First indication for embalming in Roman Greece

A Swiss-Greek research team co-lead by Dr. Frank Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich, found indication for 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 embalming of a ca. 55 year old female 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 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. 



Bibliographic information:

C. Papageorgopoulou, N.I. Xirotiris, P.X. Iten, M.R. Baumgartner, M. Schmid and F. Rühli: Indications of embalming in Roman Greece by physical, chemical and histological analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.07.003

nullSwiss 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.null