Washington, August 5 : A mummy of a middle-aged woman dating to A.D. 300 has been discovered in a lead coffin inside a marble sarcophagus in northern Greece, the first clear indication of embalming in Greece from the era when the Romans ruled there.
According to a report in Live Science, a research team co-led by Frank Ruhli of the University of Zurich was able to show that various resins, oils and spices were used to embalm the body.
Along with the skeleton, the methods partially preserved some soft tissues from the body, most of which are now brittle, thin and extremely desiccated, including eyebrows, a muscle in the hand, hair and blood cells.
"The body was covered with a gold-embroidered purple silk cloth, indicating that the woman was probably of high social status," said Ruhli.
Her bones reveal that she was somewhere between 50 and 60 years old.
The sarcophagus was uncovered initially in 1962 during an archaeological dig in Northern Greece, on the eastern cemetery of Thessaloniki, which was used from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine Periods for burial and other ritual practices.
In addition to macroscopic and anthropological analyses, electron microscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry examinations were also performed on the remains. These showed the presence of various embalming substances including myrrh, fats and resins.
The lead coffin encasing the remains might also have assisted in their preservation, though the researchers were uncertain if that was intentional or effective.
The coffin was made specifically for this corpse.
The body, with a stature of about 63 inches, or 5 foot, 3 inches, lay on a wooden pallet inside the coffin and was wrapped with cotton and linen bandages.
Writings by Homer, Herodotus and Pliny the Elder suggest that the ancient Greeks wrapped their dead in a funeral garment consisting of a long ankle-length robe.
The corpse also might be washed with water and wine and treated with olive oil, but direct evidence for embalming practices and aromatics that might have been mixed into the oil has been less clear, the researchers said.
According to Ruhli's colleague Christina Papageorgopoulou of the University of Zurich, "Never before (have) such embalming substances been shown for this time period in Greece."