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The lead sarcophagus found in Granada, Spain is believed to come from the Roman period. Source: Granada Hoy

Discovery of Lead Sarcophagus Surprises Spanish Archaeologists

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Spanish archaeologists working in the downtown of Granada were going about routine excavations in a historic building in preparation for underground work at the site. With centuries of documented history for the building, the researchers weren’t surprised to find some relics from the Christian and Muslim periods. But no one would have expected to find a Roman period lead sarcophagus!

It was luck or intuition that led to its discovery. The excavators could have stopped their work after finding the first sets of finds, since they didn’t expect to find anything older than something from the Medieval period anyway. But someone’s intuition to dig just a little deeper was about to pay off.

The Lead Sarcophagus Surprise

Lead archaeologist Ángel Rodríguez admitted to El País that he didn’t expect to unearth much of interest even upon finding a muddy sandstone 2.5 meters (8.2 ft.) below the surface. But everything changed when the sandstone was removed and a lead sarcophagus was found hiding underneath.

The coffin measures 1.97 meters (6.46 ft.) long and 40 centimeters (15.75 inches) high and is a little wider at the head (56 centimeters (22.05 inches)) than at the foot (36 centimeters (14.17 inches)) end. It weighs somewhere between 300 to 350 kg (661.39-771.62 lbs.) – it is definitely a big find.

Rodríguez has dated the sarcophagus to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, however there are no apparent inscriptions to guide him yet. But that may change once a more thorough analysis begins, “it still has a lot of clay and sand,” Rodríguez has said , “we’ll see when we clean it.”

El País reports that the lead coffin would have been a luxury item since “In Andalusia, they were expensive as well as difficult to obtain, because the industry only existed in Córdoba, over 200 kilometers away,” during the Roman period.

Though it may not look very fancy today, the lead sarcophagus would have been a luxury coffin. (The History Blog)

Though it may not look very fancy today, the lead sarcophagus would have been a luxury coffin. ( The History Blog )

And although Rodríguez says that the sarcophagus “probably belonged to a wealthy family” he has low expectations for finding any treasures inside since people living in the area were more inclined to leaving behind luxury goods for the living than trying to take them into the afterlife with them.

But that doesn’t mean that the archaeologists expect the coffin is empty. Far from it.

What Will Happen to the Lead Sarcophagus?

As lead conserves remains very well, the archaeologists have expressed strong hopes that there’s a body still inside the sarcophagus. They may even be lucky enough to recover textiles or some personal items that were buried with the body.

For now, the lead sarcophagus is residing at the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Granada. That’s where it will stay during analysis and until the researchers figure out how they want to go about opening it with the most care possible. It’s expected that the opening of the sarcophagus will take place in the following weeks.

What will archaeologists find inside the lead sarcophagus? (Junta Granada)

What will archaeologists find inside the lead sarcophagus? ( Junta Granada )

If all goes well, and there are human remains found inside the coffin, the plan is to send those to the forensic anthropology laboratory at Granada University, where further analysis can be made. And if they are very lucky the contents of the lead sarcophagus will help archaeologists discover much more about burial rituals in the area during the Roman period .

The sarcophagus and any artifacts found in the coffin will stay in the museum for future testing.

An Interesting Location

Returning to the dig site, The History Blog ’s description of the building’s past explains why archaeologists were right to suppose they’d make at least some historical discoveries while excavating there:

“[…] the Villamena building, a modern structure next to Granada Cathedral that was built after a 14th century building on the site was demolished in 1938. Under the Nasrid dynasty (1228-1492) Emirate of Granada, it was the Alhóndiga de los Genoveses, a warehouse used by Genoese merchants to store trade goods like silk and sugar. After the Reconquista, their Catholic Majesties turned the building into a prison. It would remain one for four centuries until all the inmates were moved to the new, much larger provincial prison in 1930.”

The Villamena building in Granada. (Granada Hoy)

The Villamena building in Granada. ( Granada Hoy )

The Alhóndiga eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished, but the historic front gate remained. That gate became part of the modern building, soon to be a hotel , at the site. With the history of the location in mind, archaeologists did except to make some discoveries, but they never guessed the findings could include a Roman era lead sarcophagus.

Granada in Roman Times

El País explains that when the Romans were living in and ruling over the region, what is now downtown Granada was actually rural outskirts of the city. The Romans had centered their settlement in the area of the Albaicín district instead.

Rodríguez told El País why it is somewhat strange to have found the lead sarcophagus where they did – namely because the Romans would have primarily used the land near the banks of the Darro river for agricultural purposes. “It was not a cemetery, but perhaps because of the Darro river, it had a special meaning as a funeral area,” Rodríguez suggests .

The excavation site. (Gespad Al-Andalus Arqueología/Facebook)

The excavation site. ( Gespad Al-Andalus Arqueología/Facebook )

More Roman Era Lead Coffins

People working in a stone quarry in Surrey, England also found interesting Roman era lead coffins in February this year. The archaeologists who went to the site declared that it was a major discovery of two lead coffins from the Roman period decorated with Celtic iconography and motifs.

It’s also a pretty big find, since according to the BBC, there have been only “200 similar lead coffin finds in the country”.  In that case, the lead caskets had become warped and the tops had been broken under the weight of the soil, which had made the study of the human remains inside somewhat difficult. But in the end the archaeologists decided that one of the lead coffins contained an adult and infant and the other one adult.

Top Image: The lead sarcophagus found in Granada, Spain is believed to come from the Roman period. Source: Granada Hoy

By Alicia McDermott

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