Roman Tomb Unearthed in Sagalassos Indicates People Used Magic to Protect from the Restless Dead

Roman Tomb Unearthed in Sagalassos Indicates People Used Magic to Protect from the Restless Dead

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman tomb in Sagalassos. The finds indicate that people used magic to protect themselves from the restless dead.

Archaeologists in Turkey have found a non-normative Roman tomb around 1900 years old and some items that seem to point to magical practices.

The discovery was made in the necropolis to the east of the ancient city of Sagalassos, located in the southwest of Anatolia.

The ancient city of Sagalassos, located in the province of Burdur in Turkey, is 420 km (260 miles) southwest of Ankara and 110 km (68 miles) north of Antalya.

The research paper on the tomb and the finds was published online in the journal Antiquity on February 21, 2023.1

The authors of the research paper noted that the unearthed tomb stands out for its atypical characteristics.

In the tomb, some grave goods and several burnt skeletal remains belonging to a single individual were found.

According to the archaeologists in the excavation team, the location of the bones indicates that the body was cremated inside the tomb. Therefore, this is considered an unusual discovery, as cremation is mostly practiced outside the tomb.

Osteological analysis indicates that the bones found in the tomb belonged to a man over the age of 18.

Burnt bone fragments found in the tomb.
Photo: Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

Bent Iron Nails

The most notable among the items unearthed from the grave are bent iron nails. The authors of the research paper argue that these nails serve no functional purpose.

According to the archaeologists, the iron nails did not originate from a coffin or any wooden grave goods. Many of them have been used before or have been deliberately bent.

The archaeologists think the iron nails in question were intentionally scattered around the tomb. In the article, they talk about iron nails used in the past as neutralising charms and about ancient literary sources on the subject.

Iron Nails As Protective Charms
Many scholars interpret isolated iron nails in graves as charms that protect the deceased from evil after death or prevent the deceased from becoming revenant.2

Nail examples found at the excavation site.
Photo: Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

The Burial was Covered with Bricks

Archaeologists determined that the tomb was covered with 24 bricks. Since the undersides of the bricks were discoloured, it is thought that they were placed in the tomb before the fire was extinguished.

Moreover, the tomb was not just covered with bricks. There was also a layer of lime on the bricks.

According to research, the roots of the tradition of using gypsum or lime in tombs date back to the Neolithic Age.

For thousands of years, people have used lime in tombs for various reasons, such as preventing epidemics, reducing potential bad odors, keeping animals away from corpses, etc.

However, according to the archaeologists, there is no indication that the lime was used for any of these reasons in the unusual tomb in the ancient city of Sagalassos. Therefore, the authors of the article think that the lime in the tomb may have been used to protect the living from the possible malevolent effects of the deceased.

The remains of the grave.
Photo: Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

Burial customs such as cremation in the burial pit, covering with brick or lime, and scattering bent iron nails were actually common in many parts of the Roman Empire, the researchers say. However, the fact that no other Roman tomb where the aforementioned customs were practiced at the same time is known, reveals the importance of the discovery in question.

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For now, it is a mystery why the return of the deceased is so feared. No traces of trauma or disease were found in the skeletal remains. Experts say that it is difficult to make consistent estimations due to the fact that the bones are burned.

The first traces of occupation in Sagalassos, located in the ancient Pisidia region, date back to the 5th century BC. Sagalassos, which was under Achaemenid rule for a while, was conquered by Alexander III (Alexander the Great) in the 4th century BC. During the Roman Empire, building activities in the city increased. Many of these buildings were destroyed in an earthquake in the 7th century AD. Previously, it was thought that the city was abandoned after this earthquake, but recent research indicates that it was occupied until the 13th century AD.3

  1. Magical practices? A non-normative Roman imperial cremation at Sagalassos“, Johan Claeys & Katrien Van de Vijver & Elena Marinova & Sam Cleymans & Patrick Degryse & Jeroen Poblome, Antiquity, Volume 97, Issue 391, 158–175, Cambridge University Press, February 2023^
  2. Nails for the Dead“, Silvia Alfayé Villa, Magical Practice in the Latin West, ISBN: 9789004179042^
  3. The history of Sagalassos“,, Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project^