Skeletal remains of a Roman aristocrat have been unearthed in a “truly extraordinary” hidden cemetery dating back 1,600 years.
Bones of the high-ranking woman have been discovered in an old lead coffin during excavations in the town of Garforth, near Leeds.
Archaeologists said the “unique” find could help uncover mysteries of a time stretching from the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 400 to the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon era.
David Hunter, the lead archaeologist at West Yorkshire Joint Services, said: “This has the potential to be a find of enormous importance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.”
Unusually for an ancient cemetery, the remains found at Garforth belonged to people from the late Roman and early Saxon periods. The late Roman aristocrat’s skeleton was found alongside the remains of 60 men, women and children from both eras.
Archaeologists traced the burial traditions of both cultures in the cemetery, whose exact location is kept secret.
Hunter said: “The existence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual and whether or not their uses of this cemetery overlap will determine the significance of the find.
“Taken together, the burials demonstrate the complexity and uncertainty of life at a dynamic time in Yorkshire history. The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this was a truly exceptional dig.”
Experts will attempt to establish precise timeframes for the burials by carbon dating the remains. Chemical tests are conducted to find out how they lived and what they ate, as well as details about their ancestry.
Leeds City Council said the discovery was made last spring but could only be announced now due to the need to keep the site safe during testing.
Although the exact location remains a mystery, excavation was prompted in part by the discovery of late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style buildings nearby.
Kylie Buxton, the director of excavations at the site, said it was every archaeologist’s dream to work on a project like this, adding: “There’s always a chance of finding burials but having discovered a cemetery of such importance Being on such a time of transition was pretty amazing.
“It was a special honor for me to dig up the high-ranking lead coffin grave, but it was a great team effort from everyone involved.”
Early analysis shows that some in the cemetery had early Christian beliefs, and Saxons were accompanied by personal possessions such as knives and pottery.
The council said it hoped the coffin would be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Leeds City Museum, which will explore death and burial customs from around the world.