Roman aristocrat in old lead coffin unearthed in “unique” find

LONDON – Newly revealed human remains could offer a rare glimpse into life in Britain through the decline of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Experts have hailed the 1,600-year-old cemetery, excavated near the city of Leeds, some 200 miles north of London, as a “unique” find that bridges the gap between antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Among the remains of more than 60 men, women and children was believed to be a late Roman aristocrat, Leeds City Council said in a statement on Monday.

The woman was found in an old lead coffin at the archaeological dig near the Leeds suburb of Garforth.

The site may also point to early Christian and Saxon burial rituals, officials said, and marks an important crossroads at a little-understood period when the Roman Empire began its gradual decline and eventual collapse in the West as Germanic tribes migrated from mainland Europe.

England derives its name from one of the main groups that came from what is now Denmark and Germany from the fifth century onwards: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

An extremely rare lead coffin discovered at a dig near Leeds, England, may shed light on a little-understood period of British history. (West Yorkshire Joint Services / Leeds City Council)

“It’s every archaeologist’s dream to work at a one-of-a-kind site and supervising this dig is definitely a career highlight for me,” said Kylie Buxton, director of the site’s excavations, in a press release.

“There’s always a chance of finding burials, but to have discovered a cemetery of such importance during such a transitional period was quite incredible.”

Carbon dating is underway to pinpoint the precise timing of the burials, as are chemical tests which it is hoped will shed light on dietary habits and ancestry.

The site was spotted in Spring 2022, but no announcement has been made as of yet to try to preserve the site while testing takes place. The exact location of the site has not been disclosed, but the remains of late Roman and Anglo-Saxon buildings have been found nearby.

“This has the potential to be a find of enormous importance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire,” said David Hunter, senior archaeologist at West Yorkshire Joint Services.

“The existence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual, and whether or not their uses of this cemetery overlapped will determine the significance of the find.”

The discovery near Garforth in northern England revealed the remains of more than 60 men, women and children who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago.  (West Yorkshire Joint Services / Leeds City Council)

The discovery near Garforth in northern England revealed the remains of more than 60 men, women and children who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago. (West Yorkshire Joint Services / Leeds City Council)

Once the analysis has taken place, there are plans to display the lead coffin at Leeds City Museum in an exhibition on death customs around the world.

Saxons tended to bury their dead with items of special importance, such as knives and pottery. The most famous Anglo-Saxon burial site, Sutton Hoo – believed to be a 7th-century burial ship honoring King Rædwald – contained a fabulous collection of jeweled helmets and weapons.

Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor, began invading Britain in AD 43, reportedly using an army of up to 20,000 men and even armored elephants. By the early first century Rome had established its power over southern Britain and all the way to the contested northern area, later demarcated by a huge wall built by the Emperor Hadrian.

This control ended abruptly in AD 409-10, when Rome’s military power waned and the Empire was distracted by pressure from invading barbarians in Italy and Gaul.

The Empire would survive for another 1,000 years from its eastern power base of Constantinople, but it could only lag in the west for decades. Roman aristocrats fled Britain as mansions and towns fell into disrepair, burying what they could not take with them.

Leeds is believed to have been the center of the mysterious Celtic kingdom of Elmet, one of several entities established after the collapse of Roman control but before the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms or the arrival of the Vikings in the 8th century.

Experts will examine whether the newly found graves provide further evidence of how the people of Elmet lived alongside Saxon neighbors at a time when England was quickly abandoning its pagan traditions and converting to Christianity.

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