AROUND 40 skeletons have been discovered in what archaeologists believe could be the earliest Roman burial ground of its kind in Britain.

The large number of skeletons and a further four cremations were uncovered along with various artefacts during construction work at St James's Place in Cirencester.

Work to create a car park on the former Bridges Garage site has been halted and security beefed up following the discovery.

Cliff Bateman, Cotswold Archaeology project manager, said: “We may have a very early Roman inhumation (burial) which is quite a revelation at the moment. We could be looking at the earliest inhumation cemetery in Cirencester’s history and maybe in Roman Britain. It would challenge archaeological preconceptions that cremations were the main source of burial during the early Roman period.”

He added: “In terms of Cirencester you are looking back to the archaeological excavations of the 1970s for anything comparable to this in importance.”

The piece of evidence that has the Cotswold Archaeology team excited is a pottery flagon discovered in a child’s grave, which they believe could date back to the early Roman period between 70 and 120AD.

Mr Bateman said the near perfect flagon was a significant find because it indicated the child could also have been buried in the early Roman period. It is thought inhumations were not common practice until after 200AD, so the team believe the find could re-write historians’ understanding of Roman Britain.

A large number of the inhumations were in shallow graves within a marked enclosure, which could have belonged to a family. And the flagon, which was likely to have been made in nearby Purton, was found in a young child’s grave within this enclosure.

In addition, two bracelets and hob nails have been found in graves and archaeologists believe there is the potential for more rare finds on the site.

One of the bracelets, made of green glass beads, jet beads, shale and copper alloy was found still attached to the wrist of a skeleton.

Less attractive finds included a decapitated skeleton and a skeleton whose pelvis had been cut through with a gas pipe during previous construction works.

Mr Bateman said decapitations were not an uncommon practice in later Roman times and it was not necessarily an indication of criminality or punishment. He said: “The head has been deliberately placed on its feet. That’s not uncommon in Roman times. This doesn’t say that this person was bad in life.”

He said men, women and children were decapitated in later Roman times and it was difficult to pinpoint the reason behind it, but it could be due to some sort of change in spiritual practice.

When Bridges Garage was first built on the site in 1961 local archaeologist Richard Reece managed to salvage 46 Roman cremations and six inhumations before work was completed.

“We didn’t know how comprehensive the works of the 1960s would have been and how much the massive fuel tanks would have damaged the surviving archaeology,” Mr Bateman said.

There was nothing to suggest that there would be so many burials. It’s only when we excavated a third of the site that we discovered a ditch and immediately on the other side we found four cremations.”

St James’s Place called off the JCBs as soon as the remains were spotted. Richard King, head of property management, said: “It’s important to Cirencester so if we have to wait a few extra weeks for a car park while this is done properly then it isn’t a concern to us.”

He added: “It’s created quite a buzz. We had around 90 office staff having a look yesterday in a guided tour.”

All findings are being safely transported to the Cotswold Archaeology offices in Kemble for radiocarbon dating and further examination, to determine the age and sex of the bones and the date of artefacts.

Once studies are completed, St James’s Place is keen for all findings to be returned and stored locally, at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.

Amanda Hart, Curator at the Corinium Museum, said: “The excavation is revealing some significant archaeology, and we are hopeful that the public will be able to see some of the finds on display in the Corinium Museum in the not too distant future.”