Roman child’s lead coffin found in farmer’s field

A metal detecting club has discovered a small lead coffin in a plowed field in the village of Witherley, Leicestershire, central England. Members of Digging Up The Past had been searching the field all day, turning up part of a Medieval seal matrix, Medieval silver coins and a few Roman bronze coins probably from the 3rd and 4th centuries, when around 4:00 PM 30-year-old surveyor Chris Wright’s metal detector gave off a very strong signal. It indicated the object was fairly deeply buried, but the signal was strong enough over a large enough area that Wright decided to start digging. After digging down two feet he had a colleague come help him. About three feet down, they encountered a corner of something they at first thought was made of stone, but soon realized it was a metal lid, probably of a coffin.

They called in club founder David Hutchings who agreed that it was a coffin and immediately called the police. The police arrived at the scene with Leicestershire County Council archaeologists and they all kept vigil overnight to protect the open grave from would-be treasure hunters. The archaeologists recognized it as an exceptional find. Preliminary examination suggests it may date to the 3rd century A.D. and its east-west alignment points to it being an early Christian burial. The coffin is less than one meter (3.3 feet) long so if it was used to bury someone, that someone was a young child. Lead was extremely expensive, so the deceased must have been the son or daughter of a wealthy family.

The council archaeologists were not able to start a professional excavation, for reasons that have gone unstated in the news stories but I’m guessing involves budgetary constraints. Police and volunteers guarded the site while Digging Up The Past got necessary permissions and raised funds to have the box excavated privately. Archaeology Warwickshire was enlisted to do the job. On Thursday, October 24th, the casket was exhumed and brought to Warwick for further analysis.

The field in which the coffin was found is about two miles away from the Roman fort and town of Manduessedum (today Mancetter) which was founded around 50-60 A.D. along the Roman road known today as Watling Street. Manduessedum is one of the possible locations historians have suggested for the Battle of Watling Street, Iceni warrior queen Boudica’s final confrontation with Rome in 60 or 61 A.D. The much smaller army of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus decisively defeated Boudica’s army of allied tribes at that battle, the last organized military resistance to Roman control of southern England. After that, Manduessedum settled into a civilian life becoming a local center of pottery making. Thirty kilns from the Roman era have been discovered in the area.

Stuart Palmer, business manager for the appointed experts, Archaeology Warwickshire, said: “Everything points to the coffin being from the Roman era and it is the first lead coffin to be recovered from the area. It might be one of the few Roman burials recovered from the Witherley-Mancetter cross border region.”

“We know quite a lot about the Roman military activity in that part of Leicestershire and Warwickshire but not a great deal about the indigenous population. This coffin might provide us with one of a very few opportunities to examine how those people lived.”

Here’s a video of the finder telling his story and of the coffin in situ:

I wish they hadn’t dug all the way down to expose the sides and everything. That’s archaeological context they’re digging up, not just spoil. At the very least, as soon as they hit the lid they should have stopped. I hate seeing the dig marks on the lid and that big puddle of water.

EDIT: Finder Chris Wright assures me that they did stop digging when they hit the lid. The fuller excavation you see in the pictures was done by professional archaeologists.

18 thoughts on “Roman child’s lead coffin found in farmer’s field

  1. please note we did stop digging as soon as we had the lid. The coffin was excavated by archeologists and not the finders. Please report accurately. As for the big puddle of water, well that’s rain!

    1. I’ve updated the entry to reflect that you stopped digging at the lid. Thank you kindly for commenting.

      I realize you can’t stop the rain from falling, but it still gives me the willies to see ancient metal exposed to the direct elements like that after a thousand plus years of being protected in the ground, and I remain concerned about context loss from your initial excavation. You never know what you’re going to find in the soil, especially nowadays. Roundworms and evidence of medical treatments before death have been recovered from burial soil.

      While I have you here, why is it that the Leicestershire City Council didn’t take over the dig?

  2. But the context did get destroyed. That’s below the level of the ploughsoil there so it wasn’t been disturbed prior to this…

  3. Sorry, but I am not going to engage further with a forum prepared to make assumptions and ill-founded criticisms. I will confirm this find was immediately reported to the authorities and handed over to archaeologists, who were very pleased with its discovery.

    Disturbance was kept to a minimum with only the surface of the item uncovered, so it could be identified. As you will know, other artifacts are not so lucky and can get destroyed by agricultural equipment or eroded by fertilisers. Soil, is after all, porous.

    1. I’m not a forum; just a person and as such fallible. Short of never making mistakes, the best I can do is admit to them when corrected which in this case happened within minutes. Come now, we’re both fellow nerds who care about history. Even if we disagree on some issues, surely we can talk it out?

      Of course I do know that artifacts can be damaged, destroyed, scattered by agricultural equipment. Do you think that was a clear and present danger in this case? The coffin was buried deeply enough, it seems to me, to keep it out of range of most farming tools.

  4. I’m anxious to learn what’s inside besides the poor child’s remains — clothing, perhaps? Religious symbols? Please keep us informed on this fascinating discovery.

