The site of Southampton’s long-awaited new arts complex could contain the remains of a medieval leper hospital.

The Daily Echo can today reveal that archaeologists are excavating the city centre site to determine whether it contains a 12th century hospital for leprosy sufferers.

A team of experts were instructed to carry out works by developer Grosvenor after the £50m project was given the green light by city councillors earlier this summer.

The development will contain the £21m arts complex, funded by the city council, the Arts Council and the University of Southampton, which will feature a gallery, a centre for performing arts, auditoria, a dance studio and education facilities.

It will also feature restaurants, bars, cafes and 38 flats and is expected to create 300 jobs.

On Grosvenor’s instructions, a team of archaeologists from the University College London is investigating two areas in the northern half of the site, which used to be home to the Tyrrell and Green department store.

There is already evidence of Iron Age remains in and around the site, but it is now believed it may contain the remains of a leper hospital built in around 1174 that remained in use until the 14th century.

If remains of the hospital are found, it would be the second hospital dedicated to sufferers of the crippling disease to be discovered in Hampshire in recent years.

The medieval Hospital of St Mary Magdalen near Winchester was home to hundreds of people who had been exiled from their communities due to their condition.

It was the subject of a Time Team excavation in 2000 and subsequent investigations by the University of Winchester.

It is currently uncertain what impact the discovery of a similar site in Southampton could have on the development of the arts complex.

Simon Armstrong, project manager at Grosvenor Britain and Ireland, said: “The archaeological investigation is a key part of our pre-construction activities and an important milestone for the scheme.

“We are a step closer to delivering the scheme but still have some hurdles to overcome.

“Southampton has a rich and important archaeological heritage and there is evidence of Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman and Saxon settlements in the vicinity.

“The purpose of the excavation is to make sure we do not disturb any archaeological deposits that remain in the ground.”

If the arts complex is delivered on Grosvenor’s current schedule, building work will begin this autumn and it is expected to be completed in 2016.