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Ancient Ratae, City on the Soar

In the second century BC, in a Britain still filled with wild boar, beaver, lynx, bears and wolves, a group of people settled  near to the River Soar. The descendants of Bronze Age peoples and Neolithic farmers, they built a series of huts on the east bank of the river, their settlement extending across some twenty acres. They called themselves the Corieltauvi; the closest translation of their name would be the ‘army of the land of many rivers.’ The exact  name of their settlement is unknown but it contains a Celtic root word similar to ‘rath’, meaning (approximately)  ‘ramparts’, which can be found in many Irish place names today. This humble Iron Age settlement is the origin of modern day Leicester.

Roman  interest in this area of Britain began when they realised it was a place of strategic value; and so it became an intersection of the Fosse Way and Gartree Street. There might have been some opposition from the local Corieltauvi, but the tribesmen proved no match for the might of Rome; a fort or base was soon established on the banks of the Soar for the Legion XIV.  Quite simple in plan and  housing approx 500 men,  the fort was surrounded by a ditch and rampart; it retained the name of the ancient British settlement but in a new, Larinised form–Ratae.

The new fort brought  much  trade to the area and a small civilian settlement quickly sprang up. A few years later a second fort was constructed nearby—it is thought this defensive structure may have been built in response to Boudicca’s revolt. However, the brave British Queen’s chariots never rolled up to Ratae’s earthen ramparts.

About 30 years later, most of the Legions were recalled from Britain and the forts on the Soar handed over to civilians,  although they were remained part of the Roman Empire. Ratae became an important  tribal administrative capital.

Emperor Hadrian’s visit to the town in 122 AD seems to have  sparked a new rebuilding phase. Outmoded wooden structures were dismantled and local granite and millstone grit from Derbyshire brought to build a forum, basilica and colonnades. A few decades later, a public bath house was constructed—today its remains are known as the Jewry Wall, Britain’s largest free-standing piece of  Roman architecture. Water for the baths came to the site from Knighton Brook via an aqueduct. Some of the earthworks surrounding the water channel still survive and are known as Raw Dykes (the word ‘Raw’ has the same origin as Rath/Ratae.)

At this time in Ratae’s history, the local population grew quite wealthy. Townhouses appeared with opulent mosaics, painted walls, heating and bathing facilities. A stone wall was built around the perimeter of the settlement, for added security for the residents of the town.

Temples to the varying gods  were built too, one being found near St Nicholas’ Church, which today retains much brickwork pilfered from the ancient Roman building. This temple was dedicated to Mithras, the bull-slaying god who was born on December 25 and whose cult was seen as a rival to Christianity.  He was a Persian ‘import’ and his all-male accolytes often held their rites in a secret underground chamber known as a Mithraeum. Other evidence has been found of British bull-gods, spear carrying sons of Zeus, and sea-gods.  Of great interest is the curse tablet discovered, in which a native British God, Maglus (‘Prince/princely’) is invoked for help in bringing about the destruction of a thief : “To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus …”

By the 5th century, however, Ratae was in serious decline as the legions pulled out from Britain and Angles and  Saxons began to migrate from their homelands to settle in what is now England . Soon, the town was in ruins, abandoned and decaying . The famous Anglo Saxon poem THE RUIN speaks of the abandoned Roman townsThis masonry is wondrous; Fate broke it.
Courtyard pavements lie smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate is ravaged,
chipped roofs torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen…

The Roman Era of Ratae was over with Rome’s withdrawal from Brittania; the early Middle Ages had begun. After the Romans departed the  native Britons called the place, in their own tongue,  Caer Lerion or Caerlyr; the Saxons called it Ligora-ceastre, which by Domesday became Ledecestre, and then Leicester. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed the town’s founder was King Leir (Leir-caister), and the prefix of this name may take its origins from a Celtic water deity known as Llyr.

Today, the remains of Roman buildings and artefacts  still frequently are excavated in Leicester. Some recent finds near High Cross have been of considerable importance.

