Lead "burrito" sarcophagus near Rome may hold a gladiator or a Christian dignitary

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Washington, March 30 (ANI): A team of archaeologists has suggested that a burrito-like 1,700-year-old sarcophagus found in an abandoned city near Rome could contain the body of a gladiator or a Christian dignitary.

Found in a cement-capped pit in the ancient metropolis of Gabii, the coffin is unusual because it's made of lead.

Only a few hundred such Roman burials are known.

"Even odder, the 800 pounds (362 kilograms) of lead fold over the corpse like a burrito," said Roman archaeologist Jeffrey Becker.

Most lead sarcophagi look like "old-fashioned cracker boxes," molded into a rectangular shape with a lid, he said.

The coffin, which has been in storage since last year, is about to be moved to the American Academy in Rome for further testing.

But, uncovering details about the person inside the lead coffin will be tricky.

For starters, the undisturbed tomb contained no grave goods, offering few clues about the owner.

What's more, x-ray and CT scans-the preferred methods of coffin analysis-cannot penetrate the thick lead, leaving researchers pondering other, potentially dangerous ways to examine the remains inside.

"It's exciting as well as frustrating, because there are no known matches in the record," said Becker, managing director of the University of Michigan's Gabii Project.

"Unlocking the lead coffin's secrets could ultimately offer new insights into a powerful civilization that has lain forgotten for centuries," he said.

Mysteries about Gabii society make the newfound lead coffin especially intriguing.

Lead was a high-value metal at the time, so a full sarcophagus made out of the stuff "is a sure marker of somebody of some kind of substance," Becker said.

Past lead burials found throughout Europe have housed soldiers, elite members of the Christian church, and even female gladiators.

In fact, many lead coffins contain high-ranking women or adolescents instead of men, according to Jenny Hall, a senior curator of Roman archaeology at the Museum of London, who was not involved in the new study.

"However, the newfound sarcophagus' tentative age may make the gladiator scenario unlikely," said Bruce Hitchner, a visiting professor in classical archaeology at All Souls College at the UK's University of Oxford.

"The coffin dates back to the fourth or fifth centuries AD, while the gladiator heyday was centuries earlier," said Hitchner.

Becker's team hopes to find out more about the person inside the lead sarcophagus.

The researchers' only hint so far is a small foot bone protruding through a hole in one end of the coffin. (ANI)

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