A 1,600-year-old coffin may shed light on Roman Britain

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A 1,600-year-old coffin may shed light on Roman Britain
A handout photo shows two skeletons that were found in 2022 as part of an archaeological dig in Leeds, northern England. British archaeologists have uncovered an ancient coffin in the 1,600-year-old cemetery, a discovery, they say, that could shed light on the end of Roman Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (West Yorkshire Joint Services via The New York Times)

by Jenny Gross

LONDON.- British archaeologists have uncovered an ancient coffin in a 1,600-year-old cemetery in northern England — a discovery, they said, that could shed light on the end of Roman Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Discovered during an archaeological dig in Leeds, the lead-lined coffin contained the remains of an aristocratic woman who most likely lived in the fourth century.

Archaeologists also found the remains of more than 60 people who lived in the area more than 1,000 years ago. Some bodies were buried on their backs with their legs straight out, in accordance with late-Roman customs. Others adhered to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, within which burials often included items such as clothes fasteners and knives.

The archaeological dig was part of a consultation process for a company applying for permission to build on the site. Archaeologists had previously uncovered late-Roman stone buildings and a number of structures in the Anglo-Saxon architectural style in the area.

“Very quickly, we started finding burials,” said David Hunter, the principal archaeologist of the West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, which works with the West Yorkshire planning authorities. “The potential is there to give us much better information on how this transition from the Roman population to Anglo-Saxon England happened.”

Hunter said that the presence of both late-Roman and early-Anglo Saxon people on the same burial site was unusual. Whether the use of the graveyard had overlapped between the two eras would determine the significance of the find, he added.

The Roman occupation of Britain, from 43 A.D. to around 410, transformed the culture as settlers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa arrived. Around the third century, market towns and villages were established, and Roman objects became more common even in poor, rural areas, according to English Heritage, which manages prehistoric sites, medieval castles and Roman forts in Britain.

After the Romans retreated from Britain, society became much more insular and parochial, Hunter said. A lot is unknown about the period, including how the area transitioned from being part of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century to part of the English nation in the 10th.

“Different people have different theories as to how this could have happened: It could’ve happened by cooperation; it could’ve happened by aggression,” he said.

These findings may add to knowledge about an era that is largely undocumented, Hunter said. Radiocarbon dating could help determine exactly when the remains were buried. Chemical tests could reveal the diets and ancestry of the people.

Researchers would also like to understand why there were a number of instances in which two or three people were buried in the same grave, as well as why there were multiple burial styles in the same cemetery.

Hunter said that the two different burial styles could be for reasons of practicality: Since the area was already recognized as a burial place by Roman Britons, it would have been easier for subsequent groups of people to have used the same site.

While the discovery was made in February 2022, the findings were only announced Monday in order to keep the site safe and conduct tests on some of the findings, the Leeds City Council said in a statement. The discovery of a lead-lined coffin is rare, with only a few hundred having been discovered in Britain, said Kylie Buxton, on-site supervisor for the excavations.

The council has not released the exact location of the dig. After the analysis is completed, the lead coffin may be displayed at the Leeds City Museum in an exhibition on death and burial customs, officials said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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