August 14, 2008

Embalming in Roman Greece

From the paper:
Even earlier, during the Geometric Periods, there is some evidence to suggest that embalming was not unknown; it has long been recognised that the means by which the bodies of Homeric figures (Achilles, Sarpedon and Hektor) were preserved until their final disposal were, in fact, reminiscent of the art of the Egyptian embalmers (Garland, 2001). Another example is Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC), whose was reported to be preserved in beeswax (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971; Aufderheide, 2003). The same applies for the Roman Period, where, although embalming was looked upon as a foreign custom and was, on the whole, not extensively practised, mummies embalmed according to the ancient Egyptian customs were sporadically discovered both in Italy and the provinces, e.g. the Empress Poppaea Sabina (30-65 AD) (Toynbee, 1971) and the mummy of Grottarossa (Ascenzi et al., 1996; Toynbee, 1971).


The current colour of the hair is brown with reddish highlights, a common observation on many mummies, and probably originated through post-mortem alteration (Aufderheide, 2003; Wilson et al., 2001). Sun-exposure, bacterial reaction, and embalming methods are some of the factors that may affect the original hair colour. As a result, hair that was originally black or brown exhibits reddish, orange or even blond colour due to post mortem alterations. All human hair, however, does not turn red over archaeological time-scales (Wilson, 2001). Based on the histological analysis of the unstained hair samples, the limited fungal influence, and the macroscopic view, it can be assumed that the original hair colour was brown. Similar cases of hair preservation have been reported in studies of both mummified and non-mummified human remains (Aufderheide, 2003; Brothwell and Dobney, 1986; Lubec et al., 1987; White, 1993; Wilson et al., 2002, 2007b).

Journal of Archaeological Science doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.07.003

Indications of embalming in Roman Greece by physical, chemical and histological analysis

C. Papageorgopoulou et al.


The partially mummified remains of a high-status female (ca. 1700 BP, Thessaloniki, Greece) were found inside a Roman-type marble sarcophagus containing a lead coffin. The individual was positioned on a wooden pallet, wrapped in bandages, and covered with a gold-embroidered purple silk cloth. Besides the clothes, remnants of
soft tissue as well as the individual’s original hair style and eyebrows were exceptionally well preserved. In addition to the macroscopic examination, icroscopic
and biochemical analyses were undertaken. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy-dispersive X-ray (EDX) analysis, and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry
(GC/MS) were applied to examine the tissue preservation and probable mechanisms of mummification. The presence of chemical components, such as sesquiterpenes,
triterpenoids, and diterpenoids, originating from coniferous and pistacia resins, myrrh, and other spices, verify ancient information on preparation methods of the dead in Greek and Roman times. These chemical components are thought to have played a prominent role in the mummification mechanism in this particular case. The potential effect of the lead coffin in the mummification process was also examined. Energydispersive X-ray analysis failed to detect lead penetration into the tissues, suggesting that the coffin played a limited role in the preservation of soft tissue.


1 comment:

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

Can DNA Analysis tell us What kind of hair these Roman Mummies in Greece had? Whose hair do they match today? Which ethnic group has hair most similar in texture to these Roman Mummies's hair? As for the hair's colour I think it can vary with whatever people had at that time.But it doesn't look to be the real,thick,shiny,black hair that many Italians and Spaniards have now-a-days.