Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 15:04 UK

Female remains found at Roman dig

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The contents of the coffin are revealed

Archaeologists believe remains found in a 1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagus uncovered at a dig in Newcastle are female.

The coffin was one of two found at the site of a former chapel and thought to have been used to bury members of a powerful family from a fort.

The lid was painstakingly lifted on Friday and the coffin found to be full of water and sludge, as expected.

But teeth, bone fragments and a hairpin were also found by the team.

The other sarcophagus has been opened and contained the headless remains of a child.

The head was placed elsewhere in the coffin, which was an unusual but not unknown practice in Roman times. Some experts believe this was done to ensure the dead did not return to haunt the living.

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

By great good fortune we found this rather fine jet hairpin by the neck
Richard Annis, Durham University

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.

It is believed the fort would have been linked to Hadrian's Wall.

Richard Annis, from Durham University, said the jet gemstone hairpin found in the coffin measured about 3.5ins (8.9cm) in length.

He added: "The bone preservation was very bad.

"It was possible to make out the way this person was laying, but by great good fortune we found this rather fine jet hairpin by the neck.

"So we can say that it was a wealthy lady who was buried with this and has lay in the dark from perhaps the 4th Century.

"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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