Land soon to become a new housing estate has yielded an unexpected treasure – a 2,000- year-old skeleton, believed to be that of a prince, a warrior or a priest.

Planning permission has been granted for more than 600 houses in open fields at North Bersted near Bognor.

But before the work could go ahead, an archaeological survey had to be carried out on the site to check if there was anything of historical interest under the topsoil.

What the team from the Thames Valley Archaeological Services found was beyond their wildest dreams.

After digging tirelessly for several months they have made numerous discoveries.

The excavations revealed Bronze Age boundary ditches and evidence of occupation, four Middle Bronze Age bronze axes known as palstaves, an Iron Age roundhouse and a Roman building set among fields.

But there was more. Hidden just below the surface was a burial mound containing a well-preserved skeleton of a man that had lain undisturbed for about 2,000 years.

Around him were three pots containing various items suggesting he was a man of wealth.

Steve Ford, a director of the archaeological service, said: “The deceased, a mature male more than 30 years old, was laid out in a grave and was accompanied by grave goods.

“These comprised three large pottery jars placed at the end of the grave, presumably containing offerings to the gods or food for the journey into the afterlife, an iron knife and several items made of bronze.

“One appears to be a helmet and the other a shield boss.

“Also present are two bronze latticework sheets highly decorated, perhaps used to cover a shield.

“The burial and its grave goods seems to have been placed in a large coffin or casket bound by iron hoops with an iron framed structure placed on top.”

The intricate metalwork is so unusual that even the professor of European archaeology at Oxford University, Professor Barry Cunliffe, who visited the site, said he had seen nothing like it before.

In order to remove the objects from the ground without damaging them, they were lifted in blocks of soil by a specialist conservator for more delicate excavation and conservation in a laboratory.

Mr Ford said the pottery indicated that the burial took place either at the end of the Late Iron Age or just into the Roman period, around AD 50.

He said the burial was similar to famous graves of the Late Iron Age found in Hertforshire, Kent and Essex.

All of these, he said, are likely to have been graves of princes, chiefs or possibly priests but that they were all dated a little earlier than the North Bersted site.

Building work on the land has been temporarily halted by developers Berkeley Homes and Persimmon Homes due to the credit crunch.