Archaeologists often joke that the real treasures are discovered on the last day of a dig. For a team in Buckinghamshire, England, this quip actually proved true: As Harriet Sherwood reports for the Guardian, excavators recently made the “once-in-a-lifetime” find of three Roman busts at the site of a former Norman church.
Researchers unearthed the sculptures—along with a rare glass jug—during the final stages of excavations at St. Mary’s Church, which was built around 1080 C.E. and torn down in the mid-20th century. They are excavating the site ahead of construction of HS2, a controversial high-speed railway set to link much of England and Scotland. (Previous finds made along the train’s route include an Elizabethan garden, an Iron Age murder victim’s skeleton and a trove of 2,000-year-old coins.)
“For us to end the dig with these utterly astounding finds is beyond exciting,” says lead archaeologist Rachel Wood in a statement. “The statues are exceptionally well preserved, and you really get an impression of the people they depict—literally looking into the faces of the past is a unique experience.”
Wood and her colleagues found two complete stone busts of an adult man and woman, as well as what appears to be the stone head of a child, reports Li Cohen for CBS News. The heads were buried alongside two matching torsos for the adult statues. No traces of the smallest statue’s torso were found. In the statement, the dig team describes the discovery as “uniquely remarkable.”
The experts speculate that the figures originally stood in a Roman mausoleum built on the site of the Norman church during the Roman occupation of Britain. The square-shaped structure was destroyed in the Norman era, with St. Mary’s built atop its ruins, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. The statues may have been torn down, vandalized and buried around that time.
Located in the village of Stoke Mandeville, about 46 miles northwest of London, the site has a lengthy history. Per the statement, the area’s Bronze Age residents may have modified a natural mound to create a burial ground. The Roman mausoleum and Norman church replaced this burial mound in turn.
The excavation, conducted by staff at the engineering firm of Fusion JV and commercial archaeological service L-P Archaeology, also uncovered Roman cremation urns, painted wall plaster and roof tiles, and pieces of a broken glass jug.
According to Wood, the hexagon-shaped container is extremely rare. The only known example of a comparable intact vessel was found in Tunisia and is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“Of course, it leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches,” says Wood in the statement.
St. Mary’s made headlines earlier this year, when the HS2 team announced plans to move around 3,000 bodies buried at the site of the medieval church. As BBC News reported at the time, the cemetery was in use for 900 years, with the last recorded burial taking place in 1908. The church itself was abandoned in 1880 and demolished in 1966.
Researchers are cleaning the newly unearthed statues at a lab, where they hope to discover evidence of pigments used in paints for decoration. Once the analysis is finished, the stone busts will likely be displayed at a local museum.
“This has truly been a once in a lifetime site,” says Wood in the statement, “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.”