London: A team of archaeological scientists has uncovered the first evidence of frankincense (aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes) being used in Roman burial sites in Britain.
The findings prove that even while the Roman Empire was in decline, these precious substances were being transported to its furthest northern outpost.
"Our analysis demonstrates that traces of these exotic resins can survive for over 1,700 years in what others would reject as dirt," said Carl Heron, professor of Archaeological Sciences from University of Bradford.
The samples came from burial sites across Britain - in Dorset, Wiltshire, London and York, dating from the third to the fourth century AD.
Of the 49 burials analysed, four showed traces of frankincense - originating from southern Arabia or eastern Africa - and 10 others contained evidence of resins imported from the Mediterranean region and northern Europe.
Classical texts mention these aromatic, antimicrobial substances as being used as a practical measure to mask the smell of decay or slow decomposition during the often lengthy funeral rites of the Roman elite.
But it was their ritual importance which justified their transportation from one end of the empire to the other.
Seen both as gifts from the gods and to the gods, these resins were thought to purify the dead and help them negotiate the final rite of passage to the afterlife.
"These resins were only recovered from burials of higher status individuals, identified from the type of container used, the clothing they were wearing and items buried with them," said Rhea Brettell from the University of Bradford.
The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.