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Roman aristocrat remains found in hidden lead coffin

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman aristocrat in the north of England.

The skeleton of an unidentified woman, believed to be more than 1,000 years old, was found in a lead coffin in a hidden cemetery in Leeds last year.

62 human remains have been excavated at a previously unknown archaeological site near Garforth. Men, women and 23 children were buried at a site discovered by a team of archaeologists.

The dead are believed to include people from both the late Roman and early Saxon eras, as burial customs from both eras were found in the graves, Leeds City Council said in a press release on Monday.

David Hunter, principal archaeologist at West Yorkshire Joint Services, said on Monday the discovery came to light after a commercial developer submitted an application for planning permission to the council.

An archaeological survey of the ancient site, the exact location of which has not been published, led to the discovery of the remains last spring.

“We certainly got more than we bargained for,” Hunter said. He said his team had reason to believe the site might be of archaeological interest because they had discovered Roman and Anglo-Saxon structures nearby during previous excavations. “But we didn’t expect to find a cemetery of 62 in this place,” he added.

Evidence of burial practices found at the site may indicate early Christian beliefs as well as Saxon burial, the team said. They also found personal items such as knives and pottery.

Describing the lead casket as “very rare”, Hunter said: “The shroud is the lining of a larger wooden coffin, so it’s a very high-status Roman body.”

The casket also contained jewelry, which strengthened the team’s suspicions about the person buried inside.

Archaeologists hope the 1,600-year-old cemetery can help them understand the crucial and largely undocumented transition between the fall of the Roman Empire around 400 AD and the rise of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The lead-lined coffin is considered “very rare” and is believed to have housed a high-status woman. (West Yorkshire Joint Services/Leeds City Council)

After the Romans left Britain, West Yorkshire lay within the Elmet Kingdom, located between the Wharf and Don Valleys, the York Valley and the Pennines, according to a press release.

Even after the Romans left, many areas, including Elmet, continued to display elements of Roman culture, along with Anglo-Saxon ones. It lasted about 200 years.

Describing the excavation as “extraordinary,” Hunter said in a statement. ‚ÄúThis could have huge implications for what we understand about ancient Britain and the development of Yorkshire.

“Having two communities using the same burial site is very unusual, and whether their use of this cemetery overlaps or not will determine how significant the find is.”

The remains will undergo testing and analysis, including carbon dating, which the team hopes will help establish exact dates, as well as details of the individuals’ diets and their origins.

Excavation of the site was partly motivated by the fact that earlier excavations in the nearby area had revealed late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon structures. The findings have only just been made public because the site had to be kept secure to allow preliminary tests to be carried out.

Local Supervisor Kylie Buxton said in a release. “It’s every archaeologist’s dream to work at a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ site, and overseeing this dig is definitely a career high for me.”

Once the analysis of the find is complete, a process that could take a year or two, according to Hunter, the lead casket will go on display at the Leeds City Museum.

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