The Mersea Barrow Bones: experts confirm 'unique find'

In the dark winter days of January this year, a mysterious, delicate package was transported by courier service from Colchester Museum to a laboratory in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Within the layers of carefully wrapped packaging lay a collection of old, partly burnt bones. But these mysterious remains were of huge interest and importance to the people of Mersea Island, who had donated over a thousand pounds to pay for them to be analysed by the Senior Osteoarchaeologist (ancient bone specialist) in the laboratories of Wessex Archaeology.

Bones from the Mersea Barrow seen in their Roman cremation urn

These cremated bones, contained in a Roman bowl of beautiful green glass, had been discovered in May 1912 during the first excavation of the Mersea Barrow, a burial mound nearly 2000 years old, standing beside the East Mersea Road. For centuries, local people had wondered who had been important enough for such a large and expensive monument. Even the experts at Colchester Museum appeared confused about the possible age of the bones. In 1912 they were assumed to be those of an adult, but a recent display label and museum publication of 1979 both described them as those of a child. Only a careful examination by experts could provide the answer.

Jacqueline McKinley photographed on a dig

Anyone who regularly watched Time Team may have seen the programme's bone specialist, Jacqueline McKinley, taking part in digs or identifying human remains. When the idea of analysing the bones from the Mersea Barrow was first considered, she was sent a photograph and replied encouragingly: 'This is a very interesting & rare collection you have here ... it would indeed be worthwhile having the bone analysed'. The next stage was to raise funds, and this took place during the summer of 2012 while the bones themselves were on display in Mersea Museum, celebrating the centenary of their discovery. Members and museum visitors contributed generously, as well as many who ventured inside the Mersea Barrow to see the underground chamber where the bones had been found. Mersea Museum was also fortunate to receive a grant from the Association for Roman Archaeology, which meant that the analysis of the bones could finally go ahead.

During the four months which passed while the bones were being analysed and reports written, tantalizing hints arrived in a series of emails. When she opened the package, Jacqueline McKinley's first response was enthusiastic: 'Material has arrived safely & it's a biggie - c. 1800g! Good big bits ...' In fact the weight of bone buried beneath the Mersea Barrow was described in the final report as 'amongst the highest from any cremation burial, of any period, in the British Isles'. Added to this exciting news was the possibility, evident from the first expert inspection of the bones, that the individual had suffered from a serious medical condition.

While Mersea Islanders looked forward to further news of the analysis, in the lab an unexpected problem had arisen. The bones were found to be coated with a strange, sticky substance which could not easily be rinsed off. To make matters worse, when attempts were made to scrape it away, it emitted a choking smell and unpleasant dust which resulted in Jacqueline McKinley having to work in mask and gloves for the first time ever. There was an urgent need to identify the ancient material, which seemed to be some kind of resin. Luckily, the University of Bradford has a specialist team, led by Professor Carl Heron, researching just such organic matter found in archaeological contexts. Even more conveniently for all concerned, his research student, Rhea Brettell, is currently working on a PhD thesis exploring the 'identification of resinous materials in Roman mortuary contexts in Britain and evaluation of their significance'. Samples of the Mersea material, including shapeless lumps which floated when immersed in water, were sent to Bradford for molecular analysis. While experts carried out their investigations at Salisbury and Bradford, their results and final reports were eagerly awaited on Mersea.

The great day arrived on Thursday 5th June, when Mersea Museum Trust received two weighty email attachments containing the expected reports: one, by Jacqueline McKinley, on the cremated bone from the Mersea Barrow and the second, by Rhea Brettell, containing analysis of the organic matter from the Mersea cremation urn. Both will eventually be published in academic journals. But for the benefit of curious islanders and those whose donations helped to fund this research, the results are briefly summarized below.

Who was buried beneath the Mersea Barrow?

This is the million-dollar question, and although we have much new information, there was sadly no possibility of using DNA or tooth enamel to establish ethnic or geographic origin from cremated bone. This individual may have had British ancestors or have come from other parts of the Roman Empire, but he lived as a Roman and was certainly cremated and buried in a high-status Roman tomb. The surviving bones identify him as a male aged between 35 and 45. (This was around the average life expectancy in ancient Rome, although the figure is skewed by the high level of infant mortality.) Most of his remains appeared 'relatively large and robust, with some marked muscle attachments, particularly in the lower limb'. He was 'regularly engaged in strenuous walking/running', and signs of soft tissue injury suggest he may have suffered a tear in one of the major thigh muscles. Far more surprisingly, evidence from spinal lesions and new, excessive bony growths indicate that he suffered from Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis [DISH], a disease of the joints which today is found mainly in men over 50. Jacqueline McKinley reports that she knows of no other cases of DISH recorded in cremated remains. This important Roman, living in a luxurious villa on beautiful Mersea Island, was likely to have suffered from stiffness and spinal pain, although these would not have been fatal unless there were complications.

How was he buried?

