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Archaeologists unearth ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ discovery of complete Roman statues in U.K.

A complete bust of a Roman statue found in a St. Mary's Church archaeological dig in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, England. (Courtesy of HS2)

In a small village in southeast England, at an abandoned medieval church along a high-speed railway, archaeologists have made what they call an “astonishing” discovery: complete Roman busts of a man and a woman, as well as another statue of the head of a child.

“This site has not stopped surprising us the whole way through,” said lead archaeologist Rachel Wood. One find was already rare, she said in a video release, but “to have found two complete ones with a third head is just utterly remarkable for us as archaeologists.”

The statues are “exceptionally well preserved,” Wood said in a statement. “You really get an impression of the people they depict — literally looking into the faces of the past is a unique experience.”

England was a part of the Roman Empire from AD 43 to about AD 410.

Wood and the team are working under contractor Fusion JV at an archaeological site on the High Speed Rail 2 project — a planned high-speed railway that will link parts of the United Kingdom over three construction phases. Phase One will involve 140 miles of new railway constructed from London to the West Midlands, and will open between 2029 and 2033.

Throughout the project, before bridges, tunnels and tracks are built, the HS2 team will carry out what it describes as the “largest archaeology programme ever undertaken in the UK” along the planned rail route. The project is controversial for a number of reasons, including spiraling project costs with estimates as high as £106 billion ($145 billion). The HS2 construction is also expected to bisect small villages and disturb tens of thousands of graves — including one site with 45,000 skeletons.

Since the Stoke Mandeville church dig began, around 3,000 bodies have been removed from the site to be reburied elsewhere, the BBC reported. In a separate HS2 dig, archaeologists exhumed the remains of the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia and put the continent on European maps.

“As HS2 builds for Britain’s future, we are uncovering and learning about the past, leaving a legacy of knowledge and discovery,” Mike Court, HS2 lead archaeologist, said in a statement.

The discoveries provide a glimpse into the history of the site. Archaeologists now believe it was home to a Roman mausoleum before the Norman church was built. The materials found around the site — including the statues, a vessel, roof tiles, painted wall plaster and Roman cremation urns — are too ornate to suggest the building was domestic.

The Roman building appears to have been demolished by Normans who built St. Mary’s Church, as the demolition rubble lies directly beneath the Norman foundations without soil buildup between, the news release stated.

Among the other finds announced Friday is a hexagonal glass Roman jug with a light-blue-green tint, with large pieces still intact despite being buried for an estimated 1,000-plus years. The one comparison the HS2 team could find is an intact vessel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The quality of the glass is really, really impressive. It’s so good that it almost looks modern,” Wood said in a video released by HS2.

The artifacts have been sent for specialist analysis, and their final destination will be determined “in due course,” HS2 announced. In a statement, Wood described the discovery site as “once in a lifetime” and said she looks forward to hearing from the specialists about what the statues can say about history.

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