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Exceptional 1,800-Year-Old Sarcophagus Unearthed in France

Archaeologists carefully examine the unopened Roman-era sarcophagus discovered in Reims, France
Archaeologists carefully examine the unopened Roman-era sarcophagus discovered in Reims, France. Credit: Émilie Jouhet / INRAP

A Roman-era sarcophagus was unearthed in northeastern France, while archaeologists were working at an old burial place. No one had opened or removed anything from the sarcophagus. It is thought to be from around the second century A.D.

The ancient stone coffin was firmly sealed with eight steadfast iron clasps. Over it, there was a massive stone cover weighing as much as 1,700 pounds (770 kilograms).

Investigation of contents of sarcophagus in France

To examine the contents of the sarcophagus, archaeologists utilized special tools. First, they took X-rays of the sarcophagus. Then, they carefully inserted a tiny camera to peek inside. What they discovered was quite astonishing. A human skeleton and valuable items had been placed in the tomb.

Agnès Balmelle, who works as the assistant scientific and technical director at the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), described this find as extremely rare. She said, “It’s quite exceptional, [and] it’s the first time we’ve found a tomb that is intact and has not been looted.”

The skeleton of the woman was discovered with specific items that were meant to go with her to the afterlife. These included a little mirror, a ring made of amber, and a comb.

Having such a grand tomb such as this one indicates that this woman, who was approximately forty years old when she passed away, had quite an important and special position in society, according to Balmelle.

“The skeleton occupied the entire space inside the 1.53-meter [5-foot] tank,” Balmelle explained. There was only a small amount of space left for the accessories, along with four oil lamps and two glass containers that might have contained fragrant oils.

Site of discovery in French city

Archaeologists came across the sarcophagus when they were digging in an old burial site in the northeastern French city of Reims. This burial place covered a vast area of thirteen thousand square feet (1,200 square meters).

In the second century, Reims was called Durocortorum. It was one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire during that time and served as the capital of Belgic Gaul. Belgic Gaul was a region in northeastern Roman Gaul, which included parts of what we now call France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The recently discovered burial site is just one of many that developed past the protective walls of the city. These burial sites lined seven major roads connecting Reims to other important Roman Gallic cities, such as Lutetia (which is now Paris) and Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon).

Unfortunately, many of these graves were looted by thieves over the years. What treasures did remain were mostly lost during World War I after the museum where these precious items were kept was bombed and destroyed.

What makes the discovery unique?

The tightly sealed coffin is a unique discovery because it is the first time such an untouched tomb has been unearthed in a town that used to be part of the Gallo-Roman world. In the vicinity of this tomb, archaeologists also uncovered another twenty sets of buried and cremated human remains.

These remains will be added to a growing collection of samples gathered from burial sites in Reims. Scientists plan to compare the DNA from the skeleton inside the coffin with that of some of the other remains.

This could help them determine whether the woman was part of the local elite or if she originated from elsewhere.

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