This one’s making the rounds and is in multiple copies in my mailbox … excerpts from a very interesting item at the National Geographic.
A 1,700-year-old sarcophagus found in an abandoned city near Rome could contain the body of a gladiator or a Christian dignitary, say archaeologists who are preparing to examine the coffin in the lab.Found in a cement-capped pit in the ancient metropolis of Gabii, the coffin is unusual because it\’s made of lead—only a few hundred such Roman burials are known.Even odder, the 800 pounds (362 kilograms) of lead fold over the corpse like a burrito, said Roman archaeologist Jeffrey Becker. rectangular shape with a lid, he said.
The coffin, which has been in storage since last year, is about to be moved to the American Academy in Rome for further testing.
But uncovering details about the person inside the lead coffin will be tricky. For starters, the undisturbed tomb contained no grave goods, offering few clues about the owner.
What’s more, x-ray and CT scans—the preferred methods of coffin analysis—cannot penetrate the thick lead, leaving researchers pondering other, potentially dangerous ways to examine the remains inside.
“It’s exciting as well as frustrating, because there are no known matches in the record,” said Becker, managing director of the University of Michigan’s Gabii Project.
The newfound sarcophagus was the “most surprising” discovery made in 2009 during the largest ever archaeological dig in Gabii. Becker and colleague Nicola Terrenato received funding for the ongoing project from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Lead was a high-value metal at the time, so a full sarcophagus made out of the stuff “is a sure marker of somebody of some kind of substance,” Becker said.
Past lead burials found throughout Europe have housed soldiers, elite members of the Christian church, and even female gladiators.
In fact, many lead coffins contain high-ranking women or adolescents instead of men, said Jenny Hall, a senior curator of Roman archaeology at the Museum of London, who was not involved in the new study.
However, the newfound sarcophagus’ tentative age may make the gladiator scenario unlikely, said Bruce Hitchner, a visiting professor in classical archaeology at All Souls College at the U.K.’s University of Oxford.
The coffin dates back to the fourth or fifth centuries A.D., while the gladiator heyday was centuries earlier, said Hitchner, who was not part of the excavation team.
What intrigues team leader Becker the most is the sarcophagus’s placement—”smack dab” in the middle of a city block. A taboo against burying the dead inside city limits was deeply ingrained in the Roman religious mindset of the time, he said.
“I don’t think it’s, We’re feeling lazy today, we’re going to bury Uncle Joe in the tomato garden,” Becker said. There may have been some major event that made people bury the body downtown—a possibility he intends to investigate during the next dig.
“As we seek to understand the life of the city, it’s important for us to consider its end,” Becker pointed out.
“To see someone who is at first glance a person of high social standing associated with later layers of the city … opens a potentially new conversation about this urban twilight in central Italy.”
Foot Bone Hints at “Extraordinary Preservation”
First, however, Becker’s team hopes to find out more about the person inside the lead sarcophagus. The researchers’ only hint so far is a small foot bone protruding through a hole in one end of the coffin.
Some lead burials have allowed for “extraordinary preservation” of human tissue and hair, Becker said, though the opening in the sarcophagus may mean that air has sped up decomposition of the body.
Still, early examinations reveal that the foot bone is “exceedingly” intact, Becker said: “Worst case, there’s an exceptionally well-preserved human skeleton inside the wrapping.”
The original article includes a very nice photo, which looks more like a paper airplane than a burrito to me; the purported gladiator connection (which is being hyped in some spinoff versions of this story) seems rather tenuous. The Gabii Project’s website is always worth a look … I can’t remember if we mentioned this similar burial from Yorkshire a couple of years ago …