“Lead Lady” poorer and older than expected

A woman buried in a lead sarcophagus found in Nijmegen in 2001 may not have been a member of the wealthy elite of the ancient city on the northern border of the Roman Empire after all. She also died at least 100 years earlier than previously believed.

The coffin was one of several graves discovered during sewerage works on the Burchtstraat in Nijmegen’s city center in May 2021. What is the Burchtstraat today was a road in Roman times too, and was the custom in Roman cities, people were often buried on both sides of it. This was the first Roman lead coffin ever found in the Netherlands and more than 20 years later, it remains the only one. The delicate coffin was excavated, wrapped and removed whole to the Valkhof Museum for excavation in controlled conditions.

The skeletal remains were found to belong to a woman about 5’3″ tall who was about 50 years old when she died in around 340 A.D. The coffin had been looted in antiquity, but fragments of gold leaf and gold thread suggested she was buried in expensive garments. Next to her in the coffin was a wooden box containing glass bottles (unguentaria) with perfume residue, little spatulas, a mirror and some long hair needles/bodkins. In the soil outside of the coffin, the excavation uncovered fragments of wine amphorae from southern France or Palestine, the remnants of funerary libations of expensive imported wines.

Because lead coffins were so rare and expensive and because she had been buried with luxurious textiles, perfumed oils and fine glassware, archaeologists concluded she was of high social status. Her teeth were a little wrecked — several of them were missing and there were a number of cavities in the survivors — but that was attributed to an affection for sweet food and wine, both expensive vices that afflicted who could afford them.

New funding and research methods made it possible for experts to re-examine the Lead Lady recently. The coffin itself, the grave goods, the traces of gold and textile and the skeletal remains were all analyzed using technologies and approaches that were not available in 2001. The preliminary results have now been released, and they upend the conclusions drawn in the initial more cursory investigation.

First and foremost, the 4th century burial date has been overturned by newer, more accurate analysis. The grave dates to the early 3rd century instead, from around 200 A.D. Secondly,┬áthe lead coffin was recycled. The decoration on these boxes were always on the outside of the coffin. This one was on the inside because the malleable lead was turned inside-out before the lady was buried in it. It is also missing the original lead lid and was covered instead with tile. It was also too big for its occupant, 6’7″ long for a petite 5’3″ lady. Lead coffins were made to order, and even the wealthiest of families wouldn’t pay for a useless extra foot and a quarter. This coffin was made for somebody else.

Examination of the skeleton found evidence that the Lead Lady was no lady of leisure. Her vertebrae were worn and she had osteoarthritis, indications that she had spent years at heavy physical labor. Her teeth were missing and full of cavities from overindulgence. There are wear patterns that show she used her teeth as tools to perform repetitive actions.

So how did this hard worker end up in a coffin that used or not, was worth a bundle? She may have been a beloved servant, someone with a close relationship to a wealthy family she worked for. Archaeologist Joep Hendriks of the municipality of Nijmegen thinks she may have been an ornatrix, the personal hairdresser and cosmetician of one of the ladies of the family.

“She was close to the head of the household. They did not belong to the top elite, but they were very close. So you can imagine that when such a person died, the mistress helped pay for the funeral. The Lead Lady is also buried with hair needles, which were part of the work of an ornatrix.”

Hendriks is careful not to draw far-reaching conclusions. “Other interpretations are of course also possible, such as a craftswoman who became rich through hard work or the mater familias themselves from better circles: in Roman Nijmegen a second-hand lead coffin was also very special.”

Research into the intriguing lady in the lead coffin is still ongoing. The team hopes to extract DNA to determine her ethnic origins and stable isotope analysis of her teeth will determine where she grew up and what her diet was.

“Nijmegen was a melting pot at the time. Across the Waal, mainly people of local origin lived, but the city was founded by people from Gaul, soldiers from Spain, people from all corners of the Roman Empire, from the eastern Mediterranean to England. You could meet them all. We want to give the Lead Lady a place in that mixed society.”

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