Roman sarcophogus, headless skeleton found at London church construction site

Archaeologists discovered a rare Roman limestone sarcophagus containing a headless skeleton at the site of London's historic Martin-in-the-Fields church, authorities said Friday.

The find dates to about 410 A.D. and lay 3 meters (10 feet) below the grounds of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church near central London's busy Trafalgar Square, outside the boundaries researchers had established for London's Roman city walls.

"The find has opened up an exciting new area of Roman London for study," said Taryn Nixon, director of the Museum of London Archaeology Service. "This gives us an extraordinary glimpse of parts of London we haven't seen before, particularly Roman London and Saxon London.

Excavators and archaeological teams discovered 24 medieval burial sites in the area above and around the Roman sarcophagus during work on the church grounds this summer. The discovery lies in view of the National Gallery art museum, Nelson's Column and the square, which is often congested with tourists.

The sarcophagus was made from a single piece of limestone from Oxfordshire or Northamptonshire, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) northwest of London, researchers said. The skeleton, headless and missing fingers, is a 5-foot-6-inch (1.68-meter) male who died in his 40s. Researchers speculated Victorian workmen building a sewer stumbled upon the sarcophagus and took the head.

The site is about a mile (1.6 kilometers) west of the boundary of Roman London established by researchers, said Roman history expert Hedley Swain.

Archaeologists made two similar finds in London during the 1970s and once at Westminster Abbey during the 19th century.

It was unclear if the burial was Christian or held by pagans, who populated the area, Swain said.

A 36 million pound (US$71 million, Ђ53 million) renovation and expansion project on the church began in January and an entrance into a foyer and shop is planned for above the burial site, said architect Tim Lynch.

Other finds include a Roman tile kiln, Anglo-Saxon jewelry, false teeth, a copper bowl and a green-blue glass cup, reports AP.

"I'm amazingly thrilled by the finds we have made and excruciatingly nervous we will find something so significant we will have to stop the (renovation) work altogether," said Rev. Nick Holtam, the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

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