A multi-analytical approach using FTIR, GC/MS and Py-GC/MS revealed early evidence of embalming practices in Roman catacombs

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
Microchemical Journal, 2017, 133 pp. 49 - 59
Issue Date:
2017-07-01
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© 2017 Elsevier B.V. During the second-third century, cremation was progressively abandoned for inhumation in the Roman Empire and was accompanied by new funeral practices. Recent archaeological excavations in the catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome revealed thousands of formerly undiscovered skeletons of individuals plastered and methodically stacked in previously unknown and inaccessible rooms. By setting up and applying a multi-analytical approach to characterize chemically all amorphous materials surrounding the skeletons, we investigated this important cultural change regarding the treatment of death. Chemical characterization of the amorphous samples was achieved using FTIR spectroscopy and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS and GC/MS) and by comparison with reference samples from known origin. This allowed for the unambiguous identification of precious and exotic resinous substances involved in the embalming process of the bodies. Amber, sandarac and frankincense, which were sourced from widespread locations, were used as part of the funerary treatment. This first evidence of such highly prized commodities in burial process provides us with new insight into funerary practices as well as commercial networks in the Roman Empire during the first centuries A.D.
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