University of British Columbia archaeologists have dug up a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones, one that includes a tomb, skeletons and burial rites with both Christian and pagan elements.
This summer, Prof. Roger Wilson led excavations at Kaukana, an ancient Roman village located near Punta Secca, a small town in the south-eastern province of Ragusa in Sicily.
Combing through the sand-buried site, the 15-member team made a series of startling discoveries. Central to the mystery was finding a tomb inside a room in a house dating from the sixth century AD.
Wilson explains that tombs during this period are normally found only in cemeteries outside the built-up area of a town, or around the apse of a church. And since the building was substantial with mortared walls and internal plaster, this would have been likely a tomb for the wealthy.
“It’s extremely unusual to find an elite burial set inside a house in the middle of a settlement, even as late as the sixth century,” says Wilson, who heads UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies.
The UBC initiative -- in collaboration with Prof. Giovanni Di Stefano of the Superintendency for the Cultural Heritage of Ragusa -- is the first major exploration of this historic site since 1972.
Locals first stumbled upon the late Roman village during the 1960s when a bulldozer preparing for new houses uncovered the tops of some 24 ancient buildings. Only a few, among them a church, were explored at the time, by renowned Italian archaeologist Paola Pelagatti.
Wilson directed students from UBC and Sicily in their painstaking work, focusing on what proved to be an “exceptionally well-preserved” structure on the south side of Kaukana, only yards from the beach. The walls uncovered stand nearly six feet high.
Once the cover was lifted off the tomb, one team member spent 10 days sieving the contents with great care. Two skeletons were found. One was of a woman between the ages of 25 and 30, with teeth in excellent condition and no signs of arthritis.
“She was in pretty good nick, so we know this wasn’t a peasant working in the field,” says Wilson.
The other skeleton was a child of indeterminate sex between the ages of five and seven. The position of their bones showed that the woman had been laid to rest first. The tomb was then re-opened to bury the child and the woman’s spinal column was pushed to one side. A hole in the stone slab covering the tomb allowed visitors to pour libations for the dead.
“This shows that the long-established, originally pagan, rite of offering libations to the dead clearly continued into early Byzantine times,” observes Wilson.
Yet, the presence of a Christian cross on a lamp found in the room and on the underside of a grave slab suggests that the deceased were Christian. As well, the skeletons were wrapped in plaster, a practice believed to be Christian for preserving the body for resurrection.
“It is the first plaster burial recorded in Sicily, although the practice is known from Christian communities in North Africa,” says Wilson.
What also intrigued the archaeologists was learning that the tomb was opened one further time, an intrusion that disturbed the bones of the child and caused its skull to be placed upside down. Wilson says he wondered whether it was grave robbers in search of expensive jewelry or other loot.
“But the tomb was tidied up again afterwards.”
Around the tomb was plentiful evidence of periodic feasting in honour of the dead. The archaeologists found cooking pots, glass and several large clay containers (amphorae), of which one is virtually intact. These would have been used to carry oil and wine to the site. The team also found the remains of two hearths where meals had been prepared.
As well, the room was designed with niches along one wall. Wilson says a knife, seafood, and fragments of stemmed goblets and other glass vessels were left on these shelves, “as though placed there after the last party.”
UBC’s snapshot of late Roman and early Byzantine life has stirred considerable interest among the Italian media and historians worldwide. With support for three years of study from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Wilson says the team is eager to further unravel the skeins of history.
When they return to Kaukana next summer, they will attempt to solve the riddles encountered this first year. “Along with questions of when the house was built and whether it was still occupied when the tomb was inserted, we want to find out why the woman and child were buried in the tomb at all.”
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