  5. How long must a burial be in the ground before it’s fair game for grave robbers, sorry, archaeologists? A week? A decade? A century? Is there a dividing line that entitles the living to disturb the dead, and if so what’s its basis? It’s disturbing to me that no one seems to care about these questions.

  6. Because comments like “dig marks on the coffin” have simply been made up. This not only undermines credibility of the article but also damages the reputation of the finder and the hobby.

    1. I didn’t make it up; I was just describing what I saw in the video which I embedded above my reaction to it so everyone can see for themselves. I didn’t say you scratched the coffin or damaged it in any way, but there pretty clear striations on the muddy surface.

      If you search this blog for “metal detectorist,” you’ll find all kinds of posts reporting major finds. I’ve never met a Viking hoard, Iron Age helmet or Roman gold phallus I didn’t love, and I’m not in the business of smearing the hobby or finders. I particularly appreciate when archaeologists and metal detector hobbyists work together. I believe those kinds of collaborations are an important part of the future of the archaeological profession in an era where slashed government budgets and contract work with short deadlines have put a great deal of pressure on the job.

      That doesn’t mean that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, though. There can be negative aspects to the rise of metal detecting in the wake of the PAS and I think it’s worth talking about. In fact, if you were willing to engage with me despite my many flaws, I’d be delighted to post a written discussion of the pros and cons between us. I think you’ll find we agree far more than we disagree and it would be interesting for the readers.

  7. Romulus, your comment about disturbing the dead shows a religious prejudice — i.e., a feeling that spirits of the dead are hanging around their bodies waiting for the Second Coming or something. The only reasonable concern about bodies is worry about giving offense to living relatives, as far as I can figurer from a scientific perspective. With nobody related to this person alive and concerned about the body, it’s simply superstition not to investigate the grave. The archaeological rewards may be great, while no one could be shocked by the exposure of a relative’s decayed body.

  8. I would guess the defensiveness comes from the tension between some archaeologists and historians and metal detectorists. And to be fair, there are a lot of responsible detectorists out there — and unfortunately some that aren’t that give the responsible ones a bad name.

    Good for these gentlemen who did the right thing and contacted authorities once they determined they’d found a coffin and possible human remains. Some people might have just covered it back up, or worse yet, looted it rather than report it. If we’re worried about lost context let’s consider how much context would have been lost if this coffin had just showed up on the auction circuit a dozen years from now with no provenance or context. And any context lost is probably less than would have been the case than if, say, a construction project had uncovered it while excavating for building foundations or utility installations, for example. A lot of archaeological finds are discovered even as they’re nearly destroyed by such.

    1. There is a lot of tension between the professions and the hobbyists, that’s for sure. I’ve read a lot of furious debate on the questions raised by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

      It’s undeniable that the metal detectorists in this scenario did the right thing by stopping at the lid and contacting the authorities. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fruitful to imagine all the worst things that could have happened to the casket in hypothetical scenarios. It traumatizes me to even think of all the history we’ll never know about that has been macerated by development or looting, but that’s no reason not to talk about what we can do better, right? Everyone involved cares about history, one hopes, rather than just treasure hunting, so there should be a conversation about how to do as little harm as possible.

      For instance, how big a pit should a metal detectorist dig to get to something setting off a signal? Is there a limit? It seems to me there should be, at least as a matter of standards or best practices.

  9. We have had some flack, not only from the religious but also haters of the hobby, which has really been unfair. The marks on the coffin are from my fingers where mud was removed by hand. We really did treat this item with as much care as possible and only removed enough dirt so that we could see and identify the item. It was then handed over to the professionals.

    People assume us to be treasure hunters or would be grave robbers but this simply isn’t the case and I have found it pretty offensive, especially in of light my mum, who had to fund the initial excavation due to their being no public money. The club also arranged and funded site security whilst it was decided (by the authorities) what should be done about this find.

    The fact that this item has been found and reported has been to the relief of many historical societies as it could potentially add a vital clue to roman life in the area. The local parishioner has already offered to re intern the remains once they have been researched.

    The lid of the coffin was below the plough line but it wasn’t far off, as metal a detectorist, I can spend hours and hours plodding fields with no success, but do see plenty of evidence of historical occupation obliterated and lost forever.

  10. I agree with Romulus and other people who made me think twice about this find. No matter how curious archeologists, historians, mass media and enthusiasts like me are, this is still a burial or a coffin, and not a time capsule that is waiting to be opened. Long time ago a family placed their child in a coffin with a possible purpose of that child to rest in peace. If their intentions would be to preserve their child for future generations, I am sure they would leave some kind of indication on a coffin like a sign or a plaque saying “To be opened, searched, studied and displayed”. There is nothing religious here. I just think more about common sense, about that family whose child died, their lost and their very last wish that today’s archeologists unfortunately are going to ruin by digging out and opening the coffin. What holds us from going to any cemetery these days and start digging for new discoveries?

    I am actually starting to think the same about extracted mummies and opened pyramids in Egypt, but this is a different story.

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