Very little is known about the more than 160 children buried in Sicily’s world-famous Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, and why their light and often mummified corpses were placed there in the first place.
Now a group of scientists are preparing to uncover some of their long-standing mysteries.
Using X-ray technology, researchers hope to gain more insight into children’s lifestyles and ages, according to Kirsty Squires, lead researcher and associate professor of bioarchaeology at England’s Staffordshire University, which is leading the international study.
The project, which is the first to focus exclusively on the children who died between 1787 and 1880, will look for evidence of developmental defects, trauma and illness, she wrote in an email Wednesday.
“We are looking for cause of death, health conditions at the time of death and development,” she added. “No one has looked at the mummies to better understand these properties before.”
The Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe, contain about 1,284 mummified and partially skeletonized bodies, researchers said – some exceptionally well-preserved.
They are part of Sicily’s heritage and are on display to the public and tourists, but there are still questions about the children buried there, with death registers containing only limited information.
Researchers will reset 41 corpses stored in the so-called children’s room in the catacombs. There are at least 163 children’s bodies in the catacombs, but Squires said they only focus on those that are available to them.
Researchers will scan each mummy from head to toe to examine their bones, to help with age determination, as well as tooth remains and any remnants of soft tissue in the pelvic area to determine gender.
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The results will then be compared to the deceased’s location in the children’s room, as well as their dress and funeral items to gain a better insight into their identity in life and death, Squires added.
The x-rays will not harm the children’s bodies, researchers said.
“Imaging methods are non-invasive, and since the mummies cannot be moved out of the crypt, this approach is the only one possible,” wrote Dario Piombino-Mascali, the project’s co-researcher and biological anthropologist at the University of Lithuania’s Vilnius, in an email.
Fieldwork is scheduled to begin next week, researchers said.
The mummified bodies and skeletal remains that occupy the many niches, cracks and corridors of the Capuchin catacombs are one of the most important collections of mummies in the world.
The cemetery was originally reserved only for monks of the Capuchin order, but was later opened to members of the public.
It has now become a historic landmark and a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can pay the equivalent of $ 3.40 to round out the catacombs and see the corpses.
One of the child mummies buried in the catacombs previously studied by scientists is that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia at the age of two in 1920.
Because of her extremely well-preserved and almost lifelike face, eyelashes, hair and grave dress, she is often referred to as “the world’s most beautiful mummy.” She was one of the last people to be buried in the catacombs.
For Piombino-Mascali, it is important that the stories of the children of the Capuchin catacombs are told.
“I was a lucky kid, but I know some kids were not so lucky and died prematurely,” he said. “I want to make sure that their stories and presence on this earth are not forgotten.”