DIRT and debris from ancient burial pots, plaster body casings and skeletal remains have led Bradford researchers to a Christmas themed discovery about Roman burial rites in Britain.

Analysis of the residue, previously thought to be of little interest, has led to the first scientific evidence of frankincense being used in such rituals.

Archaeological scientists, led by the University of Bradford, have proven that even while the Roman Empire was in decline, these precious substances were being transported to its furthest northern outpost.

Rhea Brettell from the university, whose research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was the first to realise that these grave deposits were an untapped reservoir of information.

"Archaeologists have relied on finding visible resin fragments to substantiate the descriptions of burial rites in classical texts, but these rarely survive," she said.

"Our alternative approach of analysing grave deposits to find the molecular signatures of the resins, which fortunately are very distinctive, has enabled us to carry out the first systematic study across a whole province."

Until now, evidence for the use of resins in ancient funerary rites has rarely come to light outside of Egypt.

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 ten 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 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. The resins were seen as gifts from and to gods and thought to purify the dead.

Professor of Archaeological Sciences Carl Heron said: "It is remarkable that the first evidence for the use of frankincense in Britain should come from such seemingly unpromising samples yet our analysis demonstrates that traces of these exotic resins can survive for over 1700 years in what others would reject as dirt."

The project was a collaboration between the University of Bradford and specialists at the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory in York, the Museum of London and the Universities of Bamburg and Bordeaux.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, research osteologist in the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, said: "This eye opening study has provided us with new and amazing insights into the funerary rituals of late Roman Britain.

"The University of Bradford’s significant research has also rewarded us with further understanding of a rich young Roman lady, used in the study, whose fourth century skeleton and sarcophagus was discovered near Spitalfields Market in the City of London in 1999, making her burial even more unique in Britain."