Spanish archaeologists find ancient Roman lead sarcophagus under downtown Granada

Archaeologists in Spain scored the find of a lifetime while excavating under a building in downtown Granada this week when they unearthed an ancient lead sarcophagus from the Roman period.

Lead coffins have been found before, but that doesn’t make them any less exciting, especially for the scientists who are eager to study them.

After all, lead preserves corpses, which means the body that is most certainly inside the sealed coffin likely still has organs, skin, nails and clothes all intact for analysis, just like when the St. Bees Man, Anthony de Lucy, did when his lead sarcophagus was discovered and opened in 1981.

Lord de Lucy perished fighting in the Crusades in 1368, and his body and sarcophagus gave researchers valuable information from the times in which he lived and died.


Now, thanks to lead archaeologist Angel Rodriguez and his team, researchers have an even older lead sarcophagus and body to examine.

Tasked with digging under the Villamena building next to the Granada Cathedral, Rodriguez could have stopped after finding Christian and Muslim artifacts typical of the area when both religious cultures vied for control of Spain. The building stands at the site of previous structures dating back to early Medieval times.

According to The History Blog:

They were excavating under the Villamena building, a modern structure next to Granada Cathedral that was built after a 14th century building on the site was demolished in 1938. Under the Nasrid dynasty (1228-1492) Emirate of Granada, it was the Alhóndiga de los Genoveses, a warehouse used by Genoese merchants to store trade goods like silk and sugar. After the Reconquista, their Catholic Majesties turned the building into a prison. It would remain one for four centuries until all the inmates were moved to the new, much larger provincial prison in 1930. Dilapidated and on the verge of collapse, the Alhóndiga was demolished in the last year of the Second Spanish Republic. Only the front gate was left standing. It still stands today, integrated into the modern structure which houses a bank.

However, Rodriguez felt there must be something more to find under the mud. And he turned out to be correct. The team removed a large sandstone, uncovering the lead sarcophagus beneath it.

El Pais reports that the sarcophagus “weighs between 300 and 350 kilograms, and has the same dimensions of a classic coffin: 1.97 meters long and 40 centimeters high. It is slightly wider at the head (56 centimeters) than at the foot (36 centimeters).”

Based on the outside of the coffin and how deep they found it, Rodriguez identified it as Roman and dated it back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

And it’s very likely because the Romans built a settlement in the area at that time, and also because a similar sarcophagus had been found nearby in 1902.

“In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, what is now downtown Granada was the countryside outside of the Roman town,” The History Blog writes. “The Albaicín district, where the Alhambra is located, was the center of a modest Roman settlement. While it was out of town, there was no cemetery on the site either. The lost river Darro ran through it. Another lead sarcophagus was reportedly found by workers at the site in 1902, but it was looted to nothingness before archaeologists could get there. It’s possible the riverside held some funerary significance for the residents of the Roman settlement and its Iberian founders.”

Rodriguez even knows where the lead sarcophagus must have been made because “Córdoba is the only place where they made lead sarcophagi.”

He also pointed out that the coffin “probably belonged to a wealthy family” because lead coffins were really expensive, “but that doesn’t mean that we are going to find great jewels inside.”

But it doesn’t mean they won’t find great jewels or other valuable artifacts either. They just have to wait until they open it up to find out. Until then, the sarcophagus has been placed at the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Granada and it scheduled to be opened soon in front of anxious reporters and researchers who are eager to get a look at the ancient person who has been buried unknown for the last 1,800 years.

Anything the researchers find will give them clues helping them learn more about life and death during Roman times and in Spain. a body could give clues to how the person died, just like de Lucy’s body revealed that he died from a direct blow to his torso, most likely during battle.

Archaeologists dream about making finds like this one. Imagine working on a site and hoping something fantastic lies just beneath the surface only to find a few expected trinkets. Sure, it’s nice to uncover these relics but an archaeologist always wants to find more. Rodriguez made the decision to keep digging further down and could have chosen to abandon the excavation upon hitting the sandstone. He didn’t, and because of his intuition and determination, he found a historic relic that will teach others about the region’s history for generations.


You can watch the team lift the lead sarcophagus from the excavation site via YouTube:

Featured Image: Screenshot

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