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Headlines Published on 10 September 2008

ARCHAEOLOGY
Title Researchers uncover Roman Greek embalming practices

The writings of Ancient Greeks and Romans made us privy to the notion that funeral garments were used to wrap the bodies of the deceased in Ancient Greece, and water, wine and olive oil were used to wash and treat the corpses. But a question remains: were embalming practices used? According to Swiss and Greek researchers, the answer is yes. The discovery of a mummy dating to A.D. 300 indicates the practice of embalming in Greece under Roman rule. The team's finding was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Visible brown lashes and various soft parts remain on the head © C. Papageorgopoulou
Visible brown lashes and various soft parts remain on the head
© C. Papageorgopoulou

Led by Dr Frank Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich, the researchers said the mummy of the middle-aged woman was found in a lead coffin inside a marble sarcophagus. This sarcophagus was first found in 1962 during an archaeological dig in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Experts say it dates from the Hellenistic and Byzantine Periods.

In this study, the team showed that a number of oils, spices and resins were used to embalm the body, whose remains are kept at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Not only did this method help preserve the skeleton, but some soft tissues were also partially preserved, including hair and blood cells, and a hand muscle, as well as a gold-embroidered silk cloth that covered the body.

The multidisciplinary research team used both histological and physico-chemical methods, such as macroscopic and anthropological analyses, including gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and electron microscopy tests, to determine what substances were used during the embalming. Myrrh, fats and resins were found. What the researchers could not determine was whether the lead coffin played a key role in the preservation of the remains.

The team said the study, carried out in collaboration with researchers from Demokritus University of Thrace in Greece, helps increase the understanding of how people used tissue-preserving, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidative substances in the mortuary practices of Roman Greece.

Institute of Anatomy research assistant Christina Papageorgopoulou, the person responsible for getting the study off the ground, said: 'Never before has such embalming been shown for this time period in Greece.' Previous data has suggested that only selected people were embalmed in Roman Greece, the research team added.

'This is, thanks to the mummy research at the University of Zurich, another significant increase in knowledge for society, as well as for historical research,' said Dr Rühli, Swiss Mummy Project coordinator. Swiss Mummy is using non-invasive testing methods that have no adverse impact on tissues in order to obtain information about life and death, and after-death alterations of historic mummies.

Studies such as this one have the potential to fuel partnerships between social and natural scientists, the researchers said. 'This transdisciplinary approach is particularly of interest in mummy science,' said Dr Rühli. 'It is a main focus of our own research unit.'









More information:

  • Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich
  • Journal of Archaeological Science







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