THE mystery surrounding the death and burial of a 17th century woman at an Oxford college may have been solved.

In March, the Oxford Mail revealed archaeologists had discovered the woman’s skeleton while excavating for a building project at St Cross College in Pusey Street.

Her remains were found with Charles I-period coins, but experts were left puzzled about why she was not buried in consecrated ground or on church land.

Now it is believed the woman – dubbed the Lady of St Cross by archaeologists and estimated to have been aged between 18 and 23 – could have been killed by diseases that swept through the city during the English Civil War.

Oxford Archaeology project manager Carl Champness said this may explain her place of burial, as other more traditional locations may have been closed during an outbreak.

He said: “The care taken over the burial suggests that the woman had not been considered an outcast or been buried in haste.

“It is possible, however, that her death may coincide with a series of outbreaks of typhus or plague.

“A typhus epidemic called morbus campestris, or camp fever, was recorded in 1643.

“It could have also been the plagues of 1644 to 1645 during the siege of Oxford by Parliamentarian forces, when more formal burial may have been difficult.”

He said the outbreaks could have been caused by the “insanitary conditions” recorded in Oxford because of an influx of Royalist officers, soldiers and their families during the Civil War, when Charles I made Oxford his capital city.

Mr Champness said the archaeologists now wanted to use state-of-the-art DNA testing on the woman’s bones, to test for disease pathogens.

He added: “Ultimately our aim is to try to identify who the Lady of St Cross College was and why she was buried within the garden.”

The skeleton was found in March in a large shallow grave under a burial shroud held in place with pins.

There were two coins, a silver shilling struck at the Tower Mint between 1640 and 1641, thought to have been placed on the woman’s eyes or mouth, and a silver half-groat dating to between 1635 and 1636.

That has led the archaeologists to believe the woman was from a wealthy background.

Helen Webb, an osteoarchaeologist from Oxford Archaeology, said: “The actual remains themselves do not show evidence of how she died. There are no obvious signs of trauma or infection.

“But what she died from happened quite quickly and did not affect the bones. We are hoping the DNA analysis will give us the answers.”

The skeleton was found near medieval boundary walls and a ditch, as well as 18th to 19th century rubbish pits, garden features and animal burials.