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‘Unusual’ ancient lead coffin unearthed near Rome

A mysterious, 1,700-year-old coffin made from a 360-kilogram slab of lead – bizarrely wrapped over its ancient corpse like a “burrito” – has been unearthed on the outskirts of Rome by a team of archeologists that includes a visiting professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University.

The gravesite at Gabii, a once-thriving city-state located about 20 kilometres from the centre of old Rome, is prompting speculation by experts that a great gladiator, beloved bishop or some other notable figure from the third century AD was given the rare honour of a sheet-metal burial.

“All we can say so far about the contents is that the lead wrapping contains a human skeleton – or at least a portion thereof – as there is visible bone at the open, foot-end of the sarcophagus,” McMaster University archeologist Jeffrey Becker, managing director of the U.S.-led dig at Gabii, told Canwest News Service.

“Once we assess the contents, we will make a plan of how to study them, but we are interested in studying any human remains inside.”

Gabii is located due east of Rome, along the ancient road once known as the Via Gabina, in the central Italian region that was called Latium around the time of Christ. The historian Plutarch named Gabii as the birthplace of Romulus and Remus, the mythic twin founders of Rome.

The city had existed for more than 1,000 years before it began to decline around AD 300 – about the time the lead-encased body was buried. The University of Michigan is leading a major, long-term archeological study of Gabii, prized by scholars because it has undergone little modern development since its virtual disappearance around AD 900, and remains a well-preserved time capsule of city planning and cultural life in the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the first millennium.

“We’re very excited about this find,” University of Michigan Professor Nicola Terrenato said in a summary of the finding. “Romans as a rule were not buried in coffins to begin with and when they did use coffins, they were mostly wooden. There are only a handful of other examples from Italy of lead coffins from this age.”

He added: “A thousand pounds of metal is an enormous amount of wealth in this era. To waste so much of it in a burial is pretty unusual.”

Mr. Becker said sawing the coffin open could pose a health risk to researchers. X-ray and CT-scanning are “not feasible because of the thickness of the lead,” he added, so the team is currently planning to insert a fibre-optic endoscope in the coffin’s foot-end opening to gather more data.

An MRI analysis of the artifact is also being considered.

Mr. Becker said the body may offer clues about the era when Gabii’s abrupt decline began around 1,700 years ago.

“It seems likely that we are dealing with later phases of the city’s life in Roman Imperial times, when the populated area was contracting to an increasingly smaller nucleus,” he said.

In a report on the coffin discovery by the National Geographic, which partially funded the Gabii excavation, Mr. Becker said the elaborate lead covering of the corpse “is a sure marker of somebody of some kind of substance” – particularly since the burial was in the central part of the city rather than in a traditional outskirts location.

“To see someone who is at first glance a person of high social standing associated with later layers of the city,” Mr. Becker said, “opens a potentially new conversation about this urban twilight in central Italy.”

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