Fifty skeletons dating back more than 2,000 years uncovered in Somerset may belong to native Britons enslaved by the invading Roman Empire.
Initial reports claimed the bodies were high-ranking members of society, but it is now believed they were the unpaid labourers working for the rich and powerful.
Each grave contained a single body, with both adults and children buried at the site, and many were buried wearing hobnail boots, researchers believe.
The remains were discovered by construction workers building a school.
The new school will be built on the site of the old King Ina Junior and Infants’.
‘This site is a significant discovery – the most comprehensive modern excavation of a Roman cemetery in Somerset,’ said archaeologist Steve Membery from South West Heritage Trust, which has overseen the excavations.
‘The application of technology including aerial drones and techniques such as isotope and ancient DNA analysis offers major opportunities for insights into the lives of the Roman population of Somerton.
‘The individuals were evidently of some status in native society.
‘The burials also show early adoption of Roman burial practices such as offerings alongside traditionally Iron Age characteristics.’
In a separate statement provided to LiveScience, he revealed the high-ranking native people may have been taken into slavery by the Romans.
‘They are most likely household servants, agricultural workers, and many may have technically been slaves,’ Mr Membery said.
‘So, this is a rare opportunity to study a sample of a community.’
The burials included both adults and children with a smattering of valuables in the graves, including pottery and brooches.
The form of the burials was unusual and sheds lights on the transition between Iron Age and Roman society.
An exact date of the skeletons is unknown as the studies are ongoing but early estimates date the remains as potentially as old as 43AD.
The graves were dug into the bedrock and lined with stone curbs to create a coffin-like structure and sealed with flat slabs.
The excavations also unveiled other Roman relics besides the bodies, including traces of Iron Age round houses, field systems and a Roman building.
Work on the new 420-pupil school had to be delayed while experts from Wessex Archaeology dug the site – and unearthed the discoveries.
Construction is set to resume following a short archaeological hiatus this month.
Somerset County Councillor Faye Purbrick, Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation, said: ‘The findings are both exciting and extraordinary providing us with valuable insight into Somerset’s early history.
‘We will be able to understand so much more about the lives of Roman people in Somerton thanks to these discoveries.
‘Our team have a great track record of delivering fantastic new schools and while we’d always prefer any delay to be avoided I think that the students, parents and teachers will understand in this instance, given the scale and importance of the archaeological finds here.
‘The children have already had an opportunity to visit the site hopefully inspiring some future archaeologists and I’m sure they will be excited to continue to learn more about this very special site.’
The site archaeology has been carefully gathered for further scientific analysis.
A full report of the findings will be published in due course, according to the people who dug up the site.