SHOCKED builders near Winchester unearthed a skeleton thought to be more than 350 years old.

They made the discovery during work to build 12 homes in Main Road, Littleton.

But mystery surrounds why the remains — which were found in a 4ft deep pit — were not buried in the village’s churchyard, just a few hundred yards away.

Although there is no firm evidence, preliminary analysis suggests that the skeleton is that of a 16th century man.

Police were initially summoned, but they quickly established it was a matter for the city’s archaeologist.

“You don’t get phone calls very often saying we have found a burial,” said Tracey Matthews, archaeologist for Winchester City Council.

“They tend to be prehistoric primarily because since the advent of Christianity, burials have been in churchyards.”

She added an iron knife and buckle, believed to date from the 16th century too, were found on the body.

It is believed they were both originally attached to a belt, which was then laid across the pelvis area during the burial.

The upper half of the body was disturbed by builders, but bones below the waist appeared, at first glance, to be in good condition.

But, on closer inspection, archaeologists found bone preservation was poor.

Michael Lupton, a parish councillor and member of Littleton Local History Group, said: “There was a story going about that the body was a suicide.

“If this was the case it would not have been buried in the village’s churchyard. The church authorities in those days would not allow them to be buried in consecrated ground.”

Ms Matthews was then contacted by resident Juliet Gayton who found evidence that a Ralph Harfell committed suicide in Littleton around 1652.

After further digging she discovered Mr Harfell lived on a farm that includes the land off Main Road where the skeleton was found.

“You do get instances of criminals or suicides being buried outside churchyards, but they are normally in designated areas,” said Ms Matthews.