Roman burial discovered in ‘truly extraordinary’ dig at Leeds’ hidden graveyard

The remains of a late Roman aristocrat in a lead coffin have been unearthed in a previously undiscovered 1,600-year-old Leeds cemetery.

The extraordinary discovery, described as a “unique find”, could help unravel the mysteries of one of the most important periods in British history.

The breakthrough came during an archaeological dig near Garforth in Leeds. The skeletons of more than 60 men, women and children who lived in the area more than 1,000 years ago have also been found.

The individuals found in the cemetery are believed to include both late Roman and early Saxon people, with the burial customs of both cultures being found in different tombs.

Archaeologists hope the site can help them chart the largely undocumented but important transition between the fall of the Roman Empire around AD 400 and the founding of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms thereafter.

Expert analysis will take place once the excavation is complete, including carbon dating to decode precise time frames, as well as detailed chemical testing that can determine extraordinary details such as individual diet and ancestry.

The discovery was made last spring and has only now been released so the site can be kept safe.

It was originally prompted by an earlier excavation near late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style buildings.

Kylie Buxton, Site Director of Excavations, said: “It is every archaeologist’s dream to work at a ‘unique’ site and supervising these digs is definitely a career highlight for me.

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

“It was a special honor for me to dig up the high-level lead coffin grave, but it was a great team effort from everyone involved.”

Along with the Roman coffin, burial practices found in the cemetery revealed early Christian beliefs, as well as Saxon burials, as well as personal possessions such as knives and pottery.

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David Hunter, chief archaeologist at the West Yorkshire Joint Services, said the find could be of “massive importance” to what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.

He added: “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. Viewed together, the burials demonstrate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire history.

“The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this was a truly exceptional dig.”

After analysis, it is hoped the lead coffin can be featured in a forthcoming exhibition at Leeds City Museum, which will look at death and burial customs from around the world.

Councilor James Lewis, Chairman of Leeds City Council and a member of the West Yorkshire Joint Services Committee, said: “This is an absolutely fascinating discovery that paints a compelling picture of life in old Yorkshire.

“It’s also an incredible reminder of the history and legacy that exists beneath our feet, and we look forward to hopefully doing our part in telling that story to visitors to the museum.”

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