Strange Roman burial practice revealed through 3D imaging

Romans occasionally poured liquid gypsum over the clothed bodies of deceased individuals.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An archeologist 3D scanning the burial site.jpg
An archeologist 3D scanning the burial site.

University of York 

For the first time ever, archaeologists have used 3D scans to study ancient Roman burial sites revealing a strange practice.

It turns out that Romans occasionally poured liquid gypsum over the clothed bodies of adults and children in lead or stone coffins before burying them. 

This resulted in structures that preserved the original position and contours of the dead.

This is according to a press release by the University of York published this week.

“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,” said Professor Maureen Carroll, Chair of Roman Archaeology at the University of York. 

“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 recognise how they were dressed or wrapped. The resulting 3D model clarifies these ambiguities in stunning fashion.” 

High status

The researchers stated that the practice appears to have been a custom associated with people of high status.

The use of 3D imaging was crucial in uncovering the ancient ritual.

"These cutting-edge technologies are opening up exciting new ways for the public to experience and connect with our spectacular collections,” said Lucy Creighton, Curator of Archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum.

“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."

The scans reveal in great detail that all of the corpses were completely wrapped from head to toe in shrouds and textiles.

“These advanced scanning technologies have been game-changing. Researchers can better analyze archaeological material for details often not visible to the human eye, while the public can explore interactive digital versions of ancient objects in new, more engaging ways,” said in the statement Patrick Gibbs, Head of Technology, Heritage360, the organization that funded the project.

“The potential for 3D scanning to offer us a unique window into the past is quickly being realized.”

The project team is now seeking funding to scan all the York gypsum casings and skeletons. At least 45 ancient Roman burial sites have been recorded since the late 19th century in and around York. 

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