Lewis car park), have successfully unearthed the remnants of fine mosaic specimens and advanced underfloor heating for the said Roman domus or upscale residences. Excavating since November of 2016, the team also unraveled the remains of an accessible Roman street that probably served a section of the insula (city block).

In its entirety the excavation scope is focused on around two-thirds of the Roman insula, comprising till now the aforementioned street and three Roman structures. Now historically, Leicester is often equated to the Roman town of Ratae Corieltauvorum, a settlement that was rather partly rejuvenated by 2nd century AD with the inclusion of a forum, basilica, public baths, and an aqueduct.

In present day context, Highcross Street follows the line of the main road from the Roman forum to the north gate. The larger Roman building in question here is located on the western side of this section, with researchers being able to discern two arrays of rooms, flanked by corridors, surrounding a courtyard. One of these rooms flaunted its temperature-controlled mechanism, aided by the use of hypocaust systems that entailed an ancient variant of underfloor HVAC heating via a proximate furnace. All these features suggest the existence of an upscale Roman townhouse that might have been similar in design to the Vine Street courtyard house that was discovered beneath John Lewis car park in 2006.

Continuing with the current archaeological scope, the researchers found the street (on the north side of the presumed domus) with remnants of temporary spatial elements like yards, gardens and wooden structures. They have further found evidence for copper working in the area, thus suggesting the usage of the proximate section for commercial or industrial activities in the ancient era. Moreover, on the eastern side of the townhouse, archaeologists have further identified the remains of a Roman house (near the John Lewis car park) that boasted intricately designed mosaic floors in three of its rooms. One of the fragments, measuring around 65 sq ft, is the largest mosaic specimen found in Leicester in the last 30 years. This is what Mathew Morris, site director for ULAS, had to say about the find –

The mosaic is fantastic, it’s been a long time since we’ve found a large, well-preserved mosaic in Leicester. Stylistically, we believe it dates to the early fourth century AD. It would have originally been in a square room in the house. It has a thick border of red tiles surrounding a central square of grey tiles. Picked out in red in the grey square are several decorations, including a geometric border, foliage and a central hexafoil cross. The intricate geometric border follows a pattern known as ‘swastika-meander’. The swastika is an ancient symbol found in most world cultures, and it is a common geometrical motif in Roman mosaics, created by laying out the pattern on a repeating grid of 4 by 4 squares. As part of the project, our plan is to lift and conserve it for future display.

A reconstruction of the Vine Street courtyard house, discovered in 2006.

The third and final Roman structure (unearthed by the project) is also enticing in its own way with fascinating architectural features that have puzzled the researchers. In that regard, the building clearly housed a sunken cellar-like space, while having a tiny apse (a semi-circular niche often covered with a hemispherical vault) attached to one of the sides. Morris hypothesized –

At the moment there is a lot of speculation about what this building might be. It could be a large hypocaust but we are still investigating. It seems to be tucked away in yards and gardens in the middle of the insula, giving it privacy away from the surrounding streets; and the possible apse is only really big enough to house something like a statue, which makes us wonder if it is something special like a shrine.


A lion-head spout found during the excavation. Credit: Mathew Morris / University of Leicester

Source: ULAS News

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