Beauty bonanza found in Roman sarcophagus

A team of archaeologists has unearthed an intact stone sarcophagus from the 3rd century A.D. in Zülpich, west central Germany. It is the first Roman sarcophagus found in the Rhineland outside of Cologne in more than a decade. The heavy coffin contained the skeletal remains of a woman and a large quantity of beauty products. Initial examination suggests the woman was between 25 and 30 years old when she died.

The sarcophagus was discovered during archaeological salvage operation occasioned by construction of a expanded sewer and drainage system for a new section of a business park. The site is near the ancient Roman road, known as the Agrippa Road, which ran from Cologne to Trier through the Roman town of Tolbiacum (modern-day Zülpich). Aerial photography and test pits had revealed the presence of a Roman estate immediately adjacent to the planned route of the new water pipe, so archaeologists were engaged to survey the area. An initial trench about 5 meters wide was dug, and even though layers of topsoil had been stripped in the 19th century for brick production, the industrial activity had managed to avoid damaging or destroying the Roman archaeological treasure just underneath. The team quickly discovered a large sandstone slab that proved to the be lid of a stone sarcophagus measuring 2.3 x 1.1 meters (7.5 x 3.6 feet). It is rare to find so expensive and important a sarcophagus in the northern provinces. The woman buried in it must have been extremely wealthy.

Archaeologists spent a week carefully digging out the sarcophagus, documenting the shape of the grave pit. Security guards were hired to watch over the trench at night and keep it safe from lurkers. On September 8th, 2017, the 4.5-ton coffin was raised with heavy machinery and transported to the LVR-Landesmuseum in Bonn for detailed excavation of the interior and conservation in laboratory conditions. Roadside burials were customary in the Roman era, and this location was no exception. Multiple graves were found during the excavation, which is why the sarcophagus find was not immediately announced to the archaeologists time to fully excavate the neighboring burials without interference from the curious or people of more nefarious intent.

Once safely ensconced in the museum, the sarcophagus was opened. Inside archaeologists found the well-preserved bones of a woman and a remarkable collection of grave goods, most of them revolving around adornment. Buried with this fine lady were a folding knife, likely used for grooming rather than stabbing or chopping, whose handle is a carved figurine of Hercules, a small, shallow glass bowl with a tiny handle is believed to have been an offering dish for funerary rituals, a silver hand mirror with an unusual handle in the shape of two fingers pointing away from each other, a slate makeup palette and a slim metal spatula used to apply cosmetics, three glass perfume or liniment vials and a round-bellied glass jar bearing the inscription “UTERE FELIX,” meaning “use with happiness/luck,” a popular motto on jewelry, accessories and other adornments throughout the Roman empire in 2nd-4th centuries. A small spherical bronze vessel to hold oil was also buried with her, a rare find in a woman’s grave. Even rarer is the cork stopper which has survived in outstanding condition. Jewelry found in the sarcophagus includes jet and silver finger rings, necklace of jet beads and two jet pendants.

A set of bone pins, one with a gold tip attached and a second gold tip which had become detached from its pin, and a large, blunt sewing needle brought to mind Janet Stephens’ research into Roman hairstyling. These were the tools of an ornatrix, a lady’s hairdressing servant or slave, who could create elaborate styles with bodkins or by stitching complex plaits and loops into arrangements using the blunt needle.

This exceptional assemblage of accoutrements has been cleaned and conserved by Landesmuseum experts but their final disposition has yet to be determined. There are no plans to put them on public display yet.

7 thoughts on “Beauty bonanza found in Roman sarcophagus

  1. I wonder how bones get so scattered in a burial like that?
    I would certainly hope the excavation wasn’t done roughly enough to do it. Otherwise the sarcophagus seems to have been undisturbed since interment, so it seems odd that the woman’s bones are all over the place.

    The only thing I can think of is that maybe the sarcophagus was flooded by groundwater at some point.

  2. That region of Germany has had many earthquakes throughout history, so that may partially explain the scattering of bones and grave goods, but flooding groundwater makes sense, too.

  3. Badgers, maybe? 😉 – The 3rd century in that region was not only -if at all- in seismic terms a rather troublesome one: Maybe the poor girl was laid to rest in piece(s). Also, simple putrefaction might be an explanation, i.e. gas is created and cannot escape, and then the body is simply ‘blown up’.

    Groundwater could have been likewise a factor, as there seems to be indeed some sort of once muddy, but dried up residue underneath of her. Contrastingly, however, at least her spine seems to be rather intact. Hence, my personal guess would be putrefaction.

  4. Beautiful! :notworthy: – Even the black necklace. Hopefully, they will find out, where in the Roman empire she grew up, and maybe she was a local.

  5. GOD SHAVE THE QUEEN! – Alright, Hercules is just a semi-god, actually. I do wonder if a shaver with ‘superhero’ handle would sell today :boogie:

  6. Groundwater is for sure a possibilty why the bones are so scattered around in the sarcophagus. But since the sarcophagus was transported by truck before opening it (German newspapers), the shaking/rattling of the transport could be another reason?

  7. The sarcophagus was looted in antiquity.I have no doubt about it.Absence of any gold offering speaks good enough.

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