Archaeologists have hailed the discovery of a hidden cemetery in Garforth, Leeds as a “once-in-a-lifetime find”. The site, dating back 1,600 years, has yielded the remains of a high-status Roman woman encased in a lead coffin, along with sixty other bodies, including men, women, and twenty-three children. The pick of the finds are the remnants of the late-Roman period aristocratic woman, signified by the lead coffin containing pieces of jewellery, an expensive burial practice and a marker of high social status.
David Hunter, the principal archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, said, “This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.”
Late Roman and Early Saxon Burials: Transition of Power
The cemetery is believed to include both late Roman and early Saxon burials , with some graves accompanied by personal possessions, such as knives and pottery. The discovery of the cemetery is significant because it may help fill in historical gaps in understanding the Kingdom of Elmet – the huge swathe of land that was later broken down into Yorkshire subdivisions, according to a press release by the government of Leeds.
The ancient lead coffin was unearthed in a previously undiscovered, 1,600-year-old cemetery in Leeds, UK. ( Leeds City Council )
Kylie Buxton, the on-site supervisor for the excavations, said it was every archaeologist’s dream to work on such a project, adding:
“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 honour to excavate the high-status lead coffin burial, but it was a great team effort by everyone involved.”
Archaeologists who worked on the excavation said the site can help chart the largely undocumented and historically-important transition between the fall of the Roman Empire in about 400 AD and the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that followed. This would include the period of transition, the power vacuum, and the various players involved in the transition of power.
The location of the cemetery has been kept confidential at the developer’s request. The excavation was prompted by the previous nearby discovery of late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style structures, reports The Guardian .
The remains of what appears to be a Roman aristocratic woman were inside the lead coffin. ( Leeds City Council )
Shared Culture and Historicity?
Now that the dig is complete, expert analysis of the remains will take place, including carbon dating to establish precise dates and chemical tests to determine details such as individual diets and ancestry. Around half of the skeletons were younger than full adult age and consisted of multiple burials – they will be examined for signs of disease or injury as a result.
Archaeologists traced the burial traditions of both cultures in the cemetery, which bas been described as a highly unusual practice by Hunter. The carbon dating process will help understand whether there has been an overlap or not, and thus, how significant this find is.
“The presence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual and whether their use of this graveyard overlapped or not will determine just how significant the find is. When seen together the burials indicate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire’s history. The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig.”
Early Christian beliefs are reflected through the burial practices, along with a Saxon burial, coupled with personal possessions like knives and pottery.
The discovery has the potential to reveal a lot about the lives and beliefs of the people buried in the cemetery, including their social status, customs, and traditions, along with individual diets and ancestry. While the exact identities of those buried at the site will never be known, the remains offer an invaluable insight into the lives of people in ancient Britain and Yorkshire.
“We certainly got more than we bargained for,” Hunter told CNN. “But we didn’t expect to find a cemetery of 62 at this location,” he concluded.
Top image: The lead coffin of the aristocratic Roman woman’s burial found in Yorkshire, Northern England. Source: Leeds City Council
By Sahir Pandey
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