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.