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Ms Rhea Brettell

PositionResearch Student
LocationPhoenix SW 1.27
DepartmentArchaeological Sciences
Telephone+44 (0) 1274 23 4592

Research Areas

Thesis Title

The semblance of immortality: a molecular-based approach to the identification of resinous materials in Roman mortuary contexts in Britain and evaluation of their significance.


Prof. Carl Heron and Dr. Ben Stern




There is increasing evidence for complexity in mortuary practices in Britain during the Roman Period.

One class of burials demonstrates an association between inhumation in substantial stone sarcophagi or lead-lined coffins, the application of plaster coatings to the bodies and/or the use of textile shrouds and natural resins. It has been suggested that this ‘package’ represents a deliberate attempt at body preservation and has been linked to the spread of Christianity. This is, however, disputed and connections with high social status or other religious cults proffered as alternative explanations.  Molecular-based investigations of organic substances have served to illuminate a wide range of archaeological questions, including those relating to mortuary rituals.

This project will utilise Raman Spectrometry and Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry to determine which resinous materials (if any) were selected for use in late Roman mortuary contexts in Britain and to elucidate their origins, method of application and purpose in order to address the question of their significance through comparison with similar burials in Roman Europe and North Africa. The overarching question being: can chemical identification of the resins selected illuminate the ‘meaning’ encapsulated in these ‘special’ burials?


  • Brettell. R.C. 2007. Residue analysis on Bell beaker ceramics from Hoštice, Moravia. Past 55: 3-5
  • Gregg, M.W., R. Brettell & B. Stern 2007. Bitumen in Neolithic Iran: biomolecular and isotopic evidence. In Glascock, M.D., R.J. Speakman & R.S. Popelka-Filcoff (eds.) Archaeological chemistry: analytical methods and interpretation: 137-151. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society
  • Brettell, R., J. Evans, S. Marzinzik, A. Lamb & J. Montgomery 2012. “Impious easterners”: can oxygen and strontium isotopes serve as indicators of provenance in early mediaeval cemetery populations? Journal of European of Archaeology 15: 117-145
  • Brettell, R., J. Montgomery & J. Evans 2012. The effect of cultural mediation on the oxygen isotope composition of ingested fluids and the implications for human provenance studies. Journal of Analytical and Atomic Spectrometry 27: 778-785

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