Archaeologists have unearthed three stone Roman busts in what they believe to be a Roman mausoleum hidden under a Medieval church in Buckinghamshire, England. The astounding discovery was made during a dig near the route of a new High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project to connect parts of the UK, which has been met with criticism from activists concerned about its potential impact on historic sites.
The statues, which include the head and torso of an adult man and woman as well as the head of a child, may date from approximately 43 to 410 CE, when England belonged to the Roman Empire. Toward the end of their seven-month dig of the Norman St. Mary’s church, workers pulled the artifacts from a circular ditch they thought was the foundation of an Anglo-Saxon tower.
“For us to end the dig with these utterly astounding finds is beyond exciting,” said Rachel Wood, lead archaeologist for HS2 contractor Fusion JV, in a statement. The pieces, she added, are particularly striking because they are “exceptionally well preserved.”
“You really get an impression of the people they depict — literally looking into the faces of the past is a unique experience,” Wood said. “Of course, it leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches.”
Experts believe the site of St. Mary’s, erected in 1080 CE, was a Bronze Age burial mound before it was transformed into a Roman mausoleum. Materials found in the ditch are “too ornate and not enough in number” to suggest it was a domestic building, they said in a statement. Along with Roman cremation urns, around 3,000 bodies have been removed from the remains of the church, to be reburied elsewhere.
A green hexagonal glass Roman jug dating back over 1,000 years was also uncovered, with large pieces still intact. Archeologists said the sole comparison for the rare piece is a vessel currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
“This has truly been a once in a lifetime site and we are all looking forward to hearing what more the specialists can tell us about these incredible statues and the history of the site before the construction of the Norman church,” said Wood. The objects have been sent to a specialist laboratory for cleaning and analysis, and their final destination “will be determined in due course.”
Not everyone is pleased with the work that led to the findings, however. The project’s cost, estimated at around £106 billion ($145 billion), has raised eyebrows, as has its potential to disturb historic areas, archeological sites, and even graveyards. Before building bridges, tunnels, and tracks for the new railway, which is not expected to open its first line until 2029 at the earliest, the HS2 team is carrying out what it calls “the largest archaeology program ever undertaken in the UK.”
Stoke Mandeville is one of 60 sites identified for excavation along the route between London and the West Midlands. At another site, Saint James’s Garden in central London, over 60,000 human skeletons were exhumed from a burial ground, including the remains of Matthew Flinders, the first British explorer to circumnavigate Australia. Before HS2 began work on the area, locals organized a symbolic memorial service to protest the railway construction, calling it a “vanity project” that would unnecessarily disturb the bodies buried at St. James and harm the environment by removing trees and green space. HS2 said the project would offer “much-needed extra capacity” for the nearby Euston Station.
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