The prevalence of these remains in the city is shown by the fact that when Richard III’s remains were recovered from the ruins of Greyfriars, it was initially thought he had an arrowhead embedded in his spine. As it turned out, the ‘arrowhead’ was a stray Roman nail that happened to have ended up under his body when the monks dug a hasty grave to hold him.

It is also interesting to realise that the last Plantagenet King now rests in a brick lined vault above the remains of one of Leicester’s Roman temples,  its scant  foundations discovered when restoration was made on  St Martin’s church in the late 1800’s.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-39738436

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2318880/Is-left-park-Leicester-Roman-cemetery-archaeological-dig-ANOTHER-car-park-city.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2318880/Is-left-park-Leicester-Roman-cemetery-archaeological-dig-ANOTHER-car-park-city.html

https://phys.org/news/2016-07-rare-discovery-late-roman-leicester.html

Roman Leicester artists impression

curse

Blacksmiths for Gods and Heroes: Tracing the Magical Blacksmith through Myth

Giaconda's Blog

thahgd2gku Hephaestus from an Attic red Kylix vase decoration.

Who Were the Legendary Smiths?:

The figure of the often deformed or maimed blacksmith who forges remarkable weaponry and armour for gods or heroes is a re-occurring archetype in myth across many cultures.

We have Hephaestus in Greek myth who becomes Vulcan in Latin literature and may have travelled with trade routes and language to other cultures or, indeed have been absorbed from other cultures into the Classical pantheon. Both are regularly depicted in art carrying the tools of their trade – the blacksmith’s hammer and tongs.

dia41_h600px.jpg Vulcan – God of fire and volcanoes as well as smith of the gods

Comparative parallels exist in the Ugarit craftsman and magician -god Kothar-wa-Khasis, who is identified from afar by his distinctive walk—possibly suggesting that he limped, and the Egyptian God, Ptah, described as a naked and deformed dwarf by Herodotus. He is…

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Beowulf and Sutton Hoo -Sources for a lost world

Giaconda's Blog

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman

I was recently asked to visit my daughter’s class and talk to them about archaeology and what we can find out about past cultures from the physical remains that are left behind. The class is also reading Beowulf as part of their topic on the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in Britain which will run for the whole term.

I immediately plunged into further research on Beowulf and two archaeological sites which I hope will be useful; namely the ship burial at Sutton Hoo and the Coppergate dig in York which uncovered part of Viking Jorvik, the largest excavated Viking settlement in the British Isles.

I picked these because the culture of Beowulf would appear to be closely tied to the archaeological site of Sutton Hoo with references made in the poem to artefacts…

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Churchill, Celts and Common Ancestry (2009)

It was the new film, Into the Storm that started me thinking. Brendan Gleeson plays Winston Churchill and has commented widely on how ironic it is that an Irish actor is in the role. I recalled the rumours that Churchill fathered Brendan Bracken (a red-haired Irish-born MP and wartime Minister) and the fact that he too had red hair in his younger days. This is almost always the result of a Celtic gene but how exactly does it behave and where did it originate in his case?

Bill, A Scots-Canadian Ricardian, pointed out that his daughter has red hair but neither he, his parents nor grandparents did although his maternal great-grandfathers did. I searched for Churchill on Genealogics and looked back four generations (as with Bill). No given ancestor sounded demonstrably Scots or Welsh whilst the Irish peers listed could have been English in their descent. I stepped back slightly further and found two Scottish Earls, which potentially answers the first question.

Bill suggested that most people have a common ancestor within ten generations – one of 1024 – but there is an obvious flaw here. People, particularly the nobility, tend to intermarry so we have fewer unique ancestors to compare. If the theory really did apply, cubing that number to about 1.073 US billion would cover thirty generations or 750 years – back to Henry III’s struggles with de Montfort – to exceed the then population of the world. Because of duplication, we would need to go back further to pre-Conquest days or Alfred’s childhood.

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