In ancient Roman times, people may have feared the “restless dead,” according to a new study, including the discovery of a cremation tomb sprinkled with intentionally bent nails and sealed not only with two dozen bricks but also with a layer of plaster.
The unusual tomb found at the Sagalassos website (opens in new tab) in south-western Turkey and dated to AD 100-150, had 41 bent and twisted nails scattered around the edges of his pyre, 24 bricks carefully placed on the still-smoldering pyre, and a layer of lime plaster on top . The person – an adult male – was cremated and buried in the same place, an unusual practice in roman timesaccording to the study, published Feb. 21 in the journal antiquity (opens in new tab).
“The burial was concluded in not one, not two, but three different ways that can be understood as attempts to shield the living from the dead – or vice versa,” said the study’s first author Johann Claeys (opens in new tab), an archaeologist at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, told Live Science in an email. Although each of these practices is known from Roman-era cemeteries – cremation on the spot, coverings of tile or plaster of paris, and the occasional bent nail – the combination of the three has never been seen before and implies a fear of the “troubled dead”. he said.
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The archeological site of Sagalassos dates from the 5th century BC. to the 13th century AD and has numerous examples of Roman architecture including a theater and bath complex. After their abandonment, vegetation quickly overran the city and preserved it.
As part of the Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project (opens in new tab), burials on the outskirts of the city have been excavated and studied, including “non-normative cremation”. Typically, Roman-era cremations involved a pyre, followed by the collection of the cremains, which were placed in an urn and then buried in a tomb or placed in a mausoleum. However, the cremation of Sagalassos was performed on the spot, which the researchers could tell from the anatomical positioning of the remaining bones.
Even more unusual was the contrast between the grave goods and the closure of the grave. Archaeologists discovered typical burial objects – fragments of a woven basket, remains of food, a coin, and ceramic and glass vessels. “It seems clear that the deceased was buried with all due confidence,” Claeys said. “It seems likely that at the time, that was the appropriate way to part with a loved one.”
Marco Milella (opens in new tab), a research associate at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland who was not involved in that study, told Live Science in an email that “I tend to agree with their conclusion” about the curved nails that Milella frequently said found in Western European cemeteries from the first to second centuries AD. “The sealing of the remains is also interesting and alluring given its possible association with the deposition of nails,” noted Milella. “Fear of the dead is a possibility, as are amulets to protect the dead – or maybe both.”
Claeys believes the man in this strange cremation grave was likely buried by his closest relatives in a ceremony that would have taken days to prepare and perform. The beliefs that encouraged the people of Sagalassos to bury this man in unconventional ways are best understood as a form of magic (opens in new tab), or an act designed to produce certain effects due to a supernatural connection. It is possible that his odd burial was undertaken to discourage an unusual or unnatural death; However, the researchers found no evidence of trauma or disease to the bones. Unfortunately, although the “magical cremation” overlaps in time with other burials, Claeys said that “it cannot be determined with certainty whether family members were buried nearby” since DNA is usually destroyed by high temperatures in old cremations.
“Regardless of whether the cause of [the man’s] “The death was traumatic, mysterious, or possibly the result of a contagious disease or punishment,” the researchers concluded in the study, it appears that “those living were afraid of the return of the deceased.”