1,600-year-old Roman cemetery and aristocrat remains discovered

“This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire."
Nergis Firtina
Ancient lead coffin.
Ancient lead coffin.

Leeds UK 

A 1,600-year-old lead coffin discovered in an ancient Leeds cemetery may provide the key to understanding one of the most critical periods in British history.

The discovery, which is likely to include the remains of a late-Roman aristocratic woman, was made as part of an archaeological dig near Garforth in Leeds, which also turned up the remains of more than 60 men, women, and children who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago, as Leeds metropolitan borough reported yesterday.

Others from the late Roman and early Saxon eras are thought to have been buried beside her at the cemetery, as evidenced by the discovery of graves with both cultures' burial practices.

Because of this, archaeologists hope the site will enable them to map the mostly unrecorded but crucial shift between the fall of the Roman Empire in roughly 400 AD and the creation of the illustrious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that followed.

1,600-year-old Roman cemetery and aristocrat remains discovered
Excavating the Lead Coffin indoors.

As the excavation is finished, the bones will be subjected to specialist research, including carbon dating, to establish accurate periods and intricate chemical analyses to ascertain extraordinary details like individual diets and lineage.

The find was made last spring, but it wasn't publicized until today to protect the site and allow for preliminary testing of the finds. The dig was partially inspired by the earlier, nearby finding of late Roman stone buildings and a few buildings in the Anglo-Saxon style, albeit the precise location is still secret.

“It is every archaeologist’s dream to work on a ‘once in a lifetime’ site, and supervising these excavations is a career-high for me," said Kylie Buxton, on-site supervisor for the excavations.

“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 honor to excavate the high-status lead coffin burial, but it was a great team effort by everyone involved,” she added.

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Traces of early Christianity

Together with the Roman coffin, burial customs discovered in the cemetery may also point to early Christian beliefs and Saxon funerals, accompanied by individualized items like knives and ceramics.

West Yorkshire was part of the Kingdom of Elmet, situated between the Wharfe and Don Valleys, the Vale of York, and the Pennines after the Romans left Britain. For just over 200 years, Elmet remained a British/Roman territory.

“This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire," David Hunter, a principal archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services.

“This is an absolutely fascinating discovery, which paints a captivating picture of life in ancient Yorkshire," Councillor James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council and member of the West Yorkshire Joint Services Committee.

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