The fragrant dead: How to treat your dead, the Roman way

8 mins read
Lumps of dried frankincense resin.

Within Roman society, highly aromatic resins were important in ritual activity, and sometimes even applied directly to the body at death. But did this sacred rite ever reach the remote province of Britannia? Bradford University’s Rhea Brettell and Carl Heron launched a project to discover more.

To the Romans, frankincense, myrrh, and other fragrant resins – the sticky scented substances secreted when the bark of certain trees or shrubs are ‘wounded’- often played an essential role in their rituals. At death (if you were rich enough), aromatic resins would be burnt as incense around the bier. As their fragrance rose, so it was believed that a connection with the gods would be forged.

But what is less well known is that there is written evidence for the use of resins in the preparation of the corpse itself. In such cases, these scented substances would be applied directly to the body or to the textiles wrapping it. This rite signified not only the high social status of the deceased, but was also believed to aid the spirit’s transition to the next world. Yet this aspect of Roman mortuary activity has received relatively little archaeological attention, and has been completely overlooked in the UK. So, in 2011 we launched a project to discover more – with the key question: is there any evidence that exotic resins were transported all the way to Roman Britain to be used in the treatment of the dead?

When in Rome

But before we get to our British research, we must first turn to Rome. What do we know of the funereal use of resins in the heart of the Empire? Most of our information comes from the classical authors, primarily writing in the period from the 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. They provide tantalising hints that costly aromatic plant products — including cinnamon, spikenard, frankincense, and myrrh – were used during the funus: the period between death and burial. These substances appear to have been employed in various ways. They were infused in oils and unguents used to anoint the body of the deceased, piled upon the bier to delay decomposition and mask the odour of decay during the laying out and funeral procession, and scattered onto the pyre or into the tomb along with other offerings such as wine, milk and grain to provide succour for the dead.

As the ancient authors make clear, not everyone received such elaborate treatment. Roman funerary rites varied considerably in relation to the person’s age, sex / gender and, above all, social status. Thus, for the poor, transportation on a cheap sandapila, or poor man’s bier (if they were lucky), prior to perfunctory deposition, often in a mass grave, with no costly scents, seems to have been their lot. In contrast, the wealthy and influential were typically displayed for up to a week in their finest attire within their house atrium. They would then be carried to the cemetery on a bier which, so various writers tell us, would be covered with purple-dyed, gold-embroidered fabrics, garlanded with flowers and scented substances and accompanied by mourners, musicians, torch-bearers with public eulogies and a feast held at the tomb.

One of the Roman sarcophagus plaster burials from Trier, as previously studied by Dr Nicole Reifarth. Image: Nicole Reifarth

Despite these literary references, there has been very little archaeological research into the use of resins in the treatment of the corpse. In the later Roman Period, between the 2nd-4th centuries AD, some individuals were interred in stone sarcophagi and / or lead-lined coffins. Within these researchers have found textiles (garments or shrouds), plaster body-casings (lime or gypsum) and high quality gravegoods – with occasional reports of sticky substances. But it is only over the last decade or so that chemical analysis of these residues has revealed the presence of resins in sarcophagus burials from Italy, Greece, and France.

A recent multi-disciplinary PhD project between the University of Bamberg (Germany) and our university (Bradford), for example, analysed exceptional 4th-century AD inhumations from sarcophagi in Trier (Augusta Treverorum), capital of the prefecture of Gaul. These individuals were largely interred below the basilica of St. Maximin’s, and were, according to their epitaphs, members of the senatorial elite and officers at the court of the Emperor Constantine. Lead researcher, Nicole Reifarth, discovered that many of these bodies had been encased in gypsum or surrounded by fir wood shavings (Abies spp.), and that all had been wrapped in shrouds and dressed in fine clothes with evidence of silk damask, fine gold threads, and shellfish (‘Tyrian’) purple dye.

Resin fragments were found embedded in textiles enclosing the body in the Trier burial pictured above. Image: Nicole Reifarth

Embedded within these textiles were fragments of conifer resins (Pinaceae and Cupressaceae), and Pistacia spp. resins. The latter was highly sought after in the Roman period and came from small scrubby trees native to the Mediterranean and the Levant. Theophrastus described the variety harvested from Syria as ‘the best, for it sets firm, is the most fragrant, and has the most delicate smell’. Finally, the team found what appears to be a balsam, possibly derived from Liquidambar orientalis, native to the eastern Mediterranean.

This led us to ask, what of Roman Britain? Could these exotic, highly scented substances have been used in the mortuary sphere in this remote outpost of the Empire? Would any evidence survive in our delightfully damp climate, particularly in the absence of the kind of protection – mausolea, vaults, crypts, catacombs – afforded the continental finds? Surely not, although other elements of this late Roman ‘package’ had been adopted and aromatic residues reported in a small number of inhumation and multi-container cremation burials. With PhD studentship funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in place for one of us (Rhea), we set out to investigate this possibility.


