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‘Choicest unguents’: molecular evidence for the use of resinous plant exudates in late Roman mortuary rites in Britain

Brettell, R.C., Schotsmans, E.M.J., Walton Rogers, P., Reifarth, N., Redfern, R.C., Stern, B., Heron, C.P.
Journal of archaeological science 2015 v.53 pp. 639-648
Boswellia, Pinaceae, Pistacia, archaeology, biomarkers, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, gum resin, odors, plant exudates, socioeconomic status, terpenoids, transportation, Egypt, United Kingdom
Resinous substances were highly prized in the ancient world for use in ritual contexts. Details gleaned from classical literature indicate that they played a significant role in Roman mortuary rites, in treatment of the body and as offerings at the tomb. Outside of Egypt, however, where research has shown that a range of plant exudates were applied as part of the mummification process, resins have rarely been identified in the burial record. This is despite considerable speculation regarding their use across the Roman Empire.Focusing on one region, we investigated organic residues from forty-nine late Roman inhumations from Britain. Using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and the well-attested biomarker approach, terpenic compounds were characterized in fourteen of the burials analysed. These results provided direct chemical evidence for the presence of exudates from three different plant families: coniferous Pinaceae resins, Mediterranean Pistacia spp. resins (mastic/terebinth) and exotic Boswellia spp. gum-resins (frankincense/olibanum) from southern Arabia or beyond. The individuals accorded this rite had all been interred with a package of procedures more elaborate than the norm.These findings illuminate the multiplicity of roles played by resinous substances in Roman mortuary practices in acting to disguise the odour of decomposition, aiding temporary soft-tissue preservation and signifying the social status of the deceased. Nevertheless, it was their ritual function in facilitating the transition to the next world that necessitated transportation to the most remote outpost of the late Roman Empire, Britain.