LEICESTER, England, March 2 (UPI) -- Archaeologists said a mysterious lead coffin found buried next to Britain's King Richard III under a parking lot contains the remains of an apparently wealthy, older woman.
Researchers from the University of Leicester unearthed the coffin in August 2013, a year after her royal neighbor was discovered.
The body was found in a lead coffin encased inside a larger limestone sarcophagus in what used to be a cemetery at the Grey Friars friary. Researchers say the find is the first example of an intact Medieval stone coffin to be unearthed in Leicester using modern practices.
"Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin, allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact," said Mathew Morris, the site director.
"However, inside the inner lead coffin was undamaged except for a hole at the foot end of the casket where the lead had decayed and collapsed inward exposing the skeleton's feet."
When it was found, researchers believed the coffin within a coffin contained the male remains of one of the friary's founders or a Medieval monk, possibly one of two leaders of the English Grey Friars order or a 14th century knight, Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, who was mayor of Leicester.
Archaeologists believe the woman may have been an early benefactor of the friary because radiocarbon dating indicates she could have died not long after the church was constructed in 1250.
They believe she was wealthy because her bones indicated she had a highly varied, protein-rich diet.
The lead coffin contains the remains of one of four women found buried at the site -- Richard was the only man.
"Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of 10 identified graves in the church's chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery," Morris said.
"Statistically, the sample is too small to draw any conclusions to the significance of so many women at Grey Friars. After all, if we carried out more excavations it is possible that we could find that these are the only four women buried in the church. Richard III would certainly not have been the only male buried here during the friary's 300-year history, and historic records list at least three other men buried in the church. What stands out more is the contrast between the care and attention taken with these burials -- large, neatly dug graves with coffins -- and the crudeness of Richard III's grave. The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III's burial really was," he added.
It's unlikely the university will ever be able to identify the remains of any of the four women found buried at the site. Morris said archaeologists are aware of one woman, Emma of Holt, who was buried at the cemetery around the time it's believed the women in the coffins died.
"We know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma, or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous."
Richard III's remains, discovered in 2012, are scheduled to be reburied later in March at Leicester Cathedral.