Monday, March 29th, 2010
Last year archaeologists excavating the ancient remains of Gabii (the site where Tarquin’s palace was found last month) found an 800-pound lead sarcophagus that instead of having the standard casket-and-lid construction actually folds over its resident like a burrito. It’s been in storage since its discovery, and is now being moved to the American Academy in Rome for further study.
It dates to 4th or 5th centuries A.D., and most likely contained someone of some importance, or at least of means. Lead was extremely valuable back then, so anybody who managed to scare up 800 pounds of it only to bury it all had to have serious funds.
It’s also unusual because Romans, even at that late date preferred cremation, and when they did bury people they used wooden caskets. Several hundred lead coffin Roman burials have been found, many of them containing the remains of gladiators, high-status women and adolescents.
Figuring out who was buried in this coffin will be no easy matter. For one thing, there were no grave goods found despite the burial having been found intact and capped with a cement cover. For another, the thick lead is impenetrable by x-ray and CT scans, so the options for non-invasive investigations are limited.
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.”
Another curiosity about this burrito burial is that it took place in the middle of a city block. There was a powerful taboo against burials within city walls, so whatever drove the survivors to bury this fellow intown must have been compelling indeed.
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.”