Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 15:00 UK

Roman coffins discovered at dig

Sarcophagi discovered in Newcastle
The sarcophagi are thought to have used to bury a powerful family

Two 1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi have been uncovered at a dig on the site of a former chapel and office buildings in Newcastle.

The coffins are thought to have been used to bury members of a powerful family from a nearby walled fort where Hadrian's Wall would once have run.

One of the sandstone sarcophagi has already been opened and contained the headless remains of a child.

The other is to be opened by experts from Durham University on Friday.

The Durham University team was hired by a development company which aims to build a modern office block on the site once its archaeological riches have been preserved for future generations.

Roman army

Other discoveries at the site, on Forth Street, include cremation urns, a cobbled Roman road, a Roman well and the foundations of Roman shops and workers' homes.

Richard Annis, from Durham University, said: "These sarcophagi would have been a prominent feature of the landscape, as they were carefully placed to be viewed, being close to the road and, at the time, raised above the ground.

"They would certainly have had to belong to a wealthy family of a high status in the community, perhaps at Fort Commander level or at senior level in the Roman army."

The sarcophagi, about 70cm (2.2ft) wide and 180cm (5.9ft) long, have walls around 10cm (3.9ins) thick and weigh up to half a tonne each.

They are both carved out of a single piece of sandstone. Each lid was fixed in place with iron pegs sealed with molten lead.

After analysis by the Durham University team, all of the finds from the site will eventually go to the new Great North Museum in Newcastle, where the sarcophagi will be preserved for the public to see.

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