Rooting out resins

First, we needed a method of identifying the presence of resins. Currently, natural resins can be chemically characterised, at least to the level of genus, using the biomarker approach. The compounds of interest are, principally, di- and triterpenoids. These diagnostic and relatively resilient molecules survive well in the archaeological record, even when visible traces are absent, with the optimum method of analysis shown to be the use of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

These chromatograms show the results of analysis of archaeological samples taken from burials at Poundbury, Dorchester; Spitalfields (SK15903), London; and Purton, Wiltshire, compared with authentic resin reference samples, and taking into consideration expected patterns of alteration of the main constituents. ‘A’ shows Pinaceae resins detected among the remains, and ‘B’ shows Pistacia spp. resins. Image: Brettel et al, Journal of Archaeological Science, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.006

Having established the method, the next step was to obtain samples. Literature searches and discussions with our contacts provided a ‘hit list’. Heading this was the isolated burial of an infant at Arrington, Cambridgeshire, curated by the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge. Amorphous, orange fragments had been found around the child’s skull, which we accessed with the assistance of Imogen Gunn. These unprepossessing scraps contained all the key biomarkers of the aforementioned Eastern Mediterranean Pistacia spp. (mastic/terebinth) resins. This analysis provided a memorable Christmas present in 2011: the first chemical confirmation for use of an exotic imported resin in a Roman-period burial in Britain.

This initial find was followed by efforts to track down other suitable materials but, sadly, many of the potential targets had met with various misadventures, including re-burial (human remains), open-air display (stone sarcophagi), and theft (lead-liners). Cleaning of skeletal elements for osteological analysis and wet-sieving of associated materials had also resulted in the loss of potentially valuable organic evidence.

Nonetheless, thanks to the generosity of Richard Breward and his team of volunteers at the Dorchester County Museum, we were able to assess materials from sites around Dorchester, Dorset. We found that sticky residues adhering to the plaster used to encase seven individuals interred within mausolea in the main area of the burial ground at Poundbury (4th century AD) contained diterpenoids characteristic of Pinaceae resins (a conifer family including pines, firs, cedars and larches). In Roman times these exudates would have been imported from continental Europe, probably southern France or Spain, rather than being harvested in Britain as there is no evidence for the exploitation of Pinus sylvestris, our only native species, at this date.


Frankincense and more

Visible residues were clearly going to be rare in the UK. We did, though, have access to a couple of bags, containing degraded materials, labelled ‘grave deposits’. These had been recovered in 1985 from the head and foot ends of the lead-lined coffin of a 4th-century child, interred at Alington Avenue, Fordington, near Dorchester. Researcher Penelope Walton Rogers had previously found that textile fragments adhering to the clavicles of this youngster were the remains of a wool tunic with Tyrian purple-dyed stripes on the shoulders, a garment probably reserved for elite males. The grave deposits and the residues on the skeletal remains presented us with a remarkable discovery. They contained compounds diagnostic of Boswellia spp. exudates. Better known as frankincense, this highly valued gum-resin would have been traded from southern Arabia or eastern Africa. Almost identical results were obtained from analysis of similar samples associated with the cranium of an adult female. She had been interred with high quality gravegoods in a wooden coffin with a sandstone lid in the same, small rural burial ground.

The burial of the 4th-century ‘Spitalfields Lady’, excavated by MOLA in east London (see CA 162).

This opened up a whole new avenue of inquiry. Although material of this nature is generally sieved and discarded, fortunately this is not always the case. A previous visit to the Museum of London had proffered a tantalising glimpse of a triterpenoid resin in a residue adhering to the otherwise well-washed bones of the ‘Spitalfields Lady’ (4th century AD). This young adult female had been interred in a decorated lead coffin within a substantial stone sarcophagus. She was dressed in gold-embroidered damask silk accompanied by glass and jet artefacts with her cranium resting on bay leaves. Armed with our new insight into the potential of dirt, Rebecca Redfern and colleagues at the museum hunted down the numerous, carefully contextualised, ‘environmental’ samples from the base of this intact inhumation.

This effort paid off, as the samples clearly showed that both Pinaceae and Pistacia spp. resins had been spread from the lady’s head to her toes, and were probably incorporated within the wool shroud in which she had been wrapped. Likewise, analysis of grave deposits from the lead-lined coffin of a young adult female interred in the rural burial ground at Purton, Wiltshire (accessed with the help of Sophie Cummings, Swindon Museum & Art Gallery) revealed evidence of both Pistacia spp. and Pinaceae resins, while residues associated with plaster burials from York (evaluated with the assistance of Adam Parker, York Museums Trust) contained traces of mastic / terebinth and frankincense.


An unexpected find

We were just recovering from the excitement of these discoveries when we were contacted by Jackie McKinley, Senior Osteologist, Wessex Archaeology, about a large quantity of smelly, sticky stuff from a 2nd-century Roman cremation urn. This sounded intriguing and could not have come at a better time as we were hoping to gain access to the stone sarcophagus newly-unearthed at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. In the event, samples from this double burial (3rd century AD) did not contain any resin biomarkers despite excellent organic preservation, even down to the calf-skin shoes of the child, providing us with a useful negative example from a rural region of Roman Britain.

The yellow-white amorphous masses associated with the cremated remains of a mature adult male placed at the centre of the Mersea Island barrow, Essex were, quite literally, a different matter. These were found to contain an array of compounds from low molecular mass, highly volatile, mono- and sesquiterpenes that hardly ever survive over archaeological time periods to a series of diagnostic di- and triterpenoids. What we had here was an abundance of frankincense mixed or ‘cut’ (an unscrupulous practice of great antiquity according to classical authors) with a small quantity of Pinaceae resin. Moreover, the level of preservation made it clear that this was an unburnt offering, added to the cremated remains after they had been placed in the glass vessel, a practice attested by Ausonius: ‘Sprinkle my ashes with pure wine and fragrant oil of spikenard; bring balsam too, O stranger, with crimson roses. Unending spring pervades my tearless urn: I have but changed my state, and have not died.’

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The Mersea burial – cremated remains, enclosed in a glass vessel, were laid to rest in a barrow in the 2nd century AD. Recent research has revealed evidence of resins being used in the burial process.


This extract was originally published in Current Archaeology 312. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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