Washington, Oct 5 : Archaeologists from the University of California, Berkley (UCB), have uncovered a mystery, with the discovery of a tomb, skeletons and burial rites with both Christian and Pagan elements in Kaukana, an ancient Roman village near Sicily, Italy.
Combing through the sand-buried site, the 15-member team, led by Professor Roger Wilson made a series of startling discoveries.
Central to the mystery was finding a tomb inside a room in a house dating from the sixth century AD.
According to Wilson, tombs during this period are normally found only in cemeteries outside the built-up area of a town, or around the apse of a church, and since the building was substantial with mortared walls and internal plaster, this would have been likely a tomb for the wealthy.
"It's extremely unusual to find an elite burial set inside a house in the middle of a settlement, even as late as the sixth century," he said.
The walls uncovered stand nearly six feet high.
Once the cover was lifted off the tomb, one team member spent 10 days sieving the contents with great care. Two skeletons were found. One was of a woman between the ages of 25 and 30, with teeth in excellent condition and no signs of arthritis.
"She was in pretty good nick, so we know this wasn't a peasant working in the field," said Wilson.
The other skeleton was a child of indeterminate sex between the ages of five and seven.
The position of their bones showed that the woman had been laid to rest first. The tomb was then re-opened to bury the child and the woman's spinal column was pushed to one side. A hole in the stone slab covering the tomb allowed visitors to pour libations for the dead.
"This shows that the long-established, originally pagan, rite of offering libations to the dead clearly continued into early Byzantine times," observed Wilson.
Yet, the presence of a Christian cross on a lamp found in the room and on the underside of a grave slab suggests that the deceased were Christian. As well, the skeletons were wrapped in plaster, a practice believed to be Christian for preserving the body for resurrection.
"It is the first plaster burial recorded in Sicily, although the practice is known from Christian communities in North Africa," said Wilson.
Around the tomb was plentiful evidence of periodic feasting in honour of the dead.
The archaeologists found cooking pots, glass and several large clay containers (amphorae), of which one is virtually intact. These would have been used to carry oil and wine to the site.
The team also found the remains of two hearths where meals had been prepared.