Analysis of dirt provides new insight into Roman burials

The first scientific evidence of frankincense being used in Roman burial rites in Britain has been uncovered by a team of archaeological scientists led by the University of Bradford. The findings - published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science - prove that, even while the Roman Empire was in decline, these precious substances were being transported to its furthest northern outpost.


The Roman Empire at it greatest extent. image: Tataryn77/wikipedia

The discovery was made by carrying out molecular analysis of materials previously thought to be of little interest - debris inside burial containers and residues on skeletal remains and plaster body casings. Until now, evidence for the use of resins in ancient funerary rites has rarely come to light outside of Egypt.


The samples came from burial sites across Britain, in Dorset, Wiltshire, London and York, dating from the third to the fourth century AD. Of the forty-nine burials analysed, four showed traces of frankincense - originating from southern Arabia or eastern Africa - and ten others contained evidence of resins imported from the Mediterranean region and northern Europe.

Classical texts mention these aromatic, antimicrobial substances as being used as a practical measure to mask the smell of decay or slow decomposition during the often lengthy funeral rites of the Roman elite. But it was their ritual importance which justified their transportation from one end of the empire to the other. Seen both as gifts from the gods and to the gods, these resins were thought to purify the dead and help them negotiate the final rite of passage to the afterlife.

sourcehttp://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-12/uob-dpn120314.php

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