Medieval discoveries as Leicester Castle refurbishment progresses

Ancient fire pits, buried skeletons and hidden archways have all so far been uncovered during work to transform Leicester Castle into a new business school for De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

Construction workers are currently refurbishing the 12th century Grade I listed Great Hall, giving the previously disused building a new lease of life as the forthcoming Leicester Castle Business School, run by DMU.

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The university is investing £4.2 million in the project, which will offer students a selection of new undergraduate and postgraduate courses specifically designed to prepare them for the demands of 21st century business.

Construction firm Robert Woodhead is now on site, carrying out extensive work on the building, which was until 1992 used as a courthouse.

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And the firm's site manager, Dave Lawson, said the work had already revealed some surprises.

He said: "We had to install some new electrical feed lines out in front of the building and when we did, we found some human remains, we think 600 or 700 years old.

"We think they were Christian because they were buried facing east. We also found some Roman pottery fragments around them."

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The firm is working with archaeology experts from the University of Leicester, along with conservation officers and Historic England to carefully note and examine any findings.

Robert Woodhead has plenty of experience working on listed and historic buildings and Dave said it was not unusual to make discoveries like this along the way.

He said: "It's a really interesting part of the work and we are working closely with architect company Maber because it sometimes means we have to redesign to work around discoveries."

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An older find has been a series of fire pits out the front of the castle. These, Dave said, could date from the 11th century, when the castle was first built as a motte and bailey construction, before being replaced by the present stone building by Robert de Beaumont, the 1st Earl of Leicester. The pits themselves could have been used for cooking.

Dave said: "These pits have all been marked and mapped and we will be carefully working either around or over them."

Inside the building, crews are working throughout the property, scraping paint from the walls, bringing them back to their original plaster surface. Furniture is being carefully removed from many rooms, most noticeably in one of the two former court rooms, previously used as a civil court.

Dave said: "In the old civil court we have stripped almost everything out. But it is being carefully stored and will be reused as new furniture, the wood incorporated into new designs to maintain the heritage aspect.

"In that room we have found the wooden floor has been raised and so we are lowering it and, in doing so, have discovered a previously hidden archway on the far wall, suggesting that even the stone floor is raised above the original floor."

Over the next few weeks, work to remove a stone staircase in the main entrance hallway will begin, in order to replace it with a lift. Out the back of the building, a concrete slab which formed the roof to the basement has been removed to create space to install a scaffold. This will allow the windows to be restored and the outer brickwork to be steam cleaned, before a major landscaping project is put into effect to transform the rear of the property.

Dave said: "There's a lot to be done but the project is progressing well. It is exciting to be able to uncover history and to preserve and record it as we go."

Posted on Monday 8th August 2016

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