3D scans reveal new insights into Roman burial practice

In York, archaeologists have employed state-of-the-art 3D scanning technology to investigate an intriguing Roman burial practice. This pioneering application of 3D scans to Roman burials is the first of its kind worldwide.

The groundbreaking use of 3D imaging has provided archaeologists with unprecedented insights into this peculiar and enigmatic burial tradition. Adults and children, interred in coffins made of lead or stone, were subjected to the pouring of liquid gypsum—a mineral commonly employed in the production of cement and plaster.

The reasons behind this practice remain largely elusive to archaeologists. Nevertheless, the process involved pouring the liquid gypsum over the clothed bodies, which subsequently hardened around them. Over time, as the bodies decomposed, a negative cavity formed, preserving the original shape and contours of the deceased. The gypsum also retained imprints of shrouds, clothing, and footwear, offering valuable evidence of perishable materials that are rarely preserved in Roman graves.

High status

The precise reasons behind this ritual and its intended recipients remain a mystery, although it seems to have been a practice associated with individuals of high social standing. Earlier discoveries in York have revealed traces of aromatic resins originating from the Mediterranean and Arabia within three of the gypsum burials. This suggests the use of luxurious and exotic substances in the clothing and wrappings, materials that were likely accessible only to the elite.

While variations of Roman gypsum burials have been observed throughout Europe and North Africa, they are particularly prominent in Britain. The region surrounding York alone has documented at least 45 burials of this nature since the late 19th century.

The Yorkshire Museum houses the most extensive and significant collection of gypsum burial casts in Britain. This collaborative project involves the University of York, York Museums Trust, and Heritage360.

Out of the gypsum casings found in the Yorkshire Museum, sixteen have been preserved and utilized for the York project. An essential aspect of this initiative involves the 3D scanning of the negative cavities within these gypsum casings.

Typically, a single individual was interred in a coffin, but for the purposes of the York Project, researchers selected a gypsum casing that contained the remains of two adults and an infant who perished simultaneously.

Family tragedy

According to Professor Maureen Carroll, the chair of Roman archaeology at the University of York, the gypsum casing of the family provides a poignant glimpse into a tragic event that occurred nearly 2000 years ago. The 3D images offer a reminder of the fragility of life during ancient times and the care devoted to the burial of this group.

Professor Carroll further explains that while the naked eye can discern the outlines of the three individuals in the gypsum, it is challenging to determine their relationship to one another or understand their clothing and wrapping. However, the remarkable 3D model generated from the scans resolves these uncertainties in a striking manner.

The scans disclose that prior to being covered in liquid gypsum, all the bodies in the family group were fully wrapped in shrouds and textiles of varying quality and fabric. Intricate details, such as the ties used to secure the burial shroud over one adult’s head and the bands of cloth used to swaddle the infant, are clearly visible.

Lucy Creighton, the curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum, expresses excitement about the possibilities that cutting-edge technologies offer in terms of public engagement with their remarkable collections. The 3D scan of the family burial group brings the past to life, allowing observers to witness a tragic moment that unfolded in York over 1,600 years ago.

The research team aspires to secure significant research funding to scan all the gypsum casings and skeletons discovered in York. This would enable them to determine important factors such as age, sex, diet, and geographic origin.

Moreover, the researchers aim to gain a deeper understanding of the textiles utilized in the burials, including their potential social significance and the cultural, ritual, or practical reasons behind the chosen burial method. These investigations seek to shed light not only on the practices in York but also on similar customs in Britain and beyond.

Patrick Gibbs, the head of technology at Heritage360, praises the transformative impact of advanced scanning technologies. These tools empower researchers to analyze archaeological materials in ways that are often imperceptible to the human eye. Furthermore, the public can engage with interactive digital versions of ancient objects, creating a more immersive experience. The potential of 3D scanning to provide unique insights into the past is rapidly becoming a reality.

The research team unveiled their findings during the York Festival of Ideas, which took place on June 3.

Source: University of York

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