Archaeologists say they've made a "once-in-a-lifetime" discovery in uncovering an ancient cemetery used by two cultures in northern England. They were called to the site in Leeds last year ahead of a commercial development. As structures from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods had been found nearby, they thought they might find something of note. "But we didn't expect to find a cemetery of 62," David Hunter, principal archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, tells CNN. "We certainly got more than we bargained for."
The cemetery contained the remains of men, women, and 23 children. They were buried from the late Roman period to the early Saxon era, according to burial customs uncovered, Leeds City Council said in a Monday release, noting graves from the Saxon period contained personal items, including pottery and knives. The real jewel, however, was a lead coffin holding the 1,000-year-old remains of a presumed Roman aristocrat—a woman. "The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig," says Hunter.
Additionally, "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," says the archaeologist. Experts hope to precisely date the graves and perform chemical tests that could reveal the ancestry and diets of individuals. This information could lead to better understanding of "the largely undocumented and hugely important transition between the fall of the Roman Empire in around 400AD and the establishment of the famed Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which followed," per the release.
As NBC News reports, Leeds is considered the center of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, a mysterious entity "established after the collapse of Roman control but before the dominance of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms." "To have discovered a cemetery of such significance, at such a time of transition, was quite unbelievable," says on-site superviser Kylie Buxton. "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." (Read more discoveries stories.)