Archaeologists say the discovery of an aristocratic Roman woman dating back 1,600 years at a burial site where early Saxon remains were discovered is a “unique” find.
Combining the two communities at the same burial site could shed light on the largely undocumented period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, experts say.
The senior Roman woman was also discovered in an “extremely rare” lead coffin buried among 60 men, women and children who lived more than a thousand years ago.
And historians now believe the stunning find could open up one of the most defining periods in British history.
Researchers found the cemetery during an excavation near Garforth, Leeds, which unusually included both late Roman and early Saxon people with different burial customs.
“A find of enormous importance”
Expert analysis is now being carried out to date the remains and conduct chemical tests that can reveal the individuals’ diet and origins.
However, archaeologists hope the findings can help chart the largely undocumented period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
David Hunter, Chief 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.
“The existence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual, and whether or not their uses of this cemetery have overlapped 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.”
The discovery was made last spring but could only be unveiled now because the site needed to remain secure for initial testing of the finds to take place.
And while the location remains confidential, the excavation was prompted in part by a nearby discovery of late Roman stone buildings and Anglo-Saxon style structures.
Kylie Buxton, the site’s excavation director, said it was a “dream” to have helped uncover the striking burial site, adding: “It is every archaeologist’s dream to work on 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 during such a transitional period was quite incredible.
“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.”
Coffin could be displayed in the museum
Archaeologists believe the cemetery may reveal early Christian beliefs as well as Saxon burials, accompanied by personal effects such as knives and pottery.
After the Romans withdrew from Britain, West Yorkshire was in the Kingdom of Elmet, which lies between the Wharfe and Don valleys, the Vale of York and the Pennines.
And it remained independent for a little over 200 years.
It is hoped that the coffin will feature in an upcoming exhibition at Leeds City Museum, which will explore 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 heritage that exists beneath our feet and we look forward to hopefully doing our part in telling that story to visitors to the museum.”