Multi-period cemetery discovered in West Yorkshire

One of the interments contained a lead coffin with a female occupant; such coffins are relatively uncommon in Britain, and would probably have been expensive.

Excavations in Garforth, near Leeds, have revealed the remains of a cemetery that appears to have been used during both the late Roman and early medieval periods, providing a rare look into life in West Yorkshire during this transitional period in British history.

Photo: West Yorkshire Archaeology Services (WYAS)

The cemetery was uncovered last year by archaeologists from West Yorkshire Archaeology Services (WYAS), led by site director Kylie Buxton, in advance of development. It had been known before planning was approved that this site was likely to reveal human remains, as five burials had been discovered nearby at the beginning of the 19th century, and previous excavations in the surrounding landscape had revealed evidence of some late Roman buildings and a possible Anglo-Saxon sunken featured building, all within a few 100 metres of the present site. It was not until trowel was put to soil, however, that the full extent of the surviving archaeology was appreciated.

The first stages of the excavation revealed evidence of further sunken featured buildings and then, as the work moved further south, the cemetery was revealed. In total, more than 60 burials were uncovered, forming four distinct clusters – and to David Hunter, the principal archaeologist at WYAAS, it was apparent early on that they were dealing with a highly unusual cemetery, particularly for this area of the country where little evidence from the late Roman to early medieval period has been discovered.

While the radiocarbon dates are still awaited, based on burial characteristics it is thought that around a fifth of the burials may date to the late Roman period. One of the interments contained a lead coffin with a female occupant (pictured); such coffins are relatively uncommon in Britain, and would probably have been expensive. No villa or major Roman settlement is known to have been located nearby (although that does not mean that there wasn’t one), and the few Roman remains that have been discovered in the area likely pre-date these burials, so the presence of someone who was probably of relatively high status is intriguing.

The rest of the burials can roughly be divided into two types: those aligned north to south, and those lying east to west. While their precise date remains unknown, grave goods including pottery and small knives suggest a date between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. It is tempting to speculate that this shift in burial alignment could reflect conversion to Christianity at the start of the 7th century, but before radiocarbon dates come in, the phasing is not clear.

During the 5th and 6th centuries, the cemetery would probably have lain within the bounds of Elmet, a little-known post-Roman kingdom situated between the larger powerhouses of Northumbria to the north and Mercia to the south. While there is very little concrete evidence of its history, it is believed to have existed between at least the 5th and early 7th centuries AD, before it was invaded and conquered by King Edwin of Northumbria in AD 616/617. Based on its name and mentions in early literature, it may have been predominantly Brittonic speaking, and it is possible that it may have seen Celtic Christian influence before the 7th century. This newly discovered cemetery, then, has great potential to inform us about this obscure period of history in a part of Britain where there is little evidence to illustrate the significant political changes taking place. As post-excavation work continues, including aDNA, isotope, and radiocarbon analysis, hopefully more clues will be revealed.