"Hit the jackpot": Crypt of coffins discovered during church renovation

London tomb discovery

LONDON -- You never know what you will find digging around an old house. Not the old Houses of Parliament, but across the river Thames in a 1,000-year-old house of worship where important people used to pray.

What workers found there lately changed their lives.

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Craig Dick CBS News

Craig Dick had found what centuries of archaeological study had missed.

“I suddenly thought I’m Indiana Jones,” Dick joked. “I hit the jackpot.”

When English passions turned from religion to gardening, what was St. Mary’s Church Lambeth was saved from demolition and turned into a horticultural museum which is under renovation. And when workers lifted a loose slab on the floor they expected to find -- nothing.

A modern manhole cover now protects what Dick found. A hole in the floor, which led to a crypt full of coffins that nobody knew were there.

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A church renovation led to a fascinating archaeological discovery: a crypt full of coffins. CBS News

“Your heart stops, you see something,” Dick said. “And, in a sense, panic. And wonder what it is ... who it is.”

There was a hint who it is.

Some clues: a golden crown, an archbishop’s mitre, a sign that among the 30 coffins a former head of the Church of England is buried here. In fact, at least two are located there.

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Archbishop Richard Bancroft CBS News

And one, Richard Bancroft, an archbishop from 1604 to 1610, was among the most influential heads of the Anglican Church there’s ever been.

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Elena Greer CBS News

“He played a crucial role really in the history of the Church of England because he was chosen by King James the First to oversee the production of the King James Bible,” said Elena Greer with the Garden Museum in London.

The King James Bible -- the English standard text -- is perhaps the most widely printed book in history.

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King James Bible CBS News

It’s not going to hurt their appeal.

“No, and it’s timely because we’re reopening next month,” Greer said.

Timing -- even in a thousand years of history -- is everything.

  • Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.