Who’s Inside the Lead Coffin?

Further study will continue on an oddly shaped sarcophagus found at the ancient site of Gabii last year, which has been recently relocated to the American Academy in Rome. Dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the coffin was buried at the center of the city and could possibly shed light on the funerary practices of someone that belonged to a high social standing.

Why is the sarcophagus of such interest? Some experts believe that it could hold the body of a Christian dignitary or even an ancient gladiator. Traveling back 1,700 years, archeologists hope to discover something exciting within the coffin that resided in an abandoned city close to Rome until researchers happened upon the cement-capped pit in the ancient metropolis of Gabii. The coffin is also of special interest because lead was used as its construction material of choice. There are only a few hundred Roman burials of this kind located as of yet.

However, this particular coffin is of a stranger shape than other constructions. Weighing 800 pounds, a Roman archeologist noted that the lead folds over the corpse like a burrito. Ever since its discovery, the coffin has laid in storage. Now, it will make its way to the American Academy in Rome and its contents finally revealed.

However, archeologists have a tricky task ahead of them. The individual inside of the coffin was not laid to rest with any grave goods, which often provides valuable insight into the life of the deceased. X-ray and CT scans are fruitless against the thick composition of the lead. Researchers must find another way to examine the remains inside. The managing director of the University of Michigan’s Gabii Project stated that unlocking the mystery inside of the coffin is an exciting event that produces some frustrating obstacles.

Why exactly do researchers believe the lead sarcophagus is the final resting place of “someone of substance”? For starters, lead was valued quite high during the time period that the body was buried. Being laid to rest in a full sarcophagus solely comprised of lead is a clear indicator that the body inside is important in some way. The process was simply too expensive for a commoner’s burial.

Throughout Europe, lead burials of this kind have been set for soldiers and elite members of the Christian church. Sometimes, the coffins even protected the bodies of female gladiators. Actually, a senior curator of Roman archaeology at the Museum of London has commented that the majority of lead coffins in ancient Rome were set aside for women belonging to high rank or adolescents. However, a classical archeologist notes that the tentative age of the sarcophagus makes it unlikely that a gladiator is inside. It dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries, meaning the gladiator movement was not as popular as it was in earlier times.