The remains of a Roman aristocrat have been unearthed by archaeologists in northern England.
The skeleton of the unknown woman, believed to be more than 1,000 years old, was found last year in a lead coffin in a hidden cemetery in the city of Leeds.
The remains of 62 people were excavated at the previously unknown archaeological site near Garforth. Men, women and 23 children were buried at the site uncovered by a team of archaeologists.
The dead would include people from both the late Roman and early Saxon eras, as burial customs from both eras were found in the graves, according to a press release released by Leeds City Council on Monday.
David Hunter, chief archaeologist at West Yorkshire Joint Services, told CNN on Monday that the discovery came about after a commercial developer applied to the council for planning permission.
An archaeological investigation of the site – the exact location of which has not been released – led to the discovery of the remains last spring.
“We definitely got more than we bargained for,” Hunter told CNN. He said his team had reason to believe the site might be of archaeological interest, having found Roman and Anglo-Saxon structures in previous excavations nearby. “But we didn’t expect to find a burial site of 62 at this site,” he added.
Evidence of burial practices found at the site may indicate early Christian beliefs, along with Saxon burials, the team said. They also found personal belongings such as knives and pottery.
Hunter described the lead coffin as “very rare” and said, “The lead liner is the lining of a larger wooden coffin, so it’s a Roman body of very high status.”
The coffin also contained jewelry that cemented the team’s suspicions about the person buried inside.
Archaeologists hope the 1,600-year-old cemetery can help them understand the important and largely undocumented transition between the fall of the Roman Empire around 400 AD and the establishment of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
After the Romans left Britain, West Yorkshire was in the Kingdom of Elmet, which, according to the press release, was between the Wharfe and Don Valleys, the Vale of York and the Pennines.
Even after the Romans left, many areas, including Elmet, continued to show elements of Roman culture – alongside that of the Anglo-Saxons. That took about 200 years.
Describing the excavation as “extraordinary”, Hunter said in the release: “This has the potential to be a find of enormous significance to what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.
“The presence of two communities using the same cemetery is highly unusual and whether their use of this cemetery overlaps or not will determine the significance of the find.”
The remains will be tested and analyzed, including radiocarbon dating, which the team hopes will help establish precise timescales, as well as details of individuals’ diets and their ancestry.
The excavation of the site was motivated in part by the fact that previous excavations in the nearby area had unearthed Late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style buildings. The findings have only just been made public, as the site had to be kept secure so that the initial tests could be conducted.
On-site supervisor Kylie Buxton said in the release: “It’s every archaeologist’s dream to work on a ‘once in a lifetime’ site, and overseeing these excavations is definitely a career highlight.”
Once analysis of the find is complete – a process that Hunter says could take a year or two – the lead box is expected to go on display at the Leeds City Museum.