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Mystery of The Ancient Lead Coffin in Gabii

In 2009, archaeologists from the University of Michigan found a mysterious 1,000 pound coffin buried in the gravesite of Gabii which located about 20 kilometres from the centre of old Rome. The coffin was nicknamed the "lead burrito." Because the 1,700-year-old coffin made from a 360-kilogram slab of lead – bizarrely wrapped over its ancient corpse like a “burrito”.

Nicola Terrenato, a professor of classical studies from the University of Michigan, said that a heavy coffin was very expensive at that time. But who was buried in that coffin?

Image Credit: National Geographic

The newfound sarcophagus was the "most surprising" discovery made in 2009 during the largest ever archaeological dig in Gabii. The dig started in summer 2009 and continues through 2013. Each year, around 75 researchers from around the nation and world, including a dozen U-M undergraduate students, spend two months on the project at the ancient city of Gabii. 

The cause of the city of Gabii's demise is also unclear. The city had existed for more than 1,000 years before it began to decline around AD 300 – about the time the lead-encased body was buried.

Becker and colleague Nicola Terrenato received funding for the ongoing project from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

The researchers plan to use a non-invasive technique with thermography to see what artifacts are buried with a person's body, and try to learn more about the person inside it. Because, according to Mr. Becker statement, he said that sawing the coffin open could pose a health risk to researchers. X-ray and CT-scanning are “not feasible because of the thickness of the lead,” he added, so the team is currently planning to insert a fibre-optic endoscope in the coffin’s foot-end opening to gather more data.

An MRI analysis of the artifact is also being considered. If these approaches fail, the researchers could turn to an MRI scan—an expensive option that would involve hauling the half-ton casket to a hospital.

Was the deceased a soldier? A gladiator? A bishop? All are possibilities, some more remote than others, Terrenato says. Researchers will do their best to examine the bones and any “grave goods” or Christian symbols inside the container in an effort to make a determination.

Terrenato said, It’s hard to predict what’s inside, because it’s the only example of its kind in the area.


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