A number of graves contained multiple burials at the archaeological site at a 1,600-year-old cemetery in northern Britain, where archaeologists also unearthed a lead coffin containing the remains of a late-Roman aristocratic woman. Photo courtesy of West Yorkshire Joint Services/Leeds City Council
March 13 (UPI) -- Archaeologists in northern Britain have unearthed the skeletal remains of a late-Roman aristocratic woman, found inside a lead coffin, as well as more than 60 men, women and children who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago.
Archaeologists revealed their findings Monday about the 1,600-year-old hidden cemetery in the city of Leeds. The archaeological site near Garforth was discovered last year. The exact location of the cemetery remains confidential to protect the archaeological dig, which is now complete.
The cemetery was uncovered last spring near where several late Roman stone buildings and Anglo-Saxon-style structures had been discovered.
"There is always a chance of finding burials, but to have discovered a cemetery of such significance, at such a time of transition, was quite unbelievable," said Kylie Buxton, on-site supervisor for the excavations.
The skeletal remains will be analyzed and carbon dated to determine a time frame, which is believed to span from the fall of the Roman empire in AD 400 to the start of the Anglo-Saxon era. Chemical tests could also provide information about diets and ancestry.
According to the archaeologists, about half of the skeletons were smaller and appear to be younger than adults. All of the remains will be examined for disease or injury.
"The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig," said David Hunter, principle archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services. "This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire."
"Lead coffins were expensive," Hunter said, adding that the lead revealed the remains belonged to someone important. "The fact the family gave this person the expense of getting sheets of lead and the expertise to make the coffin, then it tells us a lot."
In addition to the Roman coffin, archaeologists found personal possessions including knives and pottery, which could indicate Saxon burial practices, as well as early Christian beliefs.
"The presence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual and whether their use of this graveyard overlapped or not will determine just how significant the find is," said Hunter. "When seen together, the burials indicate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire's history."
Once analysis and carbon dating are complete, city leaders hope to display the lead coffin at an upcoming exhibition on global burial customs at Leeds City Museum.
"This is an absolutely fascinating discovery which paints a captivating picture of life in ancient Yorkshire," said James Lewis, counselor and leader of Leeds City Council.
"It's also an incredible reminder of the history and heritage which exists beneath our feet."