“Then, opening their treasure chests, they [the wise men] offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Archaeologists examining organic residues in Roman burials have for the first time confirmed the use of resins, including frankincense, in Roman funeral rites in Britain. In the Bible, frankincense was one of the gifts, along with gold and myrrh, the three magi presented to Jesus.
Literary sources suggest that resins were an important part of Roman funeral rites, but there has been little scientific evidence of such usage. In Egyptian burials, resins have been shown to have been applied during the mummification process.
Led by Rhea Brettell from the University of Bradford, a team of archaeologists conducted gas chromatography–mass spectrometry on residue samples collected from 49 third–fourth-century C.E. inhumations located in Dorset, Wiltshire, London and York. Four of the burials contained traces of frankincense, which originated in southern Arabia or eastern Africa, and ten contained traces of resins that originated from around the Mediterranean, Levant and northern Europe. The researchers’ results were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The methodology employed by Brettell and her team differed from previous investigations into the use of resins in burial rites.
“Archaeologists have relied on finding visible resin fragments to substantiate the descriptions of burial rites in classical texts, but these rarely survive,” Brettell said in a University of Bradford press release. “Our alternative approach of analyzing grave deposits to find the molecular signatures of the resins—which fortunately are very distinctive—has enabled us to carry out the first systematic study across a whole province.”
Resins were used in the burials to mask the smell of decomposition, help the preservation of soft tissue and—perhaps most significantly—mark the elite status of the deceased, since the resins were imported from across the Roman Empire.
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
Witnessing the Divine: The magi in art and literature by Robin M. Jensen
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