ScienceDaily – July 31, 2008 — A Swiss-Greek research team co-lead by Dr. Frank Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich, found evidence of embalming in Roman Greek times. By means of physico-chemical and histological methods, it was possible to show that various resins, oils and spices were used during the embalming of a female, approximately 55 years old, in Northern Greece.
This is the first ever multidisciplinary-based indication for artificial mummification in Greece at 300 AD.
The remains of a ca. 55-year old female (ca. 300 AD, most likely of high-social status; actual location: Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece) shows the preservation of various soft-tissues, hair and part of a gold-embroidered silk cloth. This unique find allows for multidisciplinary research on these tissues. In addition to macroscopic and anthropological analyses, electron microscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry examinations were also performed. These showed the presence of various embalming substances including myrrh, fats and resins, but could not demonstrate clearly a conservatory influence of the surrounding lead coffin from Roman period. The findings significantly increase knowledge about the use of tissue-preserving, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidative substances in the mortuary practices of Roman Greece.
“This is, thanks to the mummy research at the University of Zurich, another significant increase in knowledge for society as well as historical research,” explains Dr. Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project. The actual work was done in collaboration with a Greek colleague from the Demokritus University of Thrace, with infrastructural support from the University of Zurich (Institute of Legal Medicine and Microscopy Centre).
Christina Papageorgopoulou, MA, study initiator and assistant at the Institute of Anatomy University of Zurich, explains: “Never before such embalming substances have been shown for this time period in Greece.” Up to now, only written historic sources suggested that selected people were embalmed in Roman Greece. The application of most modern analytic natural science methods allowed an enormous gain in knowledge particularly in the field of archaeology, and points towards possible future collaborations of social and natural scientists. “This transdisciplinary approach is particularly of interest in mummy science and is a main focus of our own research unit,” states Dr. Rühli.
Swiss Mummy Project
The aim of the Swiss Mummy Project is to gain information about life and death, as well as after-death alterations (e.g. embalming procedures) of historic mummies, by using mainly non-invasive examination methods (non-destructive for tissues).The work of the Swiss Mummy Project is funded a.o. by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Research Fund, University of Zurich.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Zurich.
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University of Zurich (2008, July 31). First Indication For Embalming In Roman Greece. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/07/080730155631.htm
By Robin Lloyd, LiveScience Senior Editor
posted: 04 August 2008 09:12 am ET
A mummy of a middle-aged woman dating to Ancient Greek times has been discovered in a lead coffin inside a marble sarcophagus, the first clear indication of embalming in Greece from the era when the Romans ruled there.
A research team co-led by Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich was able to show that various resins, oils and spices were used to embalm the body, dating to A.D. 300. Along with the skeleton, the methods partially preserved some soft tissues from the body, most of which are now brittle, thin and extremely desiccated, including eyebrows, a muscle in the hand, hair and blood cells.
Rühli told LiveScience that this a “unique finding for this temporal and spatial setting.”
The body was covered with a gold-embroidered purple silk cloth, indicating that the woman was probably of high social status, Rühli said. Her bones reveal that she was somewhere between 50 and 60 years old. The finding will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The mummy currently is held at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece.
Myrrh, fats and resins
The sarcophagus was uncovered initially in 1962 during an archaeological dig in Northern Greece, on the eastern cemetery of Thessaloniki, which was used from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine Periods for burial and other ritual practices.
In addition to macroscopic and anthropological analyses, electron microscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry examinations were also performed on the remains. These showed the presence of various embalming substances including myrrh, fats and resins. The lead coffin encasing the remains might also have assisted in their preservation, though the researchers were uncertain if that was intentional or effective.
The coffin was made specifically for this corpse. The body, with a stature of about 63 inches, or 5 foot, 3 inches, lay on a wooden pallet inside the coffin and was wrapped with cotton and linen bandages.
Writing about corpses
Writings by Homer, Herodotus and Pliny the Elder suggest that the Ancient Greeks wrapped their dead in a funeral garment consisting of a long ankle-length robe. The corpse also might be washed with water and wine and treated with olive oil, but direct evidence for embalming practices and aromatics that might have been mixed into the oil has been less clear, the researchers wrote.
“Never before [have] such embalming substances been shown for this time period in Greece,” said Rühli’s colleague Christina Papageorgopoulou of the University of Zurich, who did much of the analysis and initiated the study of the mummy after coming upon the sarcophagus two years ago. “Up to now, only written historic sources suggested that selected people were embalmed in Roman Greece.”
For instance, Alexander the Great is reported to have been preserved in beeswax, Papageorgopoulou and her colleagues wrote.
The research was done as part of the Swiss Mummy Project, aimed at gaining information about life and death, as well as after-death alterations (e.g. embalming procedures) of historic mummies, by using mainly methods that do not destroy the tissues. The work of the Swiss Mummy Project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Research Fund, University of Zurich.