Hidden Secrets of Roman Gypsum Burial Practice Revealed by Scanning
Unveiling an ancient family tragedy buried beneath layers of history, archaeologists from the University of York have embarked on a groundbreaking journey into the lives of Roman citizens who met a mysterious and untimely demise nearly 1,700 years ago. By employing state-of-the-art non-invasive 3D scanning technology, these researchers have ventured beyond the confines of time, revealing the remarkable secrets hidden within a sealed burial cocoon formed from the mineral gypsum. What they discovered inside these customized burial chambers is a haunting testament to the fragile existence of these individuals and the care bestowed upon their interment.
A Family Tragedy Preserved
Archaeologists from the University of York, England, recently completed the scan of the burial cast of three Roman citizens who died nearly 1,700 years ago in Britain. This study revealed that two adults and one infant had been encased inside this unique wrapping, with the customized burial chamber remaining intact even after the bodies had decayed and dissolved.
These individuals had been placed together in a large coffin, side by side in a tight formation, suggesting they were relatives, and that perhaps a mother, father and their young son or daughter had all died together and then been buried together shortly thereafter. They were subsequently covered with a poured liquid solution of gypsum, which would have quickly hardened like cement (gypsum is used today to make both cement and plaster). During this process cavities inevitably formed around each body, and these customized burial chambers remained intact even after the bodies had decayed and dissolved.
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One of the 16 Roman gypsum burial casts in the York Museum collection. (York Museums Trust/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Other bodies from Britain’s Roman era have been found encased in gypsum , but this is the first time one of these hard mineral wrappings has been studied using deeply penetrating 3D scanning technology. There is no doubt that the results of this study represent a true breakthrough in non-invasive archaeological exploration.
A Roman Family Tragedy Encased in Gypsum
The University of York archaeology department funded this fascinating research project, which was also supported by the York Museums Trust.
The Roman-era gypsum “coffin” that was scanned during this landmark study is one of many included in a collection held at the Yorkshire Museum. All of them were recovered during local excavations, and the newly scanned gypsum shell was discovered sometime in the 19th century.
The gypsum shell used in this new study was chosen because researchers knew it contained more than one body.
“The contours of the three individuals in the gypsum can be seen with the naked eye, but it is difficult to make out the relationship of the bodies to each other and to recognize how they were dressed or wrapped,” explained Professor Maureen Carroll, the Chair of Roman Archaeology at the University of York, in a press release issued by that institution. “The resulting 3D model clarifies these ambiguities in stunning fashion.”
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Given that they were buried together, it seems almost certain that the two adults were the parents of the child. It is impossible to tell how they died, but some type of sudden accidental death that claimed mother, father and child simultaneously seems the likeliest explanation.
“The 3D images allow us to witness a poignant family tragedy almost 2000 years after it occurred, reminding us not only of the fragility of life in antiquity, but also the care invested in the interment of this group of people,” Professor Carroll said.
While the liquid gypsum poured over the bodies did form a hardened seal, it was not airtight and therefore could not prevent the bodies from decaying as the centuries passed. But even though intact skeletons cannot be preserved by this type of gypsum casing, clear imprints of clothing, footwear and burial shrouds will inevitably be left behind on the inside of the shell.
New 3D imagery of the burial of three individuals from Roman Britain. ( Heritage360)
Looking closely at the scans of the three body cavities, the researchers discovered that all three individuals had been wrapped from head to toe in textiles of various styles and qualities, and then overlayed with burial shrouds. In one of the adult cavities, they identified small ties that had been used to tie a burial shroud over the person’s head.
The archaeologists have no way of identifying the two parents and their child, but they do know they belonged to a wealthy family. In studies of other gypsum burials, expensive substances were detected on the wrappings, including traces of aromatic resins that would have been shipped from across the Mediterranean. This is a sure sign that this type of burial was an elite practice, presumably designed to ease someone’s transition into the afterlife.
A 3D Trip Back in Time to the Days of Roman Britain
Roman gypsum burials have been discovered during excavations at Roman sites in mainland Europe and North Africa . But for some reason they were more common in Roman Britain than anywhere else, and around York in northeastern England in particular (the city of York was actually founded by the Romans). At least 45 such burials have been found in the region over the last 150 years, all of which have been dated to the third and fourth centuries.
The Yorkshire Museum currently houses 16 gypsum burial casings, none of which have been broken open. Now that 3D scanning has proven its usefulness, the Museum plans to have all 16 of these unusual artifacts examined, so that archaeologists can learn more about the people inside them.
In addition to uncovering details about the attributes of the individuals in the gypsum shells, the researchers hope to learn more about the types and styles of textiles that were used in these unique burials. Such in-depth study could reveal important and surprising data about the cultural and ritual practices of the Roman people who occupied Britain from 43 to 410 AD.
"These cutting-edge technologies are opening up exciting new ways for the public to experience and connect with our spectacular collections,” said Lucy Creighton, the Yorkshire Museum’s Curator of Archaeology. “The incredible results of the 3D scan of the family burial group bring us face to face with the past and shows us a moment of tragedy that happened in York more than 1,600 years ago."
Top image: The Roman gypsum burial being scanned at York Museum. Source: University of York
By Nathan Falde