The body of the dead Roman must have been placed on a funeral pyre, close to where the massive burial mound would soon be erected over his tomb. The site was probably not far from his home, since many Roman villas, including that at West Mersea, have high status tombs nearby. Unlike in a modern cremation, the bones experienced varying degrees of oxidation after the soft tissue had been burnt away. This resulted in some of the surviving bones appearing black (charred), grey, or light brown (largely unburnt), while the majority appeared white in colour and fully oxidized. After the fire had gone out and the remains were cool, the bone fragments were placed into the large glass funerary urn, probably imported for this purpose. They did not fill the urn and yet, surprisingly, some skeletal elements were missing and could not have been totally consumed by the fire. Smaller bones from the hands and feet may have been left behind among the pyre debris, but the urn also contained far fewer fragments from the arms and ribs than from the legs. It is not clear what happened to the remains left out of the urn. The original excavator, Hazzledine Warren, searched unsuccessfully for the site of the funeral pyre, and it is indeed possible that other human remains left at the pyre site are still concealed beneath the unexcavated, western half of the Mersea Barrow. It is even possible, speculates Jacqueline McKinley, that some bones such as those of the hands may have been distributed as mementoes for the deceased's relatives or friends.

An even greater mystery than the missing bone was the identity and purpose of the strange, sticky substance, which had been sent to Bradford University for analysis. The amazing result of Rhea Brettell's results was leaked in an excited email, identifying the substance as comprising a pine resin and 'of mega importance, frankincense'. Instantly, the exotic mention of frankincense conjured up images of the three Magi presenting priceless gifts to the infant Jesus, a century before the Mersea Roman was buried. In fact frankincense had been traded from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa for three thousand years before Christ. This precious and often sacred incense, harvested from trees and shrubs of the species Boswellia, was used in many cultures for religious and medical purposes. Why should such a rare and exotic substance be brought across the known world to Mersea Island, to be discovered coating cremated bones found deep within the Mersea Barrow?

The Boswellia tree, source of precious frankincense

There was no doubt of the identification. Supported by 32 pages of highly technical analysis, involving a wide range of scientific tests and comparisons, the report concludes that the amorphous material within the Roman cremation urn from the Mersea Barrow consisted of two different resins. There was resin from trees of the pine family, 'believed to have special significance in Roman mortuary beliefs'. But 'of even greater significance, the more abundant resin present in the Mersea Island samples is Burseraceae exudate which most closely resembles frankincense'. This refers to the family of 'incense trees' which includes the genus Boswellia, four species of which produce frankincense. After detailed discussion of these, Rhea Brettell suggests that 'the frankincense in the Mersea cremation urn may have originated in east Africa.'

Because they had survived so well in the Mersea cremation urn, it was clear that the pine resin and frankincense had not been used to accelerate or quench the fire, or to anoint the body before cremation, as they would not then have survived the intense heat. It is possible that some of the resin found with the bones may have provided a seal to close the open mouth of the glass urn, but the frankincense must surely have been added to the bones as a liquid or unguent prior to their burial. Unfortunately, there are no directly comparable examples to help in the interpretation of this discovery. Although there are many references in classical texts to the use of frankincense and other perfumes or unguents at various stages of the funeral rites, it is extremely rare for any archaeological evidence of this to survive.

Why are these findings so important? The identification made in the laboratories of Bradford University is of major archaeological significance, not limited to Britain. As the report confirms, 'It provides the first chemical confirmation for the use of resins in a Roman cremation burial.' Before the analysis of the Mersea remains, frankincense had been identified at only four other archaeological sites: in Egypt, Nubia and Yemen. We do not know the elaborate route by which it must have been traded or brought by a traveller into Britain. Yet for some unexplained reason it became part of the funerary rites for one individual, based not at the major Roman city of Colchester but on the coastal outpost of Mersea Island. No written Roman reference to Mersea has been found, and its name at the time is unknown. Apart from three significant Roman tombs, only one villa is known of for certain, and that lies unexcavated, beneath and around West Mersea church.

When Hazzledine Warren excavated the Mersea Barrow in 1912, he was puzzled by the identification of yellow ochre mixed with crushed red tile which he considered 'may have been connected with some custom which was observed at the ceremony of interment'. If so, that was just one feature of the elaborate ritual which accompanied the departure of Mersea's dead Roman from this world into the next. His cremated bones had already received a libation of extremely rare, valuable and probably sacred frankincense. Jacqueline McKinley observes that the unexpected and currently unique discovery of this substance 'has enriched our comprehension of the wealth and magnificence of this individual's funeral rites and his reflected social status and connections'.

The analysis of bones found a century ago beneath Mersea's ancient burial mound, funded by the generosity of islanders and other donors, has provided important new evidence and contributed significantly to academic research into burial rites and practices across the ancient Roman world. This Mersea Roman, whose remains lay concealed for nearly two millennia, has been brought into the daylight, and the secrets of his medical condition and elaborate funeral have finally been revealed. Whatever his name and ethnic origin, he obviously held a major social and probably administrative position in this corner of Roman Britain. His monument is marked to this day, and into the foreseeable future, by the conspicuous earthwork of the Mersea Barrow.

This article by Sue Howlett appeared in Mersea Courier No. 559 17 June 2013

Author: Sue Howlett
18 June 2013

Related Images

 Bones from Mersea Barrow, inside their Roman cremation urn.  COR2_026_001COR2_026_001
Bones from Mersea Barrow, inside their Roman cremation urn.
April 2012
ID: COR2_026

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