Unique lead coffin found under a parking lot in Leicester, England has been opened to reveal the skeleton of an unknown elderly woman.

Lady in Lead: Coffin found at Grey Friars near King Richard III opened, revealing mystery woman

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Archaeologists have been met with surprise upon surprise as they excavate coffins and remains found at the medieval grave site of England’s King Richard III. The opening of a unique lead coffin found close to the king’s grave revealed anonymous remains. Thought to be the skeleton of important men of the English Grey Friars order, tests have now shown those remains actually belonged to a mystery woman.

Located beneath a modern-day parking lot, the 13 th century site of Grey Friars Church has been undergoing excavation by archaeologists from Leicester University since 2012. Excavations revealed the hastily-buried remains of the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III. Also found were several other graves, and a unique stone sarcophagus containing a 600-year-old metal casket.

Skeleton of Richard III.

Skeleton of Richard III. Credit: Princeton Public Library

The 5mm-thick lead coffin features an inlaid crucifix, and was carefully sealed on all sides with solder. Skeletal feet were visible at the end of the coffin, as it had suffered some previous damage. It was deduced to be a high-status grave because of the expense of the lead and the effort of making the stone tomb.

Limestone sarcophagus containing the lead coffin at medieval Grey Friars Church.

Limestone sarcophagus containing the lead coffin at medieval Grey Friars Church. Credit: University of Leicester

Researchers thought in 2013 that the lead coffin might contain one of two men: “leaders of the English Grey Friars order -- Peter Swynsfeld, who died in 1272, and William of Nottingham, who died in 1330,” reports Discovery News .

The confirmation that the body is actually that of an elderly woman brings a twist to the case.

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Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris told Discovery News, “We speculated that this grave might be for one of [the men]. To find that it contained a woman was intriguing and to some extent frustrating for we know much less about the women associated with the friary than the men.”

In fact, other than King Richard III, the four other skeletons to have been exhumed (out of 10 found so far) belonged to women.

Four graves out of ten have been exhumed, all containing females buried hundreds of years ago at the same site as King Richard III.

Four graves out of ten have been exhumed, all containing females buried hundreds of years ago at the same site as King Richard III. Credit: University of Leicester

Radiocarbon dating and examination of the skeletal remains found that the woman buried in the lead coffin was elderly. She is thought to have been buried not long after the church was built in 1250, and may have been an early benefactor of the friary, reports the news site Leicester Mercury .

As revealed through testing, the diet of varied, protein-rich foods shared by the women, indicates to experts that they may have been wealthy, and of high social status. The bones also show that some of the women performed hard physical labor, and one may have suffered a congenital hip dislocation and probably walked with crutches.

Identifying any of the women will prove to be a near-impossible task, with little information or records remaining.

A University of Leicester press release states that records suggest “Emma, wife of John of Holt” was buried at the church in Leicester in 1290, but almost nothing else is known about her, such as her age, identifying features, or where her grave might have been.

Lead archaeologist Morris says, “We know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma, or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous.”

The Greyfriars Friary in Leicester was built in the 12th century and was home to the Friars Minor, also known as Grey Friars after the color of their habits.  The friary was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538 during the Protestant Reformation; soon after which it was demolished and became virtually lost to history.

The University of Leicester quotes Morris on the significance of the finds: “This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices. This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of the people of medieval Leicester.”

Photos and more information on the dig can be found at the University of Leicester Archaeological Servies (ULAS) site .

Comments

Some of the females were almost certainly wealthy benefactors of the Friary. The others may have been cooks and cleaners who had served the friars.

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