Researchers from the University of York, York Museums Trust, and Heritage360 have recently carried out a 3D scan of a Roman gypsum burial – a practice in which liquid gypsum was poured over the body before interment. This project, the first of its kind, has revealed new details about this unusual funerary custom.
Roman gypsum burials have been found across the territories of the Roman Empire, including in North Africa and continental Europe, but a large concentration is known from Britain, especially in York where 45 examples have been discovered since the late 19th century. Once the gypsum hardens, and the organic matter decomposes, a negative relief of the burial is created, preserving details that do not usually survive in the archaeological record, such as the clothing and shoes worn by the deceased individual. While the meaning behind this particular practice is unknown, previous analysis of three of these burials from York had found traces on the gypsum of aromatic resins that originated from the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. These would have been costly, suggesting this custom may have been reserved for those of high status.
There are 16 gypsum burials currently housed in the Yorkshire Museum, and one was chosen for this latest analysis as it unusually contained two adults and an infant, all of whom had died at the same time. As Professor Maureen Carroll, Chair of Roman Archaeology at the University of York, explained: ‘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.’
In particular, the scan showed that each body had been wrapped completely in shrouds, which appear to have been of varying quality and weave. It also revealed details including the ties used to bind the shroud over the head of one of the adults, as well as the bands of cloth used to wrap the infant. The team are now hoping to secure funding to scan more of the gypsum burials in the collection.