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Archaeologists open 1,700-year-old Roman child's coffin

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  • Archeologists found a thick layer of clay when they took their first peek inside but hope to find bone fragments and keepsakes in the child's coffin
  • An expert believes the lead coffin would have cost the equivalent of about £200,000, showing it belonged to a wealthy Roman family
  • It was found four feet underground in a Leicestershire field by a metal detecting club, around two miles away from the site of a Roman settlement

By Sarah Griffiths

PUBLISHED: 08:51 EST, 12 November 2013 | UPDATED: 09:57 EST, 12 November 2013

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A Roman coffin has been prised open for the first time in 1,700 years.

The coffin, unearthed in Leicestershire, is believed to belong to a child and archaeologists hope their investigation will help them learn more about the individual who was laid to rest in it.

Archaeologists found a thick layer of clay when they took their first peek inside the lead-lined casket yesterday, but hope to find a keepsake in the child's coffin as well as fragments of bone.

Chris Wright
Experts at Archaeology Warwickshire

Chris Wright, who found the coffin (pictured in black in the left-hand image) watches archaeologist Rob Jones (in white) removing clay from the coffin. Experts at Archaeology Warwickshire (right) are examining the 1700-year-old Roman child's coffin found in a field and hope to discover keepsakes inside

Project spokesman Stuart Palmer said: 'It can reveal so much.

'Because of the sealed environment within the sealed lead coffin there is trapped evidence that would otherwise have been removed. It’s like a time capsule.

'We may find some bone fragments, although there’s no guarantee they will be recognisable. But even without those, chemical testing can tell us a lot.

'We may even be able to establish a cause of death if there is some chemical signature for it, or there may be something important to the child buried inside the coffin,' he added.

The coffin was found by metal detecting enthusiast Chris Wright in a field in Leicestershire last month.

A 1,700-year-old lead coffin

A 1,700-year-old lead coffin, thought to contain the remains of a Roman child, has been found by a metal detecting club in a field in Leicestershire

The clay inside the coffin will be analysed by scientists

The clay inside the coffin will be analysed by scientists: Project spokesman Stuart Palmer said because the material has been sealed inside a lead coffin, it can be compared to a time capsule

Since then, it has been cleaned by experts from the Archaeology Warwickshire group and the University of York, who will now take several months to analyse the contents.

Dating processes confirmed the child was buried up to 1,900 years ago, while the coffin’s lead lining suggests he or she was born into a wealthy family

Mr Wright said he was stunned to stumble across the find.

'My initial surprise was followed by shock and awe. It’s different from the old coins we usually find.'

clay in the coffin
Scientists collect fragments found in the coffin for analysis

Archaeologist Rob Jones (pictured) removes the top layer of clay from inside the coffin. A collection of fragments unearthed from around the coffin, believed to be nails used in the outer wooden part of the coffin, are pictured right

Archaeologists have no plans to return to the site where the coffin was found as they do not believe there are any other items of interest in the area.

After the analysis is complete, the coffin is likely to be re-buried unless it is found to be historically significant.

But archaeologists want to show their respect for the child who was buried in it by giving the youngster a Roman name and have picked a number of options they want the public to vote for online.

The names suggested are Oriens, which means 'rise like the sun', Loquor, which in Latin translates as 'I speak', Aperio, meaning 'reveal', Addo, meaning 'inspire', Accendo, which translates as 'illuminate' and Parvulus, which means 'infant'.

The coffin

The coffin has been cleaned by experts from the Archaeology Warwickshire group and the University of York, who will now take several months to analyse the contents (pictured)

Members of a metal detecting club stumbled across the coffin when they were searching a field in west Leicestershire, about two miles away from where a Roman settlement and fort that is known to have existed.

Mr Wright, 30, a surveyor, said: 'I cannot describe how it feels to find something like this. You spend hours walking around fields, sometimes with little reward and then you find something this.

'It is incredible, it makes all the hours worthwhile, it makes you feel so good.

'We had been at it all day and then got a signal - it was quite deep so I "ummed and ahhed" about whether to just ignore it and move on,'he said.

But luckily Mr Wright let curiosity get the better of him and began to dig.

'I was digging like mad when we began to see what it was - not in a way that might damage the item I must add - but just in an excited way,' he said.

'It would be great to have questions answered such as why a child should be given such a high status burial and why the burial took place there.

'But perhaps these are questions that may never be answered.'

The lead coffin

The lead coffin is thought to hold the remains of the child of a very wealthy individual as it is estimated the casket would have cost the equivalent of about £200,000 in the third century AD

David Hutchings, 47, founder of DIGGING UP THE PAST metal detecting club said: 'It was about four feet underground on a field but the coffin was made of lead so we had no problem finding it.

After digging down and discovering it was a coffin, they called the police and a vigil was set up at the site to protect it from grave robbers.

Mr Hutchings said: 'We assumed there were human remains in there so we contacted the police and they got in touch with the archaeologists from Leicestershire County Council, who also came out.

'It seems to be third century Roman and because of the east-west alignment we think it was a Christian burial.

The coffin is thought to hold the remains of the child of a very wealthy individual.

'It’s a lead coffin and we think it would have cost the equivalent of about £200,000, so it was paid for by someone very wealthy,' said Mr Hutchings.

Leicestershire field

The coffin was found in a field in Leicestershire and it could be the earliest example of a Christian burial in the county. It was discovered by surveyor and amateur treasure hunter, Chris Wright (pictured)

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