The skeleton of the unidentified woman, believed to be more than 1,000 years old, was found in a lead coffin in a hidden cemetery in the city of Leeds last year.
The remains of 62 people were dug up at the previously unknown archaeological site near Garforth. Men, women and 23 children were buried at the site uncovered by a team of archaeologists.
The dead are thought to include people from both the late Roman and early Saxon era, as burial customs of both eras were found in the graves, according to a press release published by Leeds City Council Monday.
David Hunter, principle archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, told CNN Monday that the discovery emerged after a commercial developer submitted an application for planning permission to the council.
An archaeological survey of the site – the exact location of which hasn’t been released – led to the remains being found last spring.
“We certainly got more than we bargained for,” Hunter told CNN. He said his team had reason to believe that the site might be of archaeological interest, as they’d found Roman and Anglo-Saxon structures nearby on previous digs. “But we didn’t expect to find a cemetery of 62 at this location,” he added.
Evidence of burial practices found on the site could indicate early Christian beliefs, along with Saxon burial, the team said. They also found personal possessions such as knives and pottery.
Describing the lead coffin as “very rare,” Hunter said: “The lead sheeting is the lining of a larger wooden coffin so it’s a very high status Roman body.”
The coffin also contained pieces of jewelery which reinforced the team’s suspicions about the person buried inside.
Archaeologists hope that the 1,600-year-old cemetery could help them understand the important and largely undocumented transition between the fall of the Roman Empire in around 400 and the establishment of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
After the Romans left Britain, West Yorkshire lay in the Kingdom of Elmet, which was located between the Wharfe and Don Valleys, the Vale of York and the Pennines, according to the press release.
Even after the Romans departed, many areas, including Elmet, continued to display elements of Roman culture – alongside that of the Anglo Saxons. That lasted for around 200 years.
Describing the dig as “extraordinary,” Hunter said in the release: “This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.
“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.”
The remains will undergo testing and analysis, including carbon dating, which the team hope will help establish precise time frames, as well as details of individuals’ diets and their ancestry.
Excavation of the site was partly prompted by the fact that previous digs in the nearby area had unearthed late Roman stone buildings and a small number of Anglo-Saxon style structures. The findings have only just been made public as the site had to be kept secure so that initial tests could be carried out.
Kylie Buxton, on-site supervisor, said in the release: “It is every archaeologist’s dream to work on a ‘once in a lifetime’ site, and supervising these excavations is definitely a career-high for me.”
Once analysis of the find is complete – a process which could take a year or two, according to Hunter – the lead coffin is expected to go on display at Leeds City Museum.