An ancient lead coffin has been unearthed in a previously undiscovered, 1,600-year-old Leeds cemetery which could help unlock the secrets of one of the most significant periods in British history.
The once-in-a-lifetime find, thought to contain the remains of a late-Roman aristocratic woman, was discovered as part of an archaeological dig near Garforth in Leeds, which also revealed the remains of more than 60 men, women and children who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago.
Those buried with her in the cemetery are believed to include both late-Roman and early-Saxon people, with the burial customs of both cultures found in different graves.
Archaeologists hope this means the site can help them chart the largely undocumented and hugely important transition between the fall of the Roman Empire in around 400AD and the establishment of the famed Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which followed.
Now the dig is complete, expert analysis of the remains will take place, including carbon dating to establish precise timeframes as well as detailed chemical tests which can determine extraordinary details such as individual diets and ancestry.
The discovery was made last spring, and could only be revealed now because of the need to keep the site safe and so initial tests on finds could take place.
Although the exact location remains confidential, the excavation was in part prompted by the previous, nearby discovery of late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style structures.
Kylie Buxton, on-site supervisor for the excavations said: “It is every archaeologist’s dream to work on a ‘once in a lifetime’ site, and supervising these excavations is definitely a career-high for me.
“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.
“For me it was a particular honour to excavate the high-status lead coffin burial, but it was a great team effort by everyone involved.”
As well as the Roman coffin, burial practices found in the cemetery could indicate early Christian beliefs, as well as Saxon burials, which were accompanied by personal possessions such as knives and pottery.
After the Roman’s retreated from Britain, West Yorkshire lay in the Kingdom of Elmet which was located between the Wharfe and Don Valleys, the Vale of York and the Pennines. Elmet remained British/Roman for just over 200 years.
David Hunter, principle archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, said: “This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.
“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. When seen together the burials indicate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire’s history.
“The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig.”
Once analysis of the finds has taken place, it is hoped the lead coffin can be displayed in an upcoming exhibition at Leeds City Museum which will explore death and burial customs from across the world.
Councillor James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council and member of the West Yorkshire Joint Services Committee, said: “This is an absolutely fascinating discovery which paints a captivating picture of life in ancient Yorkshire.
“It’s also an incredible reminder of the history and heritage which exists beneath our feet, and we look forward to hopefully playing our part in telling this story to visitors to the